On October 26 at noon, Dr. Edward L. Ayers will deliver a Banner Lecture entitled “The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America.”
At the crux of America’s history stand two astounding events: the immediate and complete destruction of the most powerful system of slavery in the modern world, followed by a political reconstruction in which new constitutions established the fundamental rights of citizens for formerly enslaved people. Few people living in 1860 would have dared imagine either event. This book recovers the drama of this unfolding history by setting up at ground level in the Great Valley counties of Augusta, Virginia, and Franklin, Pennsylvania, communities joined by a prosperous landscape and divided by the Mason Dixon line. From the same vantage point occupied by our characters, we see the war become a scourge to the Valley, its pitched battles punctuating a cycle of vicious attack and reprisal in which armies burned whole towns for retribution. In the weeks and months after emancipation, we see black and white residents testing the limits of freedom as political leaders and ordinary citizens negotiate the terrain of a new kind of United States. Throughout, the dynamics of political opposition drove these momentous events, transforming once unimaginable outcomes into fact.
Dr. Edward L. Ayers is the author of the Bancroft Prize–winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies and other works of history honored as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. A recipient of the National Humanities Medal from President Obama, Ayers is Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond. His most recent book is The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America.