Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution

by James M. McPherson
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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719

This work by James McPherson is basically a series of essays dealing with the central point that, in McPherson's view (and that of others) the US Civil War was in fact a revolution, and Lincoln was the principal force behind it.

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The book has seven chapters. The first establishes McPherson's central thesis and is also an answer to those who would argue that the Civil War was not a true revolution. He states that although the war did not completely overturn the old social and political order of the southern states, it was nevertheless as much of a genuine revolution as were the English Civil War of the 1640's and the French Revolution of the 1790's, both of which were, like our Civil War, followed by "counter-revolutions" in which the status quo ante bellum was partly restored. The southern states in the wake of Reconstruction passed Jim Crow laws to continue their oppression of African Americans, but in spite of this, there was no return to slavery. McPherson points out that without the Civil War, there could never have been what he calls the "Second Reconstruction," the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's.

Chapter 2 deals with the specific ways in which the Civil War was, in fact, revolutionary. First, the threat to slavery posed by the platform of Lincoln and his party in declaring that slavery could never be extended to the territories of the US (and without such extension, the slave-owning states would become a minority and the value of their "property" would decrease and eventually be destroyed) was revolutionary. Actual abolition in the existing states, which finally occurred in 1865, was revolutionary. And the destruction of the old social order of the South was revolutionary.

Chapter 3 deals with Lincoln's specific conception of the meaning of "liberty." Lincoln rejected the notion, asserted by Stephen Douglas in the 1858 debates and by most white Americans of the time, that the words "all men are created equal" referred only to white men. Lincoln argued that if such a restriction could be imposed on the meaning of Jefferson's words, one could just as easily assert that "Catholics" or "foreigners" were excluded from the principle of equality.

In Chapter 4, McPherson describes the war strategy of Lincoln as one requiring the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy. This differed from the limited war aims of many who simply wished to put down the rebellion and move on. At the start of the war in 1861, Lincoln's own aims were more limited, but his conception of the conflict changed over time. Yet even early in the war, as McPherson points out, Lincoln grew impatient with generals such as George McClellan, who moved slowly, refused to take risks, and actually tried to avoid fighting battles. Lincoln chose U.S. Grant in 1864 as commander of all armies because Grant had proven himself a general who would prosecute the war to a definitive conclusion and total victory.

Chapter 5 deals with Lincoln's skill in using imaginative, figurative language to get his political points across in addressing his Cabinet members, Congress, and the public at large. This ability of Lincoln contrasts with the stiff, unimaginative Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In Chapter 6 McPherson discusses the fact that Lincoln possessed a "central vision" of the preservation of the Union as a goal that was an absolute.

Chapter 7 expands on this point by distinguishing between "positive" and "negative" liberty. For Lincoln, the survival of the Union meant the survival of the concept of true freedom which the founding of the United States stood for. Lincoln defined the Civil War as a contest to "defend ordered liberty against a lawless effort to break up the government." The secessionists' claim that they were simply exercising their own freedom in breaking away from the Union is an instance of what McPherson defines as negative liberty. Freedom must be seen in the context of what it is being used for. Lincoln understood that the breakup of the Union would mean the indefinite perpetuation of slavery and the destruction of the United States, and thereby a blow to the larger, positive principle of liberty the US represented. This is why McPherson regards Lincoln's successful prosecution of the war as the Second American Revolution, fulfilling, at least to a greater degree than ever before, the promise first made by the Founders in 1776.

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