When Americans are asked to rank their presidents, Abraham Lincoln almost always comes out at the top. But why? Sometimes, the reason is that he freed the slaves . . . or that he saved the Union . . . or that he was a great war president . . . or that he was a master of words. All of these are true. But these truths don’t get at the man behind these truths. Although Lincoln had next-to-nothing in the way of formal education, he possessed a natural intellectual curiosity, a voracious appetite for reading, and a passion for ideas. He was a lawyer, a politician, a fixer. But he was more than just a lawyer, a politician, or a fixer. Lincoln’s curiosity . . . his reading . . . his ideas . . . led him into the vortex of the great clashes of ideas in the nineteenth century about religion, politics, Romanticism, race, and slavery. In this seminar, we will see how Lincoln was shaped by three important issues in his day:
- The clash of religion and the Enlightenment—Lincoln was raised in a devout religious environment and carried the stamp of that religious upbringing all through his life. But he was also a rebel against religion, and tried to shape his life according to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment’s model of “reason.” Yet, in his great debates with Stephen A. Douglas, he appealed to natural law and natural rights, and in the depths of the Civil War could find no “reasonable” explanations for the course of events. In the end, Lincoln found himself bringing religion and morality to bear on public policy in a way that no president before (or since) has done.
- The offense of slavery—Lincoln insisted that he had always hated slavery, and committed himself politically to the extinction of slavery. But how did he foresee that extinction taking place? Was he motivated more by a desire to abolish slavery as a political embarrassment than by empathy for an oppressed racial minority?
- The fight for the survival of democracy—When Lincoln described the Civil War as a test of whether “this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure,” it was not mere rhetoric. The nineteenth century was the age of Romanticism, which meant a violent, emotional rebellion against the restraints of reason. Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Russians—virtually all of Europe—began defining their national identities in terms of race and blood rather than liberty. By the time Lincoln became president, the United States was the only successful, large-scale democracy in the world. And the Civil War looked like proof, not only that this success was coming to an abrupt end, but that democracies were inherently unstable and inferior to monarchy and aristocracy.
This seminar will be an exploration of Lincoln’s mind—of the great intellectual problems he faced, of the books he read, of the ideas he defended, and of the kind of democracy he thought was worth saving. And at the end, we will come to know Lincoln, not just as the greatest of presidents, but as a man of great ideas as well.
Readings are sent by the Institute to seminar participants. Readings may include:
Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Travel & Accommodations
Gettysburg College is located in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The closest and most convenient airports are Harrisburg International Airport (a 45-minute drive) and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (a 75-minute drive). The college provides shuttle service to campus from many of the major transportation hubs in the area. Call Transportation Services, 717-337-6923, to make arrangements.
The Harrisburg Amtrak Station is about 45 minutes from campus, and Penn Station in Baltimore is about 75 minutes away. Again, the college provides shuttle service so long as you call ahead.
If you plan to drive, the Gettysburg College website will provide you with detailed instructions.
Workshop participants will be housed in on-campus housing, in a private bedroom with a shared common bathroom and common space. The rooms are air-conditioned. The college will provide you with sheets, a blanket, a pillow, and one towel. You are welcome to bring your own fitted sheets. Please note that participants should plan to bring alarm clocks, hangers, irons, hair dryers, and shower shoes.
Meals will be served in a college cafeteria in space shared by other programs. All on-campus meals will be paid for by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Each summer seminar participant will receive reimbursement of travel expenses up to $400. Participants are responsible for making their own travel arrangements to and from the seminar.
Participants traveling internationally or from Alaska and Hawaii receive a $500 stipend in lieu of reimbursement upon completion of the seminar.
Applicants to seminars should note that supplements will not be given in cases where the $400 allowance is insufficient to cover all travel expenses. Our reimbursement policy has changed from previous years. For more information on our policy click here.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is proud to announce its agreement with Adams State University to offer three hours of graduate credit in American history to participating seminar teachers. For more information click here.
Email the Teacher Seminars department or call 646-366-9666.