Review of Mcpherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln, and the Second American Revolution

In the book, James McPherson presents seven essays in which he expands on his argument that Abraham Lincoln led the second revolution in America, as he calls the Civil War. This event was revolutionary as it transformed the states’ weak union into an entirely new nation based on democratic capitalism and free labor. He argues that the results of Lincoln’s actions during the War “left a legacy of black educational and social institutions, a tradition of civil-rights activism, and constitutional amendments that provide the legal framework for the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s. ” (McPherson 29). In such a way, revolution can be defined as a drastic transformation of social structures and institutions within a country, which alters its further development. The Civil War and the overthrow of slavery was a capitalist revolution.

The Civil War altered the relation between liberty and property because the concept of freedom is here inextricably linked to economic capitalist development. If the people receive land as property to which they can apply their labor, then they will not only feed themselves, but they will have surplus agricultural products. The money earned for them will allow them to purchase more goods and cars. Industrial production will expand, and tax receipts to the treasury will increase. Slaves, in this sense, represented human capital, and Emancipation transferred the ownership of this capital to themselves by the slaves. Freedom meant the rapid development of the country. Thus, racial equality constituted a shift from a negative to a positive concept of freedom.

Lincoln is seen as an effective war president, especially since he found his “national” and “military” strategy intrinsically linked. In the United States, during the Civil War, a massive regular army of the modern type was created for the first time in American history. The experience and military traditions acquired in 1861-865 were used during the American army’s formation half a century later, during the First World War. The Emancipation Proclamation helped Lincoln secure African American support: more than 180,000 African American soldiers joined the Union, proving that this was instrumental in the Union’s victory. The document itself was the key to ending both the civil war and slavery in the United States. For the same reason, Lincoln moved from a conservative to a radical position during the war.

Having formed a confederation, eleven southern states announced their withdrawal from the Union for three reasons: first, because of the federal government’s failure or refusal to enforce the fugitive slave law; secondly, because of the federal ban on the spread of slavery to new (western) territories; and, finally, because of the federal government’s disrespect for state rights. In fact, the American South was irritated and frightened by the North’s rapid industrial development, a development that threatened the social institutions of the slave South. The North, whose capitalist development required not a narrowing of markets, but their constant growth, could not allow the southern states to leave the country or expand slavery to the west. Under these conditions, an armed battle between the North and South became inevitable.

McPherson regards the 14th and 15th amendments as a constitutional revolution because they ended the era, which Marx called the “slave oligarchy” (McPherson 15). The Supreme Court decisions in the 1870s (the New Orleans butchers, the Colfax Massacre indictments) were counterrevolutionary for the reason they “overthrew the fledgling experiment in racial equality” (McPherson 29). They restored white violence in the South and allowed the influence and power of Democrats in the North to increase. However, such minor steps back can be found after every major revolution, including French and English ones. These actions did not restore slavery, neither they brought back the old order.


McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln, and the second American revolution. Oxford University Press, 1992.

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