The Age of Lincoln

by Orville Vernon Burton

Hill and Wang, 432 pp., $27

Americans who take a serious interest in their history and how it is written will be familiar with a long-running argument among the pros. Is the great theme of our past consensus or conflict, harmony or dissidence? However one answers the question for himself--and most of us would, perhaps, say "much of both"--there is little doubt that Orville Vernon Burton is of the party of conflict and dissidence. Although subdued and modulated by scholarly mastery, the theme of The Age of Lincoln, a beautifully narrated treatment of the mid-to-late 19th-century years, is conflict. And plenty of it.

Burton sets the stage with a brief résumé of the calm before the storm--the millennialist religiosity of the "second great awakening." Its defining scene came on October 22, 1844, when the pious Millerites gathered on their hilltops to witness the end of the world. Theirs, it seems, was a theology as chronologically meticulous as Archbishop Ussher's nice calculation of the Creation (October 4, 4004 B.C., if you didn't know) and featured a keen existential discontent with the here and now. When the End of Days was postponed, a worldly clamor of sectional conflict soon ensued. The issue was articulated by Abraham Lincoln, the emblematic figure of the era, in his House Divided speech: whether this experiment in self-government could endure "half slave and half free."

It was, perhaps, too little noticed, especially by Lincoln's critics, that Lincoln had posed the question but not answered it. Indeed, when as the newly elected president a few years later he became the emergency mediator, and sought compromises that might preserve the Union without war, his agnosticism on the question became quite clear. He would later tell Horace Greeley that if he could preserve the Union by freeing all the slaves, or some of them, or keeping all in bondage, he would do it.

All through the 1850s the argument over slavery, though it featured competing certainties, took the surrogate form of a legal contest: Did slaveholders have a constitutional right to carry their chattel property wherever the flag flew?--an argument drastically sharpened by the Mexican war and its acquisitions.

Then followed Stephen A. Douglas's crafty Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, repealing the Missouri Compromise and opening Kansas to the possibility of slavery. The Dred Scott decision three years later seemed to ratify that repeal. Such measures stoked violent sectional anger. They signaled the abandonment of political wheeling and dealing, with its inevitable half measures, for more absolute claims of a moralistic tenor. Decades earlier, Thomas Jefferson had heard in that argument over Congress's power to ban slavery in the northern Louisiana territories a "firebell in the night." But the Missouri Compromise of 1820, drawing a line at 36'30" north latitude, split the difference and allowed the Senate to maintain a sectional balance, even as the House was steadily becoming more and more antislavery. Compromise was still possible in 1820, in large measure, because the dominant slaveholders of the upper South, like Jefferson himself, viewed slavery as a dying institution and welcomed its demise. By the mid-1850s the mood and the southern economy were very different. The slavery issue had been constitutionalized and legalized.

Then, as Lincoln put it, "the war came." It was a bloody interlude, however romanticized in memory, but the issue of American destiny did seem to be decided at the cost of some 600,000 lives. The appearance, however, was deceptive, the final decision deferred for later resolution.

It is when Burton reaches the crucial post-Civil War years that he hits his stride. It is a story that historians know and have explored extensively. But it is a story muted in the feel-good forms of popular historical understanding, not least the puff-stuff that too often passes for history on television. It is the story of a missed opportunity to consolidate the revolution of political equality (at least for men) implicit in the 14th and 15th Amendments, a failure in which both North and South were complicit. And the Supreme Court bowed to the zeitgeist, as usual, and in the Slaughterhouse and Civil Rights cases gutted the amendments. The only redeeming highlights of that dim judicial era were the passionate dissents of a former slaveholder and Union officer, Justice John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky. (Burton, with his eye for the piquant anomaly, notes that Harlan offered an invidious argument that if the despised Asian immigrants enjoyed equal protection, it was odd that freeborn native blacks did not.)

The fact was that legal, political, and economic reversals went hand in hand. One telling statistic speaks volumes: In 1860 there were 41 American millionaires, most of them southern planters. Ten years later there were 545, most of them northeasterners, presumably business tycoons, some only barely civilized. For obvious reasons, an agrarian nation had been less vulnerable to business cycles and the dislocations that go with them than the industrial America that mushroomed in the postwar era. Free laborers, concentrated in urban centers, were more inclined to unite and battle their bosses than a subdued slave population in the South or isolated homesteaders in the old Northwest and the Mississippi Valley.

Inevitably, chronic distress came, commencing with the Panic of 1873 and lasting, by Burton's reckoning, well into the 1890s. It produced, among sober effects, the Populist insurgency, with its pleas for railroad regulation and the monetization of silver. It also produced the pathetic Ohio-Washington march of Jacob Coxey's "army" of 500 jobless vagabonds. For Coxey, as for many of the theorists of that time, the remedy for distress was the endless printing of paper money. (The American Civil War, Burton says in one of many arresting formulations, was the first to be fought by "armies financed by paper money.") Coxey named his son Legal Tender, a name as symptomatic as that of Praise-God Barebones, for whom one 17th-century Cromwellian parliament is remembered.

But more significant politically was the ruthless overthrow of biracial governments in the South by the misnamed "Redemption" movement, which had nothing in common with its biblical namesake. It featured murder, night-riding, lynch law, and the transformation of the Democratic party into a vehicle of white supremacy. As president, Ulysses Grant struggled for a time to contain this counterrevolution; but his power was undercut by financial scandal, and after a final federal intervention in Louisiana in 1876-77, the federal government threw in its hand. Add to this other conflicts--over federal finance, railroad funding, land giveaways, Indian removal, etc.--and you have a wild, nonconsensus mix.

All this Burton narrates with a command of detail and sources that is reminiscent of Herbert Agar's forgotten classic The Price of Union, and of Burton's paragon, Alan Nevins. The Age of Lincoln, marked by a genius for piquant detail, amusing anecdote, and fluent, trenchant writing--and above all, by Lincoln's words and spirit--may be for some a depressing read. But again, it is a necessary read, a timely antidote to our tendency to swathe the conflicts of our past in self-flattering myths of brotherly love--as if we really were, all along, that sinless "city on the hill" erected by Heaven to instruct miscreant mankind.

One is, however, tempted to say that the story Burton tells witnesses against his title. An Age of Lincoln? If only it had been. If only it had shown more of Lincoln's generosity and political guile and less of the bumbling and cramped vision of smaller men. Rightly does Burton write, at midpoint of this fine book, that Lincoln's assassination was "a blow from which [America] has never recovered."

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in Washington, is the author, most recently, of Lions at Lamb House.

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