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The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War

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[Note:  This post continues a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links:  Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part VThe Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

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All revolutions require revolutionaries. If the American Civil War was, in fact, a second American Revolution, who were its revolutionaries?

william-lowndes-yancey

William L. Yancey

The Confederacy as a Revolutionary ExperienceEmory Thomas in his work The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience suggests that Southern “fire-eaters” should be included on the roll call of revolutionaries because they “used radical means to achieve conservative ends and therefore began [my emphasis] the Confederate revolutionary experience. Their role was reactionary – to preserve the Southern way of life. Yet in pursuit of this goal, the fire-eaters acted in ways commonly associated with revolutionaries.” [i] First on the list would be the triumvirate whose voices for southern unity, independence, and succession were the loudest and of longest duration: Robert Barnwell Rhett (dubbed the father of succession), William Lowndes Yancey (secession’s orator), and Edmund Ruffin. All had connections to South Carolina which proved the hottest bed of Southern revolutionary thought. But, points out Thomas, “fire-eaters cut a broad swatch across many professions and every state in the antebellum South.” [ii] Influential clergymen like James H. Thornwell and Benjamin M. Palmer used their pulpits and pamphlets to “deepen the sentiment of resistance in the Southern mind.”[iii] Men with control of the editorial content of widely read publications added their voices including: James D. B. DeBow (DeBow’s Review), Roger A. Pryor, editor of the Richmond Enquirer newspaper, William Gilmore Simms (editor of the Southern Quarterly Review), and various editors of the Southern Literary Messenger. <[iv] Teachers in the classroomsJames DeBow of schools and colleges taught “Southern Nationalism” and impressed on the minds of students the “standard ‘line’ on the issues of slavery, politics, and economics.”[v] The system also expunged itself of faculty members who dissented. Taken in the aggregated, these activities resulted in what Thomas rightly labels an “intellectual blockade” as the Southern rights mantra came to dominate press, pulpit, and classroom.”[vi] Was this revolution or defending Southern institutions? The line between the two is admittedly a fine one. [vii]

It can also be argued that some from the Southern political elite, while advocates for Southern rights, did their advocating within the Union and so are not so easily labeled revolutionaries. Jefferson Davis falls into this camp as does Calhoun, Alexander H. Stephens and R. M. T Hunter. [viii] These men moved into the secessionist camp once it was a “fait accompli.” Were they, along with many of those who would take up arms on behalf of the South, thus revolutionaries or were they simply caught up in the fray? Jefferson Davis considered the use of the label revolution “an abuse of language.”[ix] “‘Ours is not a revolution.’ We left the Union ‘to save ourselves from a revolution’ that threatened to make ‘property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless…Our struggle is for inherited rights.’”[x]

The Black Republicans were the real revolutionaries, southerners insisted, “a motley throng of Sans culottes…Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and amalgamationists…active and bristling with terrible designs and as ready for bloody and forcible realities as ever characterized the ideas of the French Revolution.” Secession was therefore a “political revolution,: explained a Georgian in 1860, to forestall the “social revolution” sure to come if the South remained in the Union.[xi]

Can Northerners be assigned the label of revolutionist? Certainly extremists like James Brown [photo to right], Abolitionist James Brownwho resorted to violent acts to try to force social change, qualify as radicals. Harriet Beecher Stowe influenced social change by reaching hundreds of thousands with abolitionist sentiments through the power of popular literature. See an excellent summary of her writings here.

Representative James A. Garfield and contemporary William H. Seward considered the rise of the Republican Party to be a “revolution.”[xii] Garfield studied the French Revolution and found striking parallels with mid-19th century America. He became an ardent voice of revolution and “one of the most radical of the radical Republicans.”[xiii]

Abolitionist Wendell Phillips was considered by historian James McPherson to be “the most articulate spokesman for a revolutionary policy,” pegging Civil War as social revolution and calling for the “taking to pieces” of the whole social system of the Gulf States.[xiv] Similarly, Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of radical Republicans in the House, asserted that “‘we must treat this [war] as a radical revolution…and free every slave–slay every traitor–burn every rebel mansion, if these things be necessary to preserve’ the nation.”[xv]

Activists from both the South and the North could agree that secession was a counterrevolution to the revolution of 1776. But their frames of referenced were completely opposite. Secessionists saw it as a counterrevolution against the anticipated revolutionary threat of slavery.[xvi] Northerners saw secession as “not a just revolution, but an unjust counterrevolution.”[xvii]

For consideration of Abraham Lincoln as “revolutionary,” please see my previous post “Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln on Revolutionary.”

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree
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[i] Emory M. Thomas, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1971), 24., [ii] Ibid., 30., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., 35., [v] Ibid., 34., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid., 32.,
[ix] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press), 26. [x] Ibid., 26., [xi] 3., [xiii] Ibid., 4., [xiv] Ibid., 5-6., [xv] Ibid., 30., [xvi] Ibid., 27., [xvii] Ibid., 28.