For his "The Age of Lincoln" (June, Hill and Wang) Orville Vernon Burton, a professor of history at Illinois, recently won the 2007 Heartland Prize for Non-Fiction from the Chicago Tribune. Burton earned the award for his "ambitious examination of Abraham Lincoln's deep influence in the creation of a new concept of personal freedom in the U.S. during the 19th century." Burton's book holds that Lincoln's most enduring legacy was not abolishing slavery, but rather, "inscribing, with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, personal liberty into the nation's Constitution."
Lincoln saw and articulated an American aspiration: that specific areas of freedom were part and parcel of the promise of America. In the most profound accomplishment of the Age of Lincoln, he would bring about a shift in government responsibility to include the protection of personal liberties. This extended beyond the issue of slavery, though Lincoln had always been anti-slavery. Seeing slavery first-hand in Virginia and Kentucky gave Lincoln's father, and Abraham after him, a lifelong antipathy to the institution. Decades after his family moved to Illinois, Lincoln recalled the sight of enslaved men chained together on a Mississippi riverboat, and doubtless compared their grim journey to New Orleans with his own. That juxtaposed memory of slavery and freedom was "a continual torment," he declared. Although Lincoln was no stranger to racial prejudice, he embraced the Golden Rule of labor's uplift: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master."
Nevertheless, liberty for Lincoln was more than a question of enslaved or free labor. In 1858, an elite white southerner, James Henry Hammond, explained to the U.S. Senate how every society required a laboring foundation or "mudsill class" if others were to attain the fruits of higher civilization. This class, according to Hammond, had little prospect of ever rising from its degraded state. The mudsill theory ran counter to Abraham Lincoln's view. Thus, as a yeoman southerner in the northern Midwest, Lincoln said in September 1859 that most people were neither hirelings nor capitalists. "Men, with their families -wives, sons and daughters - work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other." Growing up poor, with homesteading as a way of life, he respected hardworking, less wealthy but self-reliant southern men and women. Lincoln espoused a southern ethic both conservative and radical, rooted in the deeds of men and women and in the toil they performed; he found no one "more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty." Just as he desired to rise to a station of independence and honor by his own labors, he would not - indeed, with any honesty, could not - withhold that opportunity to others.
Lincoln's opposition to slavery never superseded his belief in law. Because the Constitution sanctioned slavery, as president, Lincoln had no legal authority to free slaves as a measure of justice. Yet, as a military measure, the commander-in-chief had the authority to confiscate rebel property. It was the Confederates who insisted that slaves were property -consistent with the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision. Over the course of civil war, Lincoln came to see freedom as more than emancipation of the enslaved. He insisted upon a new understanding of liberty: equality of opportunity in the race of life. Lincoln's belief in equal opportunity would continue to evolve until he was ready to assert the still astonishing claim that race was politically inconsequential, that African Americans were citizens and entitled to equal protection under the law and full political rights.
Lincoln's legacy was an inscription of personal liberty into the Supreme Law of the Land, the Constitution. He worked for passage of the 13th Amendment, and after his death the 14th and 15th Amendments continued his legacy. Whereas the Bill of Rights specified what Congress did not have the power to do, the new Amendments specified what Congress did have the power to enforce. These amendments were vastly broader than the issue of slavery.
Compiled by News Bureau humanities editor Andrea Lynn.