The Civil War as Revolution – Part IV

[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 V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

George ClemenceauContinuing with the topic of the Civil War as the second American Revolution, the impact of what McPherson termed internal revolution was even more dramatic than external revolution. At its heart was the change in status of the nation’s four million slaves, their emancipation, “…elevation to civil and political equality with whites, and the destruction of the old ruling class in the South – all within the space of a half-dozen years.”[i] George Clemenceau called it “one of the most radical revolutions known to history.”[ii] A slave freed in the 1860’s exclaimed that “the bottom rail’s on top.”[iii] A South Carolinian called post war Reconstruction – without slavery – “the maddest, most infamous revolution in history.”[iv]

But both McPherson and Ransom present the cases of historical revisionists who, in the 1960s and 1970s contested the notion “that the American Civil War accomplished any sort of genuine revolution….Some even denied that it produced much significant change in the social and economic structure of the South or in the status of black people.”[v] One thrust of their argument was that much of the momentum surrounding the industrial revolution was gained in the decades before the Civil War. This challenge to Beard’s thesis of the war as an economic revolution, suggests that advancements such as “the railroad, the corporation, the factory system, the techniques of mass production of interchangeable parts, the mechanization of agriculture, and many other aspects of a modernizing industrial economy – began a generation or more before the Civil War, and that while the war may have confirmed and accelerated some of these,” it really didn’t cause a major shift in direction.[vi] While McPherson concedes that these changes were well underway, he finds in them support of Beard and Moore theses rather than detraction. The reason is that modernization was occurring in the North, not the South.

The South remained a labor-intensive, labor-repressive undiversified agricultural economy. The contrasting economic systems of the antebellum North and South helped to generate the conflicting proslavery and antislavery ideologies that eventually led to war. Northern victory in the war was therefore a triumph for the northern economic system and the social values it generated. The war discredited the economic ideology and destroyed the national political power of the planter class.[vii]

More challenges to the war as revolution in Part V.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

[i] James McPherson,Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 10., [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., 11., [iv] Ibid., 13., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid.

The Civil War as Revolution – Part II

[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 V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]


Charles Beard

Mary Beard

The idea that the American Civil War was a second American revolution originated with Charles and Mary Beard in the late 1920’s.[i] It began a debate which has taken pendulum-like swings through the years as history’s revisionists and counter-revisionists have tangled with the questions of cause and effect of the war. Beard considered the war a “class conflict between a Yankee capitalist bourgeoisie and a southern planter aristocracy.”[ii] It was thus a struggle between the “contending economic interests of plantation agriculture and industrializing capitalism.”[iii] He downplayed sectional struggles as a cause of the war and even slavery, considering both consequential and peripheral. Beard’s case for the war as transforming on a revolutionary scale was that “the triumph of the North under the leadership of a Republican party, which represented the interests of northern capitalism, brought about ‘the unquestioned establishment of a new power in the government, making vast changes in the arrangement of classes, in the distribution of wealth, [and] in the course of industrial development.”[iv]

Photo of Unfinished portrait miniature of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper Public Domain [Wikipedia]
Oliver Cromwell
He likened it to the overthrow of the king and the aristocracy by the middle classes of England in the 1640s that was the Puritan Revolution and also to the French Revolution in which the middle classes and peasants of France overthrew their king, nobility, and clergy. Beard considered that “‘the social cataclysm in which the capitalists, laborers and farmers of the North and West drove from power in the national government the planting aristocracy of the South,’ was the ‘Second American Revolution, and in a strict sense the First’ – the first because the Revolution of 1776 had produced no such changes in the distribution of wealth and power among classes.”[v]

Wikipedia Commons]
Declaration of Human Rights

Roger L. Ransom, in his article “Fact and Counterfact: The ‘Second American Revolution’ Revisited,” presents two additional “cases” for associating the Civil War with revolution. First, he considers “the elimination of slavery and destruction of the slave regime in the South as the revolutionary outcome of the war.”[vi] Both caused post war upheavals in the South.[vii] Secondly, he recognized that the people who lived through the war “saw revolutionary aspects in their struggle. Southerners regarded their ‘rebellion’ as a revolution against tyranny– in this case Northern Republicans–and looked for inspiration to the war in which their forefathers had rebelled against King George. Northerners, by contrast, saw the conflict as an effort to hold together the sacred union that was formed out of the rebellion against England. For both sides, the Civil War was a continuation of the struggle for freedom that began in 1776.”[viii]

King George III in Coronation Robes Public Domain [Wikipedia Commons]
King George
Perhaps the best case for the Civil War being America’s second revolution can be made by considering it in aggregate, the sum of parts. McPherson suggests that the arguments put forth by American political sociologist Barrington Moore, did just that. He “portrayed the Civil War as ‘the last Capitalist Revolution.’”[ix] Moore “sees the revolutionary dimension of the war not simply as a triumph of freedom over slavery, or industrialism over agriculture, or the bourgeoisie over the plantation gentry – but as a combination of all these things.” [x] More in the next post…

Note: For an excellent article by Professor Roger L. Ransom see The Economics of the Civil War.

This series on The Civil War as Revolution continues at the following links:  Part I, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and The Revolutionaries of the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary]

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

[i] Roger L. Ransom, 1999. “Fact and Counterfact: The ‘Second American Revolution’ Revisited.”Civil War History45, no. 1: 28. Database on-line. Available from Questia, Internet. Accessed 27 October 2007.
[ii] James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 8., [iii] Ibid., 6-7, [iv] Ibid., 7, [v] Ibid., 8.
[vi] Ransom, “Fact and Counterfact: The ‘Second American Revolution’ Revisited,” Civil War History, 4, [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid.
[ix] McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, 9., [x] Ibid.