U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thinking with Lincoln: Teaching “The Quest for Union and Renewal”

Editor's Note

For nearly two decades, I’ve taught an undergraduate Honors Course at the University of Oklahoma built around the readings in Hollinger & Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition.  As part of LD Burnett’s series of posts rereading Hollinger & Capper, I’m doing a series of posts exploring what it’s like to teach the volumes in an undergraduate, honors setting. In my first post, I said a few general things about Perspectives on the American Experience: American Social Thought, the course (or actually courses) in which I use The American Intellectual Tradition. When I began this course, The American Intellectual Tradition was in its 3rd edition. Unless otherwise noted, I’ll be blogging about the most recent edition of the books, the 7th.  In this sixth post in my series, I discuss teaching Volume I, Part Five, entitled “The Quest for Union and Renewal.” For more on Volume I, Part Five, see LD’s post from last Saturday, which focused on the reading from this section that, as you’ll read, I spend the least time on in my class: Francis Lieber’s “Nationalism and Internationalism.” I’ll be blogging about a new section every two weeks as LD works her way through the book. I generally am not attempting to make these posts a comprehensive description of what I do with Hollinger & Capper in the classroom. Instead, I will usually be highlighting an aspect of my approach to each section. Please feel free to use the discussion thread for more general comments or questions about teaching this particular part of The American Intellectual Tradition.

The fifth and final part of Volume I of Hollinger & Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition, entitled “The Quest for Union and Renewal,” is an embarrassment of riches for the undergraduate classroom. It falls very neatly into four sections:

Abraham Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865.

  1. Works by three pro-slavery, Southern conservatives: a selection from John C. Calhoun’s A Disquisition on Government (c. 1840s) , Louisa McCord’s “Enfranchisement of Women” (1852), and a selection from George Fitzhugh’s Sociology for the South (1854).
  2. Two contrasting works by African American abolitionists: a selection from Martin Delany’s The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852) and Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852).
  3. Four speeches by Abraham Lincoln: “Speech at Peoria, Illinois” (1854), “Address Before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society” (1859), “Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg” (1863), and the “Second Inaugural Address” (1865).
  4. Francis Lieber’s “Nationalism and Internationalism” (1868).

It is both a blessing and a curse that these readings fall at the very end of the semester in my class: a blessing because, with the rest of Volume I behind them, my students can draw all sorts of interesting connections between these works and things we have encountered earlier in the course; a curse because everyone is exhausted at the end of the semester and the two weeks available to explore this material always feels very rushed.

I generally devote one whole week to Calhoun, McCord, and Fitzhugh.  Volume I of Hollinger & Capper leans heavily toward New England authors, especially in Parts Three and Four.  And voices from the right are also less common in the pages of this volume than voices of reform.  I thus think it’s worth spending a week with these Southern conservatives, who share some common ideas but are also quite different from each other.  All three see slavery as a positive good. All have an essentially hierarchical view of society. And all reject – Calhoun and Fitzhugh absolutely explicitly – the rights-based ideas of the Declaration of Independence. Fitzhugh offers a bracing critique of capitalism that in some ways resembles Orestes Brownson’s from earlier in the semester. However, unlike Brownson, Fitzhugh is deeply anti-individualist in his orientation.

I always challenge my students to think about whether there’s anything in these readings that can be separated from their devotion to slavery and racial hierarchy.  For better or for worse, Calhoun has frequently been read as a living text in the century and half since the end of the Civil War. And the late Eugene Genovese was at least somewhat admiring of Fitzhugh.  I tend to think (as Calhoun, McCord, and Fitzhugh themselves clearly did) that slavery is at the heart of all these texts and that it is very difficult to rescue much of anything in them. But I try to let my students come to their own conclusions. At the University of Oklahoma’s Honors College, I have a fair number of intellectually sophisticated conservative students. Many of these see themselves as heirs to classical liberalism; most identify strongly with the Declaration of Independence. My conservative students’ encounters with Calhoun, McCord, and Fitzhugh are often very interesting.

McCord is the most thoroughgoing opponent of the women’s rights movement that we encounter in this volume. And she writes in a bitterly snarky style that seems oddly familiar to 21st-century readers.  It’s not hard to imagine that she would be an avid Twitter user had she been born a couple centuries later.

Delany and Douglas get the first meeting of the final week of classes (not counting the following “dead week,” during which the students and I review the material from throughout the semester in preparation for the final).  They form a terrific contrast: Delany, who was born in freedom, anticipates Black nationalism and argues that, because of white racial prejudice there can never been a place for African Americans in the United States. He argues that African Americans should leave the US, perhaps for the Caribbean or Latin America, where he suggests there’s little or no prejudice against people of African descent (my students are oddly quick to accept that this was in fact the case).  Douglass, of course, argues that the U.S. can and must honor the principles of its Founding that, he argues, the existence of slavery violates.  Though the U.S. effectively excludes African Americans from the polity, Douglass looks forward to a day when Black Americans can be fully integrated into American life.  I often ask my students to write a paper comparing Delany and Douglass. Who was more idealistic? Whose goals were more achievable? Can one or both of these works be read as living texts?

The Lincoln speeches are the focus of my second and final meeting of the last regular week of classes. They offer a series of snapshots of Lincoln’s (changing) political views.  And the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, especially, are justly famous examples of brilliantly concise political rhetoric. Indeed, they are the two shortest documents in the entire volume. I’ll have told my students at the end of the previous class meeting to be prepared to analyze these two speeches closely in class the text time we meet.

I usually start class by asking for a volunteer to read the Gettysburg Address. After listening to it, I ask my students to break it apart: how does Lincoln use language? How does the Gettysburg address work? I then move from form to content…though, to be honest, the discussion of form necessarily involves a discussion of content: what does Lincoln suggest is the meaning of the American experience? And what is the relationship of the Civil War to it?  I then conduct a similar deep dive into the Second Inaugural, starting with another volunteer reader. This is a more complicated and (to my students at least) less familiar speech.  Both speeches are full of phrases and ideas that echo things we’ve read earlier in the semester, so I plan for these exercises in close reading to bring the students to experience how much they’ve learned in the semester and to start transitioning to what they’ll be doing for the next two weeks: studying for and then taking a comprehensive final exam on this material.

Assuming I have time after discussing the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, I generally double back to the earlier two Lincoln speeches, which are also important and interesting.

Poor Francis Lieber, whose “Nationalism and Internationalism” was added only in the latest edition of the book, usually gets short shrift in my class. It is nevertheless an excellent addition to this volume. It points toward America’s changing place in the world, which is a big theme in Volume II.  And it reminds us of the continuing importance of race and racism even to many European American thinkers who, like Lieber, were sympathetic to the then-recent abolition of slavery. Were I still trying to jam material from both volumes into a single semester (which I stopped doing before the current edition of the books came out), I think Lieber would make

the cut.

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  1. Ben,
    Could you say a bit more about your conservative students’ reactions to Calhoun, McCord, and Fitzhugh?

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