Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s short-term legacy

One of the things that surprised me about The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White’s volume on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States, is how large Lincoln’s shadow looms over the whole book.  The previous volume in the series, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, ends with Lincoln’s assassination.  White picks up the story with his funeral, and many of the issues he brings to the fore in the body of the book are those in which Lincoln was deeply invested: the trans-Mississippi West as a haven for free labor, national unity reinforced through infrastructure, the fate of African Americans, the ascendancy of the Republican Party, and the struggle to build an egalitarian society of independent producers.

“Abraham Lincoln: The Martyr President,” by Currier and Ives. Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-03167).

These problems that dominated American life in the late nineteenth century lay at the heart of the “Greater Reconstruction,” a term White borrows from Elliott West.  The end goal was to propagate homogeneous, prosperous communities of free and independent householders—communities much like Lincoln’s own hometown of Springfield, Illinois.  Springfield, White claims, was “as close as any actual place could be to the template that the North planned to use in recasting the South, as well as the West” (p. 136).

But White’s book is also an account of disillusionment.  At the end of the story, the Greater Reconstruction has failed.  Since the tale begins with Lincoln’s death and revisits so many of the problems he supposedly resolved, the Greater Reconstruction’s failure raises troubling questions about Lincoln’s legacy.

Did Lincoln succeed?  To most Americans, the answer is self-evident.  The Union triumphed, the nation remained united, and legalized slavery came to an end.  Lincoln himself died, but he died a martyr, having completed what he called “the great task” of reaffirming the American promise.  But all this assumes that the story ends in April 1865.

Anti-slavery Whig and eventual Republican that he was, Lincoln idealized free labor.  He considered it a stepping-stone to becoming an independent producer.  “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us,” he once said.  “The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow.”  Slavery’s end marked the destruction of one great obstacle standing in the way of this ideal of self-advancement.  But for many Americans, the path to full independence and sufficiency remained closed.  The late nineteenth century witnessed some of the most bitter and violent contests between capital and labor.  Contract labor during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age may have been “free,” but in many cases it remained exploitative, and hardly a temporary way station on the road to prosperity and independence.

Nor did the end of slavery mean realization of racial equality.  We think of emancipation as Lincoln’s most enduring legacy.  But subordination of African Americans by means of terrorism, economic dependency, and legalized inequality continued into Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  It’s more difficult to celebrate the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg when you consider the reversals that came after.

As a Whig, Lincoln envisioned a united nation bound together by transportation and trade.  And as a Republican, he wanted the West to be settled by free laborers and landholders.  Here, too, White and other historians have painted a bleak picture of the decades following the Civil War.  Secessionism collapsed, but sectionalism persisted.  The transportation networks and markets that Lincoln and other Whigs had long wanted penetrated more deeply into the American landscape than ever before, but White claims that the late nineteenth century’s great railroads were more effective at forging interregional links than truly transcontinental ones.  And while the Civil War settled the question of whether the West would be slave or free, the period after the war saw much of the frontier engrossed by monopolists and speculators rather than egalitarian homesteaders.

The upshot here is that if you use 1865 as the end date for the “Age of Lincoln,” then Lincoln was a victorious martyr.  But if you use 1877 or 1898 as a terminal point, his success comes with important qualifications.

Should we make space to deal with the problematic nature of Lincoln’s short-term legacy when telling his story in exhibits, documentaries, and popular books?  On the one hand, it might help address Americans’ amnesia about Reconstruction.  On the other hand…well, the idea of the victorious martyr (shot on Good Friday, no less!) is about as compelling as you can get from a narrative standpoint.

But I think there’s a sense in which the reversals and the unfinished business that followed Lincoln’s death doesn’t diminish his historical stature, but magnifies it.  If it’s true that the “great task” wasn’t completely finished in 1865, it’s also true that it’s not completely finished today.  And that makes the study of Lincoln and his legacy much more relevant than it would be if we could wrap the whole thing up with a bow and relegate it to a chapter of our history long since closed.

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February happenings at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

February is usually a big month at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  Here are a few events we’ve got planned for the next few weeks, and admission is free to every single one.

  • Thursday, Feb. 1 is the fifth installment of our free lecture and discussion series Of the People, By the People, For the People, which uses Lincoln’s writings as a springboard for thinking about citizenship and the Constitution.
  • Ever wanted to see some of the stuff we don’t keep on display?  Feb. 3 is a rare chance to get a glimpse inside the vault, with special presentations every half hour starting at 1:00 p.m.  Our archivist will be showing off a few of the many items that aren’t on permanent exhibit, and we’ll give you a peek behind the scenes to see how we preserve our manuscript collections and get a close-up look at some of our most precious and delicate artifacts.
  • To celebrate Black History Month, we’re hosting a weekly film series devoted to dramatizations of African American history.  We’ll be kicking things off with The Help on Tuesday, Feb. 6, followed on successive Tuesday nights by Lincoln, Loving, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  The screenings are free, and we’ll be serving up popcorn.
  • Interested in learning more about online history resources?  On Thursday, Feb. 8 we’ll help you find your way around UNC’s Documenting the American South database at our monthly Community Digital History Workshop.  DocSouth is a gold mine; I’ve made extensive use of it over the years.  If you’re a teacher, researcher, or genealogist who’s just getting started in historical databases, this session will come in quite handy.
  • The Feb. 13 installment of our monthly Tad’s Tots program for kids ages 0-5 will spotlight the Underground Railroad.
  • President’s Day weekend is, as you might imagine, a pretty big deal for us.  On Friday, Feb. 16 at 6:00 p.m., Dr. Jason Silverman will lecture on Lincoln and nineteenth-century immigration, the subject of his 2015 book.  We’ll have copies available for signing.
  • On Saturday, Feb. 17 you can join us as we belatedly celebrate Lincoln’s birthday with cake, kids’ activities, and a look back at LMU’s connection to the film Abe Lincoln in Illinois.
  • Even if you can’t make one of our events, February is still a great time to visit, because we offer free weekend admission all month.

If you’d like more info about any of these events, give us a call at (423) 869-6235, contact our Program Director by phone at (423) 869-6607, or shoot her an email at natalie.sweet@LMUnet.edu.

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Turns out you can home go again

I’m pleased to announce that I’m starting a new gig at an old place—old to me, anyway, since it’s where my career in history started.

I’m once again hanging my hat at Lincoln Memorial University as the director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum and instructor of history.  My dream job has always been to work at a small or medium-sized institution where I could combine teaching with some type of museum or public history work.  I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to do so in the region where I grew up, and at the institution where I first fell in love with history as a discipline.

I haven’t abandoned my dissertation, though.  I’ll be writing it while working, with an eye toward moving up from instructor to assistant professor once it’s finished.  So in addition to spending time with my Revolutionary frontiersmen, I’ll be getting re-acquainted with an old friend…

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Daniel Farber on Lincoln and the Constitution at LMU-DSOL

Here’s an event for all you East Tennessee devotees of Lincoln, the Civil War, and legal and constitutional history.  Dr. Daniel Farber will deliver the annual R. Gerald McMurtry Lecture at Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law at noon on Thursday, Oct. 27.  The title of his talk is “Lincoln and the Transformation of American Constitutional Law.”  LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy is sponsoring the presentation.

Farber is Sho Sato Professor of Law at UC-Berkely.  He is a prolific scholar whose books include Lincoln’s Constitution, A History of the American Constitution, and Retained by the People: The “Silent” Ninth Amendment and the Constitutional Rights Americans Don’t Know They Have.

The lecture itself is at the LMU-DSOL building at 601 W Summit Hill Drive in Knoxville, but you can also watch via simulcast at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on the Harrogate campus.

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A few Civil War updates

A few items relating to the Civil War and the ways we remember it caught my attention lately.

First up, when Pope Francis visits Philadelphia, he’ll be speaking behind the same podium Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address.  Right now it’s at the city’s Union League for safekeeping.

By the way, the Union League is worth a visit if you’re ever in Philly.  As Dimitri Rotov noted recently, it’s got a fine collection of Civil War art and memorabilia.  I got to spend some time there a few years ago on a business trip (one of the perks of working for a Civil War museum is traveling to neat places for work), and it’s a fantastic building to wander around in if you’re a history buff.

Second item: an opera based on Cold Mountain just premiered in Santa Fe.  Seems like a suitably operatic subject, but I doubt they’ve found a way to pull off the Battle of the Crater inside an auditorium.

Third, it looks like Jefferson Davis will be staying in the Kentucky Capitol for the foreseeable future.  The state’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted to keep the Davis statue while adding some “educational context.”  As I’ve said before, I think leaving historic monuments intact while providing some interpretation to put them in their context is the best course of action in these situations.

One thing that really surprised me about the Davis issue was the reaction among black Kentuckians.  In one poll, they were pretty evenly split between support for keeping the statue (42%) and support for removing it (43%).  The percentage of black Kentuckians in favor of keeping the statue was much lower than that for whites (75%), but still a lot higher than I would’ve expected.

Reflecting Kentucky’s Civil War divisions, the Davis statue shares the Capitol with a likeness of the state’s other wartime president, Abraham Lincoln.

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A link to the assassination

Cross-posted to the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

To mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, here’s Steven Wilson of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum with one of the most special artifacts in the LMU collection.

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LMU will host fourth “War in the Mountains Symposium”

Cross-posted to the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Lincoln Memorial University and the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum will host the fourth “War in the Mountains” symposium April 17-18 as part of the ongoing commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  This event is free, but registration is required by April 9 due to limited seating.

The theme for this year’s symposium is “Religion, Death, Martyrdom, and the Civil War.”

  • Warren Greer, Director of of the Kentucky Lincoln Heritage Trail: “Action and Reaction: How Enlightenment Ideals Influenced
    American Religion from the Great Awakening through the
    Civil War”
  • Dr. Michael Toomey, Associate Professor of History at Lincoln Memorial University: “Under Fire: Lincoln’s Religion and the Civil War”
  • Dr. Earl Hess, Stewart W. McClelland Chair in History, Lincoln Memorial University: “Arguing Over the Civil War Death Toll: Does it Really Matter?”
  • Dr. George Rable, Charles G. Summersell Chair in Southern History, University of Alabama: “God as General: Was There a Religious History of the American Civil War?”

This event also features a Q&A session, tours of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum vault, and a book signing by the speakers.  The sessions will be held in LMU’s Hamilton Math & Science Building, Room 100.

To register or for more information, call the museum at (423) 869-6235 or e-mail Carol Campbell at carol.campbell@lmunet.edu.  The first 150 registrants will receive a free gift.

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