Thursday, September 24, 2009

Abraham Lincoln

Mom and I are taking a course at UVa this fall called "Abraham Lincoln: Now He Belongs to the Ages." The course features a series of Lincoln scholars who will focus on different aspects of his life and legacy.

Last night was our first session, and Professor Michael Burlingame gave a fantastic lecture. Burlingame opened with a good self-depracating joke about Lincoln's looks, talked a fair amount about the historian's craft, and then got into what it is he loves about Lincoln.

His recent research focuses, to some extent, on Lincoln's psychology, and he had this extremely interesting insight: Many men undergo a deep period of introspection -- a period of questioning where they are in their lives, and what their lives mean -- sometime between the ages of 40 and 45. This can be a period of great self-doubt, and not all men come out of it for the better.

But, says Burlingame, the period of introspection can be quite positive, and he believes that Lincoln's early 40's were critical in terms of his growth as a politician and leader. In particular, Lincoln developed bigger ideas about the ability of a politician to shape others' thinking and to "wedge" social change in such a way that it becomes inevitable.

As examples of the wedge theory, Burlingame cited Lincoln's gradualist moves towards the abolition of slavery. His assumption/baseline is that Lincoln always had total abolition as the ultimate goal -- I am not sure all historians agree on that point. I'd have liked additional examples of Lincoln "wedging" change, and that's something for me to look for as the course continues.
Burlingame also had an interesting take on Lincoln's "big picture" explanation for the Civil War, and he framed it in a way I'd not heard before. He said that the latter part of the Second Inaugural evidences Lincoln's belief that the Civil War was God's way of punishing American whites for their centuries-long enslavement of blacks:

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

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