As you now know, in the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln announced that it should be the intention of those who supported the Union to ensure that the United States achieved “a new birth of freedom” so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Only two years before, Lincoln had asserted that “labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves the much higher consideration.” Furthermore, he used this earlier address to recapitulate his conviction that “there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life.”
Examining the period from the Civil War to the early years of the Gilded Age (the 1880s), consider these statements. How do they capture the central promises, possibilities, and contradictions of the Age of Lincoln? What was the dominant spirit of this era and what did those animated by it accomplish? What forces—political, economic, ideological—sought to impede “the democratic ideal,” which W.E.B. Du Bois believed was the defining impulse of this period? Additionally, what historical interpretations distorted or continue to distort the popular understanding of this period? Your answer should pay close attention to the experience of former slaves, workers—women and men, African American and white—as well as any political movements that challenged the ideological/political forces seeking to undermine the “democratic ideal” in the years between the end of Reconstruction and the early 20th century. Finally, does this history have any contemporary resonance?

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