Johnson on Burton and Eisenstadt, 'Lincoln’s Unfinished Work: The New Birth of Freedom from Generation to Generation'

Orville Vernon Burton, Peter Eisenstadt, eds.
Martin P. Johnson

Orville Vernon Burton, Peter Eisenstadt, eds. Lincoln’s Unfinished Work: The New Birth of Freedom from Generation to Generation. Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War Series. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2022. vi + 435 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7676-4

Reviewed by Martin P. Johnson (Miami University Hamilton) Published on H-CivWar (March, 2023) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version:

This well-selected and illuminating collection provides insightful essays addressing the legacy and impact of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War more generally across the last century and a half. The high quality of the essays, the expertise of the contributors, and the level of scholarship evinced in the comprehensive notes make this an excellent introduction to the longer-term significance of these events for American history and an ideal text for the upper-division classroom. Yet it is perhaps as valuable for working historians as an example of how to forthrightly address difficult issues raised during fraught political times in a way that is both rigorous and engaged. The conference on Civil War legacies at Clemson University that sparked this collection was held in December 2018, near the midpoint of the 2017-21 Donald Trump term, while the introduction and afterword by the editors Orville Vernon Burton (the Judge Matthew J. Perry Jr. Distinguished Professor of History at Clemson) and Peter Eisenstadt (an affiliate scholar in the Department of History at Clemson) were completed some months after the attack on the US Congress of January 6, 2021. Given this chronology, there could not help but be resonances and echoes of those eventful days, but the signal achievement of the editors, and many of the contributors, is to embrace the problems of (figuratively) doing history in a hurricane.

For the editors, at least, this entails directly addressing divisive issues but also grounding their vision upon first principles that are treated as axioms, rather than problems, that is, by returning to the “unfinished work” of Lincoln and the Civil War and by rededicating ourselves to the continuing task of democracy and human rights for all. Possibly, some of the contributors are less sure of the centrality or universality of this vision for the American project, but overall there is a sense in virtually all these essays that Lincoln and the Civil War matter for our times and that good history not only makes sense of the past but also illuminates the present. The seventeen substantive contributions divide fairly evenly between broadly framed interpretive essays and more chronologically or topically focused contributions, interspersed so as to reinforce each other to reveal the general in the particular and concrete within the abstract.

Any number of themes can be discerned connecting these essays that could be the basis of discussions or essays around the general topics of slavery, race, American political development, the politics of history, or the legacy of the Civil War. For example, almost all the contributions address the continuity of racism and oppression in the decades and centuries after a Civil War that might have done more to eradicate them. The essay by the late James Loewen suggests that an inaccurately apolitical image of Lincoln in school books is partly the reason, for he was instead a sincere and strong antislavery activist. Similarly, Joshua Casmir Catalano and Briana Pocratsky in their essay on history in the media argue that the History Channel and such ventures distort history, providing fertile ground for fact-free sensationalism and conspiracies. An economic foundation for white supremacy can be discerned in the essay on black landowning by Adrienne Petty and Mark Schultz; despite gains in landownership by African Americans (about 25 percent owned some land in 1900), all remained mired in a white-dominated economy that prevented full development.

The contested nature of Lincoln's legacy is another theme of these and other essays. William Harris argues that had Lincoln lived, his equivocations on black voting rights might well have disappointed his later admirers, even if he was a superior politician to Andrew Johnson and so would likely have steered a more effective course. Gregory Downs similarly notes that even Lincoln probably would not have been able to overcome entrenched white opposition to greater political rights for African Americans. Stephen Kantrowitz forcefully argues that Lincoln and the Republicans indeed pursued a policy of outright white supremacy regarding Native Americans.

The editors push back indirectly at these appraisals in a perhaps too-pointed critique of the 1619 Project, Lerone Bennett, and Ibram X. Kendi, whom they collectively criticize for depicting racism as so ingrained that America is essentially unredeemable. Instead, the afterword defends what the editors see as the American and Lincolnian project of expanding and perfecting the Union. They frame Reconstruction in the 1860s, and the second (or third?) reconstruction today, as more than a defeat but rather part of a large and vibrant American story of “interracial collaboration against racism” (p. 397). Here the intersection of past and present becomes ever-more explicit, with the editors declaring that Lincoln’s fight for equity, justice, and the rights of citizenship is still our fight. And yet, as noted, the collection is big enough to present other perspectives on these points.

Those who see history as being mainly of the past, by the past, and for the past will perhaps find the vision of the editors an uncongenial approach; those who recognize the essential “presentism” within the practice of history will find in these pages ways to clarify and sharpen their views. The historical insights and warm humanism of the editors will incite respect even if not uniform agreement, as will the high quality of the essays overall. Concluding their afterword in late 2021, the editors wrote of their “fond hope” that future readers would “smile at our overblown worries” for American democracy but also of their fear that “future readers will find our concerns all too prescient” (p. 406). As a collection of thoughtful, well-researched essays on important topics, this volume perhaps equals the best of its kind. But possibly the strongest recommendation for this collection is that it forthrightly and judiciously addresses the politics of the past and the present, connecting the legacies of Lincoln and the Civil War to our own time while we stand, still, on the knife’s edge.

Citation: Martin P. Johnson. Review of Burton, Orville Vernon; Eisenstadt, Peter, eds., Lincoln’s Unfinished Work: The New Birth of Freedom from Generation to Generation. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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