Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution

by James M. McPherson

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According to Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, was the overthrow of slavery a political, economical, or capitalist revolution, or was it all of the above, and how?

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In Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, historian James McPherson argues that the the overthrow of slavery was a political, economic, and capitalist revolution.

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In Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, James Macpherson argues that the Civil War and the end of slavery were a revolution in every sense suggested by the question—political, economic, and capitalist. It was a political revolution in that it shifted the political balance of power to the North for decades. It established the Republican Party as a political force for the remainder of the nineteenth century. Perhaps most important, it gave the right to vote to millions of formerly enslaved men, which was not a foregone conclusion even with Northern victory. Citing historian Eric Foner, McPherson points out that the United States was unique in giving the right to vote to enslaved people after they gained their freedom. In this sense, the Civil War was profoundly revolutionary.

McPherson also accepts that the end of slavery was an economic revolution. While Congress never enacted land reform in the defeated Confederate states, the end of slavery marked one of the most significant economic transformations in American history. The abolition of slavery "represented a confiscation of about three billion dollars in property," the rough equivalent of three trillion dollars in the late twentieth century. This was a profound and revolutionary event, one that saw the "principal form of property" in the United States taken. Moreover, even though freedmen faced massive economic struggles during Reconstruction, McPherson observes that a significant percentage of them became landowners during the period.

McPherson broadly accepts that by destroying the social structures surrounding slavery, the Civil War was a capitalist revolution. It was not, perhaps, as stark a turning point as historian Charles Beard (and Civil War contemporary Karl Marx) thought. They had argued that the war represented the destruction of a feudal-style aristocracy in the South by an emerging Northern bourgeoisie. This, some historians had argued, was the impetus for the rapid industrialization of American society.

McPherson points out that the industrialization of the United States was well underway years before the war and that the end of slavery did not necessarily mean a bourgeois revolution was underway. Still, if one accepts that Southern society was dominated by an outdated planter elite that exerted enormous political power, there is no doubt that the Northern pro-business Republicans prevailed in the struggle by destroying slavery. As McPherson writes, the Civil War and the end of slavery led to a "massive shift toward national domination by the northern model of competitive democratic free-labor capitalism."

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