Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution" by James McPherson

There has traditionally been a significant amount of interest in Abraham Lincoln's life and presidency, for the simple fact that his presence as president coincided with some fairly dramatic events in United States history. Many of these events and Lincoln's influence on them are discussed in James McPherson's non-fictional narrative, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. The author makes some fairly sweeping and far ranging contentions in this manuscript, ascribing a degree of importance to the confluence of Lincoln's life and the country that related both to its past and its future. Whether or not one chooses to agree with McPherson's conclusion and premises, it cannot be denied that Lincoln certainly partook in some of the more memorable moments in U.S. history, particularly those related to the Union and notions of slavery

McPherson's book is comprised of seven individual essays, some of which were published and delivered in lectures in the years prior to the book's publication in 1991. The central theme that unites them is the contention that the Civil War served as a second Revolutionary War, and that Lincoln was the central catalyst to induce a new conception of freedom that effectively surmounted that propagated by the American Revolution. As such, the author believes that freed slaves benefitted from this new form of freedom, which was integral to the preservation of the Union. McPherson posits the view that this transformation in the nature of freedom and Lincoln's role in it was unequivocally positive, and that Americans in general, not just freed slaves, benefitted from the changes that were wrought by the president's role in this armed conflict. He also demonstrates a number of facets of Lincoln's presidency, upbringing and character traits that he believes contributed to his success in this endeavor.

In attempting to determine whether or not McPherson achieved his purpose, which is proving whether or not the Civil War actually did function as a second Revolutionary War and that it induced a new, somehow better conception of liberty, it is important to ascertain some of the key reasons for the waging of the Civil War to truly measure its effects. Although there is a fair amount of rhetoric both in McPherson's manuscript and within popular culture that the war itself was fought for lofty ideals regarding the freedom of slavery, the initial point of contestation between the northern and southern states was economic. To McPherson's credit, he alludes to this aspect of the war, although he certainly propagates a number of the idealist views of Lincoln as a visionary seeking an egalitarian society as well.

It is common knowledge that the economy of the northern states was principally based upon industry, while that of the southern states was primarily based upon agriculture. Slavers were merely the cheapest, most reliable form of labor to bolster that economic system. It can be argued that the northern abolitionist movement was based on these economic reasons as much as it was based on any sort of benign or humane treatment of slaves -- as Reconstruction and the lethal period (for freed slaves) after Reconstruction widely attests to. However, the partisanship tendencies of the north and the south (that were largely based on economics) were reflected within the political situation of the day, with the south supported by Democrats and the north supported by Republicans.

As McPherson explains, these parties did as much as they could to maintain the economic systems of their supporters from a federal perspective. When Lincoln was elected during his first term, he enacted a series of legislation that helped to further the economic prospects of northern-based industry and reduce the need for southern agricultural way of life in the form of increased tariffs and acts that advocated national banking, collegiate education, land grant subsidies and others. The impact on the economy was formidable, as the following quotation from McPherson indicates. "This astonishing blitz of laws, most of them passed within the span of less than a one year, did more to reshape the relation of the government to the economy than any comparable effort except perhaps the first hundred days of the New Deal." The fact that the Civil War began during the same period in which most of these laws were passed denotes the importance of economics to this martial encounter.
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Moreover, another principle point that McPherson emphasizes regarding Lincoln's influence on the Civil War and the tactics that he employed as the strategist behind the Union victory was that the emancipation of slaves was simply a maneuver to assist in achieving that victory. This fact is immensely important when examined in light of the author's overall premise, that the Civil War helped to bring about a new regard for liberty that was distinct from that desired and achieved during the Colonial War. In fact, this particular fact helps to contradicts some of these later notions advanced by the author, that Lincoln was a great humanitarian who, due to the Emancipation Proclamation, could now free himself from "the agonizing contradiction between his 'oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free' and his oath of office as president of a slaveholding republic." This freedom that Lincoln granted to slaves, which was extremely circumscribed due to the widespread efforts of the south to circumvent the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, often yielding lethal effects to these newly found freedmen in the process, was merely a way to win the war. Ending slavery was a means of upsetting the principle backbone of the South's economy, creating chaos within its borders and creating potential allies for Union soldiers.

Another premise of the author that runs concurrent through the bulk of the essays compiled in this manuscript is that the reasons for the Civil War changed the longer it waged on. McPherson explains that initially the war was fought to save the Union. Yet as it proved more difficult than originally anticipated, especially in light of some of the early Northern blunders on the battlefield, the goal of the war changed as well. McPherson posits the notion that Lincoln played a large impact in that changing of goals, which shifted from preserving the union to eradicating the way of life for the South. This shift resulted from the stubbornness that both sides exhibited on the battlefield; it became evident that the South would have to be beaten into submission. To his credit, McPherson presents compelling evidence for this claim, such as the total war tactics that the North utilized near the conclusion enacted by generals such as William Sherman. However, the severity of these tactics and the fact that the war now represented the effort to completely eradicate the southern way of life meant not only bringing its cities, towns, fields, and sources of agriculture, but also destroying its conventional method of agriculture -- salve labor. Having explained this facet of Lincoln's logic in devising strategy to win the war, it seems silly for the author to later on claim that he liberated slaves for any other reason than purely political (and economic ones).

McPherson's major point, however, is that the triumph of the Civil War enabled a new type of freedom, one decidedly at variance with that achieved through the Revolutionary War. To this end, the author presents fairly compelling evidence that such a liberty was achieved. However, the positive light in which he views this shift, and the adulation he extols upon Lincoln because of this shift, appears undeserved or denotes a conservative, right-wing view point at most. McPherson is correct when he explains that the type of freedom afforded via the American Revolution was what he terms a negative freedom -- a freedom from something. That something was freedom from the tyranny of the British government. The ideology that this revolution was founded upon was based on the notion that government is repressive, and that the best forms of it are dictated by the people themselves. Therefore, the structure of the U.S. government, with its varying branches and checks and balances, was created to limit the authority of a central government and present rights to the individual states

This conception of liberty was at the heart of the succession of the South. McPherson contends that the significance of Lincoln's triumph in the Civil War is that it dashed this original idea of liberty and created a new one in which the government itself endowed and supported a "freedom to" -- this freedom being that which was in accordance to the universal rights of man and which the author believes actually was closer to the original values of the founding fathers. Government was no longer the enemy and something that people needed to get away from, but was now hailed as the savior and provider of liberty which millions of newly freed slaves could now attest to.

What is interesting about this viewpoint of the author's is that he readily concedes how…

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