Rethinking the Civil War Era

My recent trip through Pottawatomie and inability to get into the John Brown museum piqued my curiosity about the Civil War era so I went to the library and checked out a book. The Age of Lincoln by Orville Vernon Burton proved to be both fascinating and informative.

I was not well-versed in this area before, but this book covered quite a bit of ground, starting with the religious reform movements of the 1840’s through the rise of capitalism and corporate wage slavery in the latter decades of the century. It is not a biography of Lincoln but a sweeping looking at the social, political and economic forces that shaped a century and still underlie modern American culture.

A blurb on the back cover refers to this work as “a major reinterpretation of nineteenth-century American history”. Burton casts the Civil War not as a war to abolish slavery, but, rather, as a cultural war to define the very notions of freedom and liberty. Even though the North won in the sense that the Union was kept intact and the Emancipation Proclamation ended slaveholder’s “property rights”, the war itself never really ended. Sure, Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9th, but then five days later, Lincoln was shot. The attempts during Reconstruction to endow freed African-Americans with the full rights of citizenship were briefly successful, but then they were thwarted by the guerilla warfare tactics of the KKK. The details of the violence and corruption during this period are enough to disturb even a hard-hearted reader.

And why wasn’t the federal government there to back up the new laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1866? Well, on the one hand they were busy out west fighting Native Americans, and on the other hand they were busy toadying up to capitalistic interests in the North and making small fortunes. Within a couple of decades of the “end” of the war, the die-hard abolitionists had, well, died, and no one else really seemed to care if African Americans had any rights or opportunites. The white working class had their own troubles, becoming, as they were, a cog in the machine of the new industrial age. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which included rioting in several major cities and lasted for two months, was an abject failure. The corporations won and “progress” continued as usual.

Although it is not difficult reading, it took me three weeks to get through this book. The fog from the chemo has, apparently, not lifted entirely and I often found myself reading pages twice. But for the last year I have read almost exclusively science fiction because that was all I could handle. It was a refreshing change to read a non-fiction book, especially one like this that really makes you think. I highly recommend The Age of Lincoln to anyone interested in the roots of our current political situation. It may help you see how much and how little things have changed.

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