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The Age of Lincoln

By Orville Vernon Burton, Hill & Wang, 384 pages, $25

The country’s never- ending fascination with Abraham Lincoln and the events of his time has kept several generations of historians employed. One is sometimes reminded of the phrase “Everything that can be said, has been said, just not everyone has said it.” Fortunately, that is not what enters one’s mind after reading The Age of Lincoln, by University of Illinois historian Orville Vernon Burton. The author does a masterful job of synthesizing existing literature and putting a new twist on its interpretation.

Burton, a native of South Carolina with a special interest in Southern and religious history, views many of the events through the prism of those subjects. He argues, for example, that Lincoln’s Southern roots and strong spirituality were among the key reasons that he was able to navigate the country through such a tumultuous period. Though Lincoln was not devout—in fact he sometimes expressed skepticism about organized religion—he was driven by spiritual motives and read the Bible regularly.

“Lincoln’s faith, however, precluded understanding the mind of God. Although certain that God was using him to His end in working out history, Lincoln found it presumptuous to dictate what God’s intent might be,” Burton writes. “Only the rule of law could check the fundamentalist and fanatical impulses that stemmed from the millennial age.”

Still, Burton could have discussed Lincoln’s religious development more extensively. There is not enough about the ideas that shaped Lincoln’s nuanced views on racial equality and slavery (he opposed slavery but was initially reluctant to ban it in all territories) during his political career.

Burton, the director of the Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Science, made extensive use of online resources while writing The Age of Lincoln. He takes his love of computers too far by putting the endnotes to the text on his Web site, rather than in the book itself. Having to do that extra work, however, should not deter anyone from reading this well-researched and innovative analysis of an important era of American history.


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.