ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE SECOND AMERICAN REVOLUTION comprises seven essays drawn from lectures and papers McPherson presented on various occasions. To gather these into book form, as the author freely admits in his preface, runs the risk of redundancy. It is a risk that McPherson loses, as the essays frequently cite the same anecdotes, incidents, and quotations to make the same point. Simply put, there is material here for one excellent scholarly essay; there is not enough for a book.
Having said which, however, one must acknowledge McPherson’s mastery of his topic—the change the Civil War effected in America’s concept of liberty. Prior to the war, Americans thought of liberty as the restraint of government from tyrannizing over the individual (or state); after the war, liberty became the broadening of opportunity (particularly for its freed slaves), resulting from an extension of the power of the national government. McPherson’s thesis is that this redefinition of liberty and the role the government must play in fostering it was a direct result of Abraham Lincoln’s steady resolve, his genius as a communicator, and his recognition that the abolition of slavery had to be included along with the restoration of the Union as a war aim if the promise of the first America Revolution was to be fulfilled.
McPherson scarcely mentions the economic and social innovations or the political upheaval that mark the Civil War years, except insofar as...
No other part of the American past has inspired as many written words as the Civil War. Each year, hundreds of new volumes join the thousands that clog shelves in libraries all over the world. With millions of pages already devoted to the subject, some might argue that there is nothing left to write about the war. When an event transcends the normal pattern of history to become a turning point in the life of a particular society, however, the very best historical interpretation often becomes much more than a simple narrative; it becomes a metaphorical evocation of the meaning of that particular culture. James M. McPherson’s Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution is just such a work.
McPherson, Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University, established himself as a leading authority on the Civil War with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988). In his new collection of essays, whose title is taken from the second essay, “Lincoln and the Second American Revolution,” McPherson ties together seven separate arguments with one central theme, the revolutionary nature of the Civil War experience. While each essay could stand alone and has appeared in other versions, placing them in the same volume strengthens each and provides a more coherent overall image.
The opening and closing essays deal with the central theme directly by addressing the question of what the war actually accomplished. The five other essays deal with the leadership of Abraham Lincoln. Connecting leadership with the war’s outcome is crucial to McPherson’s interpretation. For him, history is not the operation of powerful forces on passive human beings. Such broad themes as the evolution of economic systems are important for any understanding of events, but McPherson believes that in the final analysis, history develops as it does because people make decisions. The “Second American Revolution” would not have occurred as it did, and perhaps might not have been a revolution at all, without the gentle hand of Abraham Lincoln.
The first argument comes to grips with a question of semantics. Should the Civil War be called a “revolution”? Obviously, the answer would depend on how one defines the term, but after treating a number of the possible variations and the resulting interpretations, McPherson argues convincingly that in order to understand the meaning of the Civil War within the context of American history the term “revolution” is indeed appropriate. While it is true that many of the gains of the former slaves were lost in a counterrevolution during the Reconstruction and the economic transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society would have occurred without war, the changes were still revolutionary. After all, slavery was abolished, and the lot of postwar blacks, while hardly ideal, was certainly better than that of chattel slaves. Most important, even with the growth of the Jim Crow system after Reconstruction, a foundation was laid for future change, and the nation was committed, at least symbolically, to the idea of equality. Moreover, the new political dominance of the Republican Party changed the nature of the American system. With the South weakened economically and politically, the Republican commitment to free-labor capitalism was allowed to develop unchecked and become almost synonymous with the American way of life.
Even if one accepts McPherson’s position, it is not necessary to assume that the revolutionary outcome was the product of conscious decisions on the part of the war’s participants. Here the focus of the second essay, Lincoln’s moral and political leadership, is crucial. Such respected historians as James G. Randall, T. Harry Williams, and Norman Graebner have argued that the president was essentially a conservative, which makes the depiction of Lincoln as a “revolutionary” somewhat incongruous. Admittedly, their argument is a strong one. There is little in Lincoln’s career or actions as president to suggest that he was a revolutionary ideologue. In fact, McPherson himself agrees with Graebner’s statement that Lincoln “accepted the need of dealing with things as they were, not as he would have wished them to be.” Where Graebner believes that Lincoln’s pragmatism made him a conservative, however, McPherson concludes that his realistic appraisal of what could actually be achieved produced a unique and very successful kind of revolutionary, “a pragmatic...