ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE SECOND AMERICAN REVOLUTION
By James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press. 173 pp. $17.95
POPULAR INTEREST in the Civil War centers on the military aspects of the conflict. But as James M. McPherson correctly emphasizes in Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, the significance of the struggle between the Union and the Confederacy extends far beyond soldiers and battles. Unlike his Battle Cry of Freedom, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, this volume devotes little attention to the fighting. Instead, McPherson concentrates on the political, social and economic changes wrought by the war and on Abraham Lincoln's leadership during this crisis. Of the book's seven essays, the first and last deal with the revolutionary consequences of the Civil War; the remaining five focus on Lincoln's role in that revolution.
Inevitably in such a work, there is a certain amount of overlap in themes, interpretations and evidence, but together these essays offer a convincing rebuttal to the view that in the long run the Civil War had only a limited impact on the nation. Drawing on the work of a number of scholars, McPherson contends that the Civil War produced such profound changes in the existing political and social order that it was nothing less than a Second American Revolution, from which restoration of the ancien regime was impossible.
In tracing the dimensions of this revolution, McPherson discusses how the war ended the South's national political dominance and altered permanently the relations between the two sections; how it destroyed southern wealth, stimulated northern industrialization, consolidated the power of industrial capitalists and furthered the process of modernization; and how it created a more expanded and open-ended concept of liberty that depended on the extensive use of government power.
The most obvious change produced by the war, of course, was the abolition of slavery, and McPherson analyzes the reasons Lincoln finally decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which he deems a substantive and not merely symbolic act. McPherson takes up the challenge of skeptics who deny that emancipation produced a significant alteration of labor relations in the South or a decisive improvement in the lives of African-Americans. Siding with those who see fundamental change, he notes that after the war black income increased 46 percent, black literacy went up 400 percent, and by 1910, 25 percent of black farmers owned land. If blacks' political power declined after Reconstruction, they still continued to vote and hold office in the South throughout the remainder of the century. While the overthrow of Reconstruction constituted a counterrevolution, it failed to restore the old order in the South. MCPHERSON makes a compelling case for the revolutionary nature of the war, but what was the role of Abraham Lincoln in all this? McPherson implicitly addresses this question throughout the book, but he confronts it directly in two of the most interesting essays, "Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution" and "Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender." McPherson rejects the notion that Lincoln was a conservative and instead labels him (somewhat paradoxically) a "pragmatic radical." Lacking a blueprint for a new social order, the 16th president refused to cling to outmoded ideas and repeatedly adapted nontraditional means to the overarching end of saving the Union. In the process, liberty and Union fused together in Lincoln's thought.
Running through these essays is the theme that the Civil War was a total war. As commander-in-chief, Lincoln devised a coherent national strategy that united political war aims with military strategy. What began as essentially a limited war to put down an insurrection in the South became, by 1862, a total war that mobilized the resources of the Union on an unprecedented scale, attacked civilians and destroyed private property in the Confederacy, and sought the complete overthrow of the enemy's political system (although McPherson exaggerates the degree to which this last point was the Union's policy). It was the war itself, as McPherson concedes, that produced this transformation, but as the leader of the Union's cause, Lincoln "determined the pace of the revolution and ensured its success."
McPherson is unabashed in his admiration of Lincoln. He considers Lincoln a masterful war leader who was vital to the Union's victory. As president, Lincoln evidenced a sure sense of timing, an extraordinary facility for communicating with common people and a crucial flexibility in adapting to events. This book provides a succinct statement of both the importance of the Civil War in American history and Lincoln's central role in shaping that legacy.
William E. Gienapp, a professor of history at Harvard, is the author of "The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856." He is at work on a biography of Abraham Lincoln.