Lincoln in His Time and Ours: Highlights from the Columbia University Symposium

Mr. Osborne is a PhD candidate in History at Columbia University, where he specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States economic, social, and political history.

If pressed to select the unifying lesson of “Lincoln in His Time and Ours,” a public symposium held November 22 in New York City at Columbia University and co-sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Columbia, it would undoubtedly be that the life and legacy of the sixteenth president of the United States was and continues to be one of considerable complexity.

This idea was evident in the wide-ranging nature of the topics covered by the symposium's distinguished participants, who included the historians Eric Foner, James M. McPherson, and Sean Wilentz among others. Just a few of the many aspects of Abraham Lincoln's life discussed here were his political career and ideology, his relationship to slavery and emancipation, his military role during the Civil War, his religious experience and beliefs, and his personal and family life.

But Lincoln's complexity was also evident in another, more subtle, theme of the symposium: the inevitable failure of any attempt to match Lincoln with any essentialist's mold. As Yale's David Blight suggested, the “Lincoln of change, and growth, and ambiguity, and contradiction, and inconsistency is probably more than anything what keeps the Lincoln industry going,” and “Lincoln in His Time and Ours” proved no exception to this rule. The same can also be said of the essays in the recently published Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World(W.W. Norton & Company), edited by Columbia's Eric Foner, many of which provided the basis of the talks presented in this symposium.

Such ideas were apparent in the first paper of the day. As Sean Wilentz of Princeton suggested in his discussion of “Abraham Lincoln and Jacksonian Democracy,” “we care about Lincoln as a Whig . . . not because he stayed a Whig, but because he became a Republican.” In his transition from an intensely partisan “hack” politician to a leader of the new party, Wilentz argued that Lincoln's understanding of political history helped influence but by no means determined his actions.

Richard J. Carwardine further emphasized the changing Lincoln in his discussion of “Lincoln's Religion.” An historian at the University of Oxford, Carwardine defied attempts to associate Lincoln with one particular faith by stating that the “more complicated . . . truth” was that Lincoln constantly reexamined and modified his beliefs. As Carwardine artfully demonstrated, such development sometimes had considerable consequences: the moral imperatives of the Civil War helped transform Lincoln from a person who once believed in a distant and impersonal God into someone who looked to the outcome of the battle at Antietam as a divine indication of whether he should execute a plan for immediate emancipation.

While the concept of change over time marked Wilentz's and Carwardine's talks, other papers more closely focused on the issues of “ambiguity, contradiction, and inconsistency” in Lincoln's rhetoric and actions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in James Oakes's and James McPherson's presentations.

For Oakes, an historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the essential inconsistency in Lincoln has been in his views on racial equality. Oakes argued that rather than seeing contradiction in Lincoln's views, however, historians might be better served by adopting a more realistic idea of what was meant by the term “equal rights” in the nineteenth century. Rather than viewing claims to rights as all-or-nothing propositions in which a claim to one right gives a person access to all others, Oakes proposed that Lincoln distinguished between those rights traditionally understood as “natural,” those covered by national citizenship, and those derived from state (as opposed to federal) laws. By elaborating such a framework, Oakes may have given too much credit to Lincoln as a political philosopher instead of considering him as a pragmatic politician willing to split hairs on difficult issues. Nevertheless, his provocative observation that nearly every issue on which Lincoln accepted racial discrimination was one that was traditionally understood as the purview of individual states (including the regulation of suffrage, marriage, political officeholders, and jury representation) opens the door for a significant reexamination of nineteenth-century concepts of citizenship and statehood.

While Oakes addressed the many shades of Lincoln on a single issue, McPherson (the noted Civil War historian and author of a forthcoming biography of Lincoln) addressed the issue of the many roles which Lincoln deftly balanced during his presidency. Starting with the idea that any war-time president must confront the three potentially conflicting duties of implementing policy, managing national social issues, and conducting military strategy, McPherson examined Lincoln's evolving role as commander-in-chief during the Civil War to show how any single decision of his cannot be understood as purely a political, social, or military policy.

Some might consider the idea that Lincoln's views developed over the course of his life as his circumstances changed—and thus varied widely—to be such a basic aspect of the human experience as to hardly be worth mentioning. Yet the emphasis on this subject is necessary because Lincoln has been claimed so many times by so many different people as an icon rather than treated as an historical subject. To correct the problems arising from such claims, “change” and “inconsistency” can become the defining feature of Lincoln's story rather than issues that must be overcome when explaining it. As Eric Foner put it, the real lesson of Lincoln's greatness was arguably his “capacity for growth.”

The idea of “many Lincolns” in the popular imagination was touched on by both Andrew Delbanco, director of the American Studies program at Columbia, and historian Mark E. Neely, Jr., of Pennsylvania State University. As Delbanco described, images of Lincoln have ranged from the self-made man of Carl Sandburg's biography to the “Cold War Lincoln” of James Agee's Mr. Lincoln to the divisive figure of the 1960s who was championed by some as the forebear of the modern civil rights movement and dismissed by others as “just another white master.”

In contrast to Delbanco's sweeping vision of Lincoln as a cipher for American self-perception, Neely examined the more narrow question of whether or not Lincoln can be seen as a dictator. As he pointed out, this long-running debate has most recently raged due to the apparent ability to “draw a straight line from Abraham Lincoln to John Ashcroft” on opinions concerning civil liberties. Ultimately dismissing such comparisons as focused on rhetorical similarities rather than actual practice, Neely instead proposed a “grading system” with which to evaluate the dictatorial nature of any given security measures on the more concrete historical criteria of whether such measures were appropriate for the threat they were meant to address, whether they were used for other purposes like political persecution, and whether they remained in place after the threat had passed. (For the record, Lincoln earned a “B+” in Neely's evaluation.)

While the question of how Lincoln will be viewed by popular commentators and scholars alike will never be resolved, this symposium's final contribution was to suggest the new areas which such observers might want to explore in the future.

Historian Catherine Clinton of Queen's University, Belfast, made a plea for further work on the “flesh and blood Lincoln, the human side” of his life by examining the potential insights into his worldview that might arise from better knowing how he responded to issues like the constant early deaths which marked his family history. Though her argument was somewhat weakened by the admittedly thin historical evidence concerning many of these subjects, her plea to not let this deter future work in this area should be heeded.

Meanwhile, Columbia's Christopher Brown challenged other historians to evaluate Lincoln's approach to emancipation in the context of the many national emancipations of the nineteenth century. As Brown pointed out, this context is necessary because Lincoln himself approached emancipation with reference to historical examples such as those provided by Haiti and the British West Indies. Placing US emancipation in an international context also has the power to demonstrate that in contrast to many studies of emancipation that emphasize political struggle, the US emancipation might better be understood as an “aspect of the history of war, rather than the history of reform,” an approach which could better explain how emancipation was experienced in both the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

Finally, this symposium and the publication of Our Lincoln both seem to mark the rekindling of scholarly interest in the antebellum colonization movement which sought to remove free African Americans from the United States by encouraging or forcing their emigration to foreign countries. Manisha Sinha, a professor of African American Studies and History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, argued in her talk on Lincoln's relationship with black abolitionists that “no other aspects of Lincoln's policies” infuriated these activists more than Lincoln's long-standing insistence that emancipation must be accompanied by colonization. In Sinha's evaluation, abandoning colonization policy during the Civil War was a crucial stage in Lincoln's rapprochement with abolitionists. But the implications of this abandonment were most forcefully suggested by Eric Foner in his discussion of “Lincoln, Emancipation, and the Rights of Black Americans.”

Foner argued that the most important element of colonizationist and similar thought was that although it was usually connected to the support of emancipation, it nevertheless precluded any consideration of how free black people could become part of US society by assuming that once free they would no longer be part of that society. In this light, by “decoupling emancipation from colonization” in the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln forced himself and many Americans to seriously consider the prospect of a racially diverse free society. By emphasizing the immediate and paradigmatic nature of this transformation, the long-neglected subject of the colonization movement and its influence on the ideologies which supplanted it has the power to inform any discussion of the place of African Americans in the US, particularly the policies and daily experiences of Reconstruction.

While introducing the final panel of the day-long symposium, the noted biographer of Lincoln and historian of the Civil War Harold Holzer pointed out that the theme of the national celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth was “unfinished work.” (Holzer is also the co-chairman of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.) While this theme refers to the ongoing attempts of the country to grapple with Lincoln's legacy, it might just as well be applied to the accumulated contributions of Lincoln scholars. Given the remarkable complexity of Lincoln's intellect, personality, and actions, as well as his hotly contested meaning in the public imagination, it seems unlikely that this work will ever be “finished.” Nevertheless, by adding nuance to existing debates and proposing avenues for new scholarly investigation, the many speakers at “Lincoln in His Time and Ours” can be said to have made real contributions to this seemingly Sisyphean task.

The symposium was recorded and has been made available by Columbia University for online viewing via RealPlayer at

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