Abraham Lincoln proclaimed early in 1865 that the Emancipation
Proclamation was “the central act of my administration and the great
event of the nineteenth century.” But Lincoln historian Orville Vernon
“Instead it was Lincoln’s understanding of liberty that became the
greatest legacy of the age,” Burton said at Samford University Oct.
22. “He revolutionized personal freedom in the U.S. He assured that
the principle of personal liberty was protected by law, even
incorporated into the Constitution.
Lincoln elevated the founding fathers’ (and Andrew Jackson’s) more
restricted vision to a universal one. Basically Lincoln inserted the
mission statement, or Declaration of Independence, into the
Constitution, or rule book, of the United States.”
Burton is author of the award-winning book,
The Age of Lincoln. He delivered Samford’s annual J. Roderick
Davis Lecture to an audience about 1,000 students and others in Wright
Center Concert Hall. The lecture honors the retired dean of Samford’s
Howard College of Arts and Sciences, who was in attendance. This
year’s program also was a salute to the Bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth
Burton’s assertion that Lincoln’s understanding of liberty was his
greatest legacy was one of four areas touched on in which the historian
either differs with other historians or provides a new argument. The
other three areas were the influence of religion, seeing the 16th president as a Southerner and history’s conventional treatment of the Civil War and Reconstruction as separate periods.
“History is an interpretation,” he reminded his audience.
Burton stressed the importance of religion as a factor in the coming of
the Civil War. Even though religious reformers in the mid-19th century
attacked various evils, eventually most reform efforts in the North
lined up to declare slavery as the greatest evil in the country, while
slave owners in the South were just as certain that their society was
ordained by God.
Lincoln was born in Kentucky, a southern state, and even though he
eventually settled in Springfield, Illinois, he retained such southern
habits as speech, storytelling, literary references and others, said
Burton. Another such trait was his sense of honor.
“Lincoln’s very yeoman southernness contributed to his defense of the
Union against a cabal of slave holding oligarchs,” said Burton. “For
Lincoln it was more than just the preservation of the Union. It was
also a matter of honor.”
Burton said he never had accepted the separation of reconstruction from
the Civil War, or the traditional dating for the end of Reconstruction
as 1877, when the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South.
have book-ended American History so that the Civil War closes out one
era of our history and Reconstruction begins the next period or second
half of American History,” he said. “And yet, Reconstruction is part
and parcel of the Civil War.”
Burton contended that rather than ending in 1877, “the gains of freedom
during Reconstruction were not legally undone till sanctioned by the
Supreme Court in
Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the former Confederate state constitutions of the 1890s and early 20th century.”
America’s experience with the Vietnam War, historians now “grant
contingency to the Civil War, arguing that there were moments and times
that the Confederacy could have won,” said Burton.
historian believes “as Lincoln believed,” that he would have lost the
1864 election except for Sherman’s taking of Atlanta and subsequent
march to the sea, “and we would have a different outcome on slavery and
a different America.”
Burton also thinks Lincoln would have survived if he had accepted an
invitation to participate in the raising of the American flag over Fort
Sumter in Charleston, S.C. harbor on April 14, 1865. But he was
advised not to go to Charleston because it would be too dangerous.
Instead, he went to Ford’s Theater on that date, and was killed by John
Burton is the Burroughs Professor of Southern History and Culture at
Coastal Carolina University. He taught previously at the University of
Illinois, where he was University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar and
director of the Illinois Center for Computing in the Humanities, Arts,
and Social Science. He has written or edited 15 books.
The Age of Lincoln won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Literary Award for Nonfiction and was a Book of the Month Club, History Book Club and Military Book Club selection.