Civil War scholars honor Abraham Lincoln’s legacy

Amy Sandquist

Lawrence recently hosted a two-part lecture series on the Civil War era sponsored by the Wisconsin Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, a Civil War historian and professor emeritus at Princeton University, spoke Oct. 7 about “Lincoln’s Legacy for Our Time.”
Orville Vernon Burton, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and distinguished professor of Southern history and culture at Coastal Carolina University, spoke Oct. 12 about “The Age of Lincoln.”
The Warch Campus Center Cinema provided the backdrop for these talks, which highlighted important aspects of McPherson’s and Burton’s work on Lincoln.
Both professors evaluated Lincoln’s legacy in innovative ways, comparing struggles that the United States faces today with those faced during Lincoln’s presidency.
McPherson and Burton passionately credited Lincoln with singlehandedly preserving American democracy. As the only country attempting a democratic republic at the time, the United States represented a new experiment in self-government.
Immediately after his election, Lincoln faced a divided nation. As McPherson explained, Lincoln was forced to perform the complicated task of giving “substance and meaning” to the Constitution’s abstract concepts of “liberty” and “freedom.”
Burton highlighted how close the United States came to disintegration during Lincoln’s presidency and contended that any other president would have allowed the South to secede and the Union to dissolve. Later in his lecture, Burton theorized reasons for Lincoln’s successful maintenance of the United States.
To explain Lincoln’s political strength, Burton cited a little-discussed aspect of Lincoln’s presidency: his southern heritage. Burton’s recently published book, “The Age of Lincoln,” explores the ways in which Lincoln’s origins in Kentucky and southern Illinois shaped his sympathetic and diplomatic relationship with the southern United States.
In his lecture, Burton explained that many white Southerners moved to border states such as Illinois in order to escape African-Americans. Therefore, even though Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, relocated his family to Illinois from Kentucky in order to escape slavery, Abraham Lincoln was probably exposed to Southern ideology.
Burton argued that this exposure allowed Lincoln to understand Southern honor and pride and helped him to relate to and value the Southern states during the Civil War.
In both talks, the professors analyzed people’s changing perceptions of Lincoln throughout history, from honoring him as a hero to characterizing him as a racist.
In a discussion during Lawrence Professor of History Jerald Podair’s Civil War class, McPherson addressed his own re-evaluation of Lincoln’s presidency, saying, “Like all young historians, [I] tended to adopt the views of the papers [I] read,” and the papers generally painted negative pictures of Lincoln.
However, over time, McPherson “came to appreciate the duplicity of pressures on Lincoln” and “became more sympathetic” to the way in which Lincoln dealt with such strong, conflicting pressures.
Burton, too, acknowledged the modern Civil Rights movement’s tendency to classify Lincoln as a racist, but he firmly believes that historical figures should be judged within the context of their own time and place.
Both speakers noted that Lincoln’s presidency was vital to upholding the United States’ democratic ideals and vital to the success of the country’s democratic experiment.
McPherson called the slaves’ emancipation under Lincoln “symbolic,” because it freed America from hypocrisy and reestablished the validity of inalienable rights.
The lecture series demonstrated that Lincoln’s legacy is still relevant today. As Burton simply stated, “Lincoln is about us. He’s who we are.