Yale for Life

A New Birth of Freedom:  How the Civil War Era Made a New America

Lincoln to Reconstruction

June 16-22, 2019

When Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg and declared his wish for “A new birth of freedom…” he said perhaps, as Ken Burns wrote, “more than he knew.”

Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address that the Civil War, which “All knew that this interest  [slavery] was somehow the cause of…” was the trial that American had to undergo to purge the Original Sin of slavery:  “He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came…”

Was Lincoln correct?  What was Freedom in America as envisioned at the Founding, as practiced in the early Republic, and was it, indeed, altered forever by the Civil War?  Did America become a different nation after the war?  How do we view Reconstruction in this framework?  And how does all of this echo today?

To address these questions, Yale for Life presents a rare and precious opportunity.  “A New Birth of Freedom: How the Civil War Made a New America” will conduct an inquiry into America’s “rules” of slavery and freedom, by examining the institution that encodes a society’s values:  the Law; by studying deeply America’s greatest legal and political thinker/actor: Abraham Lincoln; and by examining not only the cataclysm of the War itself, but its momentous and too-often overlooked sequel: Reconstruction. 

We will be guided in this inquiry first of all by two of Yale’s greatest and most honored scholars: Professors Akhil Amar, and Steven Smith.   Prof. Amar, according to Yale’s website: “has been favorably cited by Supreme Court justices across the spectrum in over 30 cases (citing to four different books and more than a dozen distinct articles), and he regularly testifies before Congress at the invitation of both Republicans and Democrats.” He has “won Yale’s Triple Crown,” having been awarded Yale’s highest teaching award, the DeVane Medal, its highest academic honor, a Sterling Professorship, and its highest faculty honor from alumni, the Howard R. Lamar award. Professor Smith is also an honoree for Yale teaching with the Lex Hixon Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities, and is beloved of Yale for Life alumni with his numerous appearances (including last year’s star turn in our “American Nationhood” course. Lincoln is among his many areas of expertise; he teaches a popular Yale course on Lincoln and is the editor of The Writings of Abraham Lincoln.

Our lead professors are cut from the Yale for Life “mold.”  In addition to named chairs at Yale Law School, Prof. Amar holds appointments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in Political Science; Professor Smith also teaches in Directed Studies and was the Master of Branford College for 15 years.   They embody the interdisciplinary approach that Yale for Life cherishes.  And what better subject for their expertise than the interplay of freedom, law, war, and a country’s greatness?

Join our Professors, treasures of Yale, for a seven day set of seminars. This intensive, energizing experience will lead students in detailed discussions of a number of literary, philosophical, and historical texts. We will learn not of this era alone – we will learn how it is that one probes deeply into any complex period, and how in doing so, fundamental lessons emerge.

Our Lead Faculty:

Akhil Reed Amar
Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science

Akhil Reed Amar is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, where he teaches constitutional law in both Yale College and Yale Law School. After graduating from Yale College, summa cum laude, in 1980 and from Yale Law School in 1984, and clerking for now-Justice Stephen Breyer, Amar joined the Yale faculty in 1985 at the age of 26. He is the winner of Yale’s DeVane Medal for teaching, and in 2017 he received the Howard Lamar Award for outstanding service to Yale alumni. He co-led Yale for Life’s 2016 “A New Birth of Freedom…” course (whose success prompts this year’s reprise).

Steven B. Smith
Alfred Cowles Professor of Government & Philosophy

Steven B. Smith has taught at Yale since 1984. He has served as Director of Graduate Studies in Political Science, Director of the Special Program in the Humanities, and Acting Chair of Judaic Studies and from 1996-2011 served as the Master of Branford College. His research has focused on the history of political philosophy with special attention to the problem of the ancients and moderns, the relation of religion and politics, and theories of representative government. He received the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences in 2009; in 2016 co-led the wonderful Yale for Life course on The Enlightenment, and in 2017 returned for “American Nationhood: North and South.”

Learn More About our Lead Faculty!

Guest Professors

Our morning seminars with lead faculty will be followed in the afternoons by a seminar with an amazing guest professor.  These scholars bring a variety of different perspectives to our subject, from laws of war, to the intricacies of Reconstruction, and more.  Yale for Life continues its emphasis on interdisciplinary study, not only through the variety in the core syllabus, but through these world-class leaders of Yale’s intellectual portfolio.

David W. Blight
Class of 1954 Professor of History

David W. Blight joined the Yale faculty in January, 2003. He is widely recognized to be situated at the pinnacle of Civil War historians. He is Director, succeeding David Brion Davis, of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. His recently published biography of Frederick Douglass was named by the New York Times as one of the Best 10 books of 2018, adding to the many awards for his prior works, including the Bancroft, Lincoln, and Douglass Prizes. Blight works in many capacities in the world of public history, including on boards of museums and historical societies, and as a member of a small team of advisors to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum team of curators. In 2012, Blight was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

John Fabian Witt
Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law

Professor Witt is a graduate of Yale Law School and Yale College and he holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale. His most recent book, “Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History,” was awarded the 2013 Bancroft Prize, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was selected for the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, and was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Professor Witt is the Head of Davenport College. He taught in Yale for Life as co-lead Professor of our wildly popular 2016 offering of “A New Birth of Freedom.”

Manisha Sinha
James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History, University of Connecticut

Manisha Sinha is professor and the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. She was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest honor bestowed on faculty, from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she taught for over twenty years. Her recent book, “The Slave’s Cause,” was widely and favorably reviewed; it was featured as the Editor’s Choice of the New York Times Book Review. Her first book, “The Counterrevolution of Slavery,” was named one of the ten best books on slavery in 2015. She is a member of many Civil War academic boards, including the Board of the Society of Civil War Historians. A frequent television guest, including Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, she was an adviser and on-screen expert for the Emmy nominated PBS documentary, The Abolitionists (2013). She is currently writing a book on the “Greater Reconstruction” of American democracy and capitalism after the Civil War.

Crystal Feimster
Associate Professor of African American Studies, History, and American Studies

Crystal N. Feimster, a native of North Carolina, is an associate professor in the departments of African American Studies and History and the programs of American Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale, where she teaches a range of courses in 19th and 20th century African American history, women’s history, and southern history. She has also taught at Boston College, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Princeton. She earned her Ph. D. in History from Princeton University and her BA in History and Women’s Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. She is the author of Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching. She is currently completing her manuscript, Truth Be Told: Rape and Mutiny in Civil War Louisiana. Professor Feimster is widely recognized at Yale for her outstanding teaching; she was awarded the Poorvu Family Award for Interdisciplinary Teaching in 2013, and the Yale Provost Prize for Teaching in 2014.

Stephen L. Carter
William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law

Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1982. He is the author of fifteen books; most recently, Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer who Took Down America’s Biggest Mobster. He recently delivered the W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard. Professor Carter is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School. He served as a law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall at the United States Supreme Court. He is a fellow of several learned societies and a life member of the American Law Institute. He is a trustee of the Aspen Institute, where for fifteen years he moderated seminars. He has received eight honorary degrees. He taught in Yale for Life in 2016, in the prior offering of “A New Birth of Freedom,” to great acclaim.

Learn More About our Guest Faculty!


All Yale for Life courses actually start months before our June meeting.  After registration, you will receive all books and scholarly articles for the course, and will immerse yourself in great works curated by our faculty.  “A New Birth of Freedom…” is no exception, with works ranging from contemporaneous writings to great books written by your own Yale for Life professors.  Primary sources will mix with authoritative texts to produce night after night of joy as you prepare for your return to the life of the mind.

See an excerpt from a Yale for Life Reading List

Special Events

One of Yale for Life’s unique and most beloved features are our Special Events; sessions at a number of Yale’s well-known (such as the Yale Art Gallery) or less-known (such as a 2012 session at the not-yet-processed Kissinger Papers) centers of collection and learning.  “A New Birth of Freedom…” continues this tradition.

Details on Special Events for this course will be posted soon; well in advance of the course.

Learn more about Yale for Life special events

Beyond the Classroom

Everything that happens during the Yale for Life program is colored by the fact that it takes place at Yale.  Learn more about the experience!

Learn more about the living at Yale experience
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