Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution

by James M. McPherson
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Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

James McPherson's principal themes are stated and implied in the title of the book: that the US Civil War was, in fact, a revolution, and that Lincoln was the main driving force behind that revolution and its accomplishment.

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McPherson elaborates on these themes by detailing the features of the war that made it revolutionary, and by stating why it was a furtherance, or at least a partial fulfillment, of the principles of our first revolution, the War of Independence. A revolution is an event that changes or overturns an existing political or social order. The Civil War did this in destroying the slaveholding oligarchy of the southern states. Contrary to what some historians have asserted, the elimination of slavery was not an accident but was the direct result of the issues that triggered the war in the first place. A key point made by McPherson is that after the war, the establishment of Jim Crow laws in the South was a counter-revolution. Yet both the English Civil War of the 1640s and the French Revolution were followed by counter-revolutions as well that partially restored the old order. In the US, the continued oppression of African Americans after Reconstruction, tragic and unfair as it was, did not result in the actual restoration of slavery. The Constitutional amendments of 1865 abolishing slavery and recognizing all Americans as citizens of the US regardless of color were permanent, and made possible what McPherson calls the Second Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's.

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Latest answer posted May 7, 2020, 2:51 am (UTC)

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A corollary of McPherson's central theme about Lincoln being the driving force behind these changes is the view that Lincoln's position, contrary to ideas in some historiography and even in the popular consciousness, was from the start an anti-slavery one. He stated unequivocally both before and after his election that slavery would never be extended to the territories of the US. The Southern leadership knew that if this principle of non-extension were allowed to stand, the slaveholding states would become a minority in the Union, and the institution eventually would not be able to be sustained even in those states where it was already long established. This was what provoked the secession, which Lincoln correctly saw as an unlawful effort to break up the Union and destroy the promise of freedom the US had represented since 1776 though had not fulfilled. The Second American Revolution was one further step, and a huge one, in the eventual fulfillment of that promise.

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