Civil War Gave Democracy "Moral Grandeur"
Allen C. Guelzo
Feb. 28, 2013
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Nationally recognized Civil War scholar Allen C. Guelzo shed light
on the complex motivations that prompted President Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery.
Guelzo made his remarks Wednesday during Illinois Wesleyan University’s Founders’
Day Convocation, in this 150th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“What Lincoln hated in slavery was not just its racial injustice, but the re-emergence
in America of the old demon of monarchy, where some people were born with uncalloused
hands, booted and spurred and ready to ride on the backs of everyone else who had
to work,” said the award-winning historian on the life and presidency of Lincoln.
Guelzo is currently the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and the director
of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Guelzo is the author
of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America.
The Lincoln scholar said that the principal goal of the emancipationists was not racial
redemption. We tend to think of slavery today almost purely as a racial injustice,
Guelzo said, and in that sense emancipation was a revolution, noting that “in the
long history of Western society, it was without precedent for a slave population of
such magnitude to be absolutely and immediately emancipated, without compensation
to its owners, and then boosted at once into the realm of citizenship.”
In the eyes of the emancipationists, however, the fundamental offense posed by slavery
was that it represented a step away from a democratic political order, replaced with
what Guelzo calls “the kind of Romantic aristocracy which re-established itself in
Europe after the French Revolution.”
The Lincoln scholar said the 16th president believed slavery promoted aristocratic
habits, appealed to men who thought work was “vulgar and ungentlemanly,” and “violated
the noblest political system the world ever saw.”
In his address entitled “Was the Civil War a Second American Revolution?” Guezlo noted
that the Civil War was not really revolutionary in terms of military affairs or in
law and politics.
The Civil War was overwhelmingly revolutionary, however, with respect to the emancipation
of 3.9 million black slaves, according to Guelzo. “The Civil War not only violently
excised all legal traces of slavery from the federal Constitution, but practically
destroyed all the wealth invested in it, to the tune of nearly $3 billion,” said Guelzo.
“So if there was a revolution taking place in the Civil War years, it was a revolution
by the slaveholding aristocrats of the South against the principles of the Declaration
and the Constitution,” said Guelzo. “The promoters of emancipation were not bent on
promoting a revolution, so much as they were intent on snuffing one out – a backwards-looking,
aristocratic revolution – and put the South back on the track it should have been
from the beginning of the republic.”
Lincoln and the Civil War gave democracy “a nobility and a moral grandeur that democracy
has sometimes lacked,” said Guelzo, noting democracy in action can be quite ordinary
and lacks the pomp of monarchy. The victory over slavery was “a moment in which democracy
shed any appearance of the commonplace and the ho-hum, and was borne up on the wings
of courage, self-sacrifice, and the soaring eloquence of one very humble but very
extraordinary president,” Guelzo said.
“Lincoln and the Civil War gave democracy the strength of giants and put into its
hand the shining sword of freedom,” the scholar said. “…in the Civil War, what we
got was not revolution, but freedom.”
Founders’ Day honors the 30 individuals who signed the charter for Illinois Wesleyan
in 1850. Guelzo noted four of those men — “Peter Cartwright, James Jaquess, William
Rutledge, William Wallace — read like a who’s who of who knew Lincoln,” said Guelzo.
“And Lincoln had no closer friend than Bloomington’s own David Davis. In such company,
I am genuinely honored.”
In commemorating the founding of the University 163 years ago, President Richard F.
Wilson said the founders were a diverse group in terms of background, religious beliefs
and walks of life who encountered significant roadblocks in establishing Illinois
“The efforts of our founders have been embraced and sustained over the years by others
who cared deeply about the mission of the University and who worked diligently each
day to provide students with an undergraduate experience of the highest quality,”
Wilson said. “The work of all these people reflects a care and understanding of the
meaning of the phrase inscribed on our founders gate: ‘we stand in a position of incalculable
Other events at Illinois Wesleyan celebrating Founders’ Day include the viewing of
documents at The Ames Library related to the founding, and birthday cake at dining
locations across campus.
Contact: Kim Hill, (309) 556-3960