Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution

by James M. McPherson
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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

McPherson's book is a concise summary of his views, expressed in many of his other works, on the significance of the Civil War, including the nature of its causes and its results for US society. He sees Abraham Lincoln as the key figure in prosecuting the war successfully and in...

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McPherson's book is a concise summary of his views, expressed in many of his other works, on the significance of the Civil War, including the nature of its causes and its results for US society. He sees Abraham Lincoln as the key figure in prosecuting the war successfully and in carrying out the elimination of slavery in this second Revolution.

Much of the book is an overview of Civil War historiography. McPherson refutes the views of those historians who claim the war "had nothing to do with slavery" and of those on the other side of the political spectrum who claim it accomplished nothing for the enslaved people. In McPherson's view the war was a true revolution in that it changed the existing social order, even if it did so imperfectly and was followed by a sort of counter-revolution by southern whites who established Jim Crow laws to oppress the freedmen. He points out that neither the English Civil War of the 1640's nor the French Revolution in 1789 succeeded in totally overthrowing the existing establishment of their time and place, but that both ended their respective anciens régimes and effected changes that could not be reversed. The same is true of our Civil War. The abolition of slavery was irreversible in spite of the unfortunate and tragic fact of the unequal society southerners created in the aftermath of the war.

McPherson debunks the cynical view that Lincoln was not the driving force behind these changes. Among early revisionist historians, and often in the popular consciousness as well, the idea is often expressed that Lincoln was not anti-slavery and that emancipation was not achieved principally through his efforts. McPherson, by contrast, sees Lincoln as the one man, in spite of his imperfections, who was able to marshal all resources to gain unconditional victory militarily, and thus to end the slave-owning oligarchy of the agrarian South, in the "second American Revolution."

Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

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 they manifest the revolutionary increase in federal power, for his emphasis falls on the question of individual liberty. And this may be the great service this book of essays performs. McPherson quite rightly insists on the primacy of the issue of freedom in America in the years immediately before, during, and after the Civil War. He demonstrates how that issue preyed upon the mind of Lincoln, and how by dint of wit and courage that great politician handled it, turning it first into a weapon to win the war and finally converting it into an end in itself. For McPherson the Civil War is about liberty, the extension and protection of which, as Lincoln knew, the United States would be held responsible for in the court of international opinion, before the eyes of the liberty-hungry of future ages.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXIV, March 2, 1991, p. 244.

American Heritage. XLII, May, 1991, p. 12.

Booklist. LXXXVII, December 1, 1990, p. 715.

Chicago Tribune. February 3, 1991, XIV, p. 6.

Forbes. CXLVII, March 4, 1991, p. 24.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, November 1, 1990, p. 1516.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 3, 1991, p. 6.

New York Times Book Review. XCVI, January 20, 1991, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, January 18, 1991, p. 40.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, February 3, 1991, p. 6.

Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1844

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 revolutionary.” Rather than attempting to force events into a particular, preconceived mold, Lincoln guided events carefully, like a jockey controlling an unruly horse. It was the president’s hand on the reins that ended slavery and brought, in his own words, “a new birth of freedom.”

In the next two essays, “Lincoln and Liberty” and “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” McPherson goes more deeply into his analysis of Lincoln. The first of these essays deals with ideology and the second with the concept of nationalism embodied in the evolving goal of preserving the Union. In a speech in Baltimore, Lincoln himself admitted that “the world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one.” The problem was that both sides in the Civil War claimed to be fighting for liberty. It was Lincoln’s idea of liberty, according to McPherson, that was revolutionary. The South had taken one aspect of liberty as understood by the nation’s founders, the liberty to own property without government interference, and exaggerated its significance. The North, on the other hand, looked to the maintenance of popular government through the Union as the protection of liberty for all men. In fact, the position of Lincoln and his party was evolving toward what the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “Positive Liberty” in contrast to “Negative Liberty.” The former meant that government had an obligation to create liberty, while the latter simply called on government to stay out of private lives. The Northern victory meant that the central government of the United States was to become a much more active, although sometimes reluctant, agent in the lives of all Americans.

Initially, the goal of preserving the Union did not require a significant change in the concept of government. In fact, Lincoln went out of his way to make clear that his election did not give him the authority to interfere with slavery where it already existed. The government, in Lincoln’s estimation, was forced to go to war in order to preserve democracy, something that Americans in both the North and South professed to revere. The continued intransigence of the South, however, required a total Northern victory and the complete destruction of the Southern system based on slavery. The gradual evolution of Lincoln’s strategy to that of a “total war,” with unconditional surrender the only acceptable outcome, meant, ironically, that Lincoln’s personal ideological preference would prevail over the constitutional weakness of the federal government. Emancipation and the national adoption of the Republicans’ free-labor ideology were necessary for victory.

The next two essays, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors” and “The Hedgehog and the Foxes,” deal with Lincoln’s style of leadership and its contribution to the revolutionary nature of the Civil War. Most historians agree that Lincoln had an unusual ability to communicate with the Northern masses, but McPherson focuses directly on the nature of his rhetoric. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this argument is the contrast with Jefferson Davis. Davis was much better educated than Lincoln and, in a formal sense, much better equipped to use the English language. When Davis produced a state paper or a political speech, however, his formally correct style was cold and had little lasting impact on his audience. As befits a revolutionary, Lincoln spoke and wrote in the language of the people. His penchant for stories and parables meant that his message was often disguised in metaphor, generally metaphor easily understood if not simplistic. His metaphors range from the poetic, such as the justly famous Gettysburg Address, to stories about killing skunks. This skill in communication, McPherson believes, has been underestimated by historians as a factor in the ultimate Northern victory. The Southerners had the psychological advantage of fighting for their homes and way of life, but the North had Lincoln to articulate its cause in a way that gave the struggle meaning.

The meaning of the war for Abraham Lincoln is crucial to McPherson’s own metaphor, which compares the president to a hedgehog. The seemingly strange combination is based on a line from the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Once again using the philosophical insight of Isaiah Berlin as a model, McPherson argues that the president’s ability to relate every decision to one central vision, the “preservation of the United States and its constitutional government,” was a crucial element in his leadership. While such other Republican leaders as William H. Seward and Horace Greeley were foxes who often seemed more clever than the plodding Lincoln, their failure to develop a consistent vision of the meaning of the war would have led to disaster had they been in charge. Instead, the president’s conduct during the war provides one of the finest examples in history of democratic leadership. With his vision of America always before him, Lincoln was able to lead the people, not follow them, to his “new birth of freedom.”

What this new freedom meant for the future is explained in McPherson’s concluding essay, “Liberty and Power in the Second American Revolution.” Here McPherson recapitulates themes from his earlier essays and confronts directly the position of many “postrevisionist” historians who maintain that the Civil War actually changed very little. What produces such views is simply a distortion of perspective. Of course, the Civil War did not bring instant freedom and equality for America’s most oppressed minority. In fact, no revolution has brought immediate and lasting justice for the oppressed. After the Civil War, however, the nation was committed to a course that would bear fruit a century later during the civil rights movement. It is also true that an industrial society would have replaced the agricultural society of the country’s first decades without the terrible bloodshed of war; however, the commitment to “positive government” required to win the war gave the nation a new perspective on the role of government in the lives of citizens. Again, the real impact of these changes would not become apparent until the twentieth century. If the term “revolution” is to mean anything, it must refer to events that alter significantly the course of a particular human society. Certainly, twentieth century America would have been a very different place without the country’s “Second Revolution” in the nineteenth century.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXIV, March 2, 1991, p. 244.

American Heritage. XLII, May, 1991, p. 12.

Booklist. LXXXVII, December 1, 1990, p. 715.

Chicago Tribune. February 3, 1991, XIV, p. 6.

Forbes. CXLVII, March 4, 1991, p. 24.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, November 1, 1990, p. 1516.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 3, 1991, p. 6.

New York Times Book Review. XCVI, January 20, 1991, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, January 18, 1991, p. 40.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, February 3, 1991, p. 6.

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