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The Civil War as Revolution – Part V

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

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Ruins seen from the capitol, Columbia, S.C., 1865. Photographed by George N. Barnard. 165-SC-53. In the last post, I discussed challenges to the revolutionary nature of the American Civil War by historical revisionists. A second challenge was made by historical economists who contended that the Civil War caused an economic slowdown, not acceleration. Historian James McPherson counters that it is inappropriate to examine the economics of the country as a whole during the war because it so utterly devastated the economic resources of the south. He posits that the North saw economic growth during the war and that “after the war the national economy grew at the fastest rate of the century for a couple of decades, a growth that represented a catching-up process from the lag of the 1860s caused by the war’s impact on the South.”[i]

The third challenge to the Civil War as revolution addressed the plight of Southern blacks and contested that they saw little or no change in their circumstances after both emancipation and the Southern surrender.

Some argued that the Republican Party’s commitment to equal rights for freed slaves was superficial, flawed by racism, only partly implemented, and quickly abandoned. Other Several generations of a family are pictured on Smith’s Plantation, South Carolina, ca. 1862. (Library of Congress)historians maintained that the policies of the Union occupation army, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the national government operated in the interests of the white landowners rather than the black freedmen, and that they were designed to preserve a docile, dependent, cheap labor force in the South rather than to encourage a revolutionary transformation of land tenure and economic status. And finally another group of scholars asserted that the domination of the southern economy by the old planter class continued unbroken after the Civil War.[ii]

But McPherson considers these arguments flawed suggesting that they reflect “presentism,” “…a tendency to read history backwards, measuring change over time from the point of arrival rather than the point of departure.”[iii] He points out that dramatic change did occur and the statistics prove it out. “When slavery was abolished, about 90 percent of the black population was illiterate. By 1880 the rate of black illiteracy had been reduced to 70 percent, and by 1900 to less than 50 percent. Viewed from the standpoint of 1865 the rate of literacy for blacks increased by 200 percent in fifteen years and by 400 percent in thirty-five years.”[iv]

Emancipation had equally dramatic economic impacts. It amounted to nothing less that the “confiscation of about three billion dollars of property – the equivalent as a proportion of the national wealth to at least three trillion dollars in 1990.”[v]

In effect, the government in 1865 confiscated the principal form of property in one-third of the country, without compensation. That was without parallel in American history – it dwarfed the confiscation of Tory property in the American Revolution. When such a massive confiscation of property takes place as a consequence of violent internal upheaval on the scale of the American Civil War, it is quite properly called revolutionary.[vi]

McPherson sites other economic impacts of emancipation including the redistribution of income in the South post war which “was by far the greatest in American history.”[vii] Equally dramatic was the change in political power in the post war South that resulted from the freeing of the slaves. Blacks achieved the vote in 1868 and within a year represented the majority of registered voters. In four years, 15 percent of the officeholders in the South were black. [viii] “In 1870, blacks provided three-fourths of the votes in the South for the Republican party, which controlled the governments of a dozen states in which five years earlier most of these black voters had been slaves. It was this phenomenon, more than anything else, that caused contemporaries to describe the events of those years as a revolution[ix] This fact caused the pendulum of thought to swing back in the 1980s to support of the Civil War and Reconstruction experiences as revolutionary.

Historian Eric Foner calls the post war period in history “Radical Reconstruction” and found it unequaled in history in its support of the black laborer and thEric Fonereir political rights. Regrettably, some of the gains made were reversed by the counterrevolution that followed when the Democratic Party was revived in the north and the indifference of the Republicans of the north toward blacks in the south increased. But, as McPherson points out, “the counterrevolution was not as successful as the revolution had been.” Blacks in the south remained free, continued to have the vote, could still own land, and could still go to school.[x]
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Note: I highly recommend historian Eric Foner’s website for access to a number of his articles and to his lectures on the Columbia American History Online (CAHO) site. You can register for a free trial subscription to CAHO.

Photos: First: Ruins seen from the capitol, Columbia, S.C., 1865. Photographed by George N. Barnard. National Archives Ref. # 165-SC-53.  Second: Several generations of a family are pictured on Smith’s Plantation, South Carolina, ca. 1862. (Library of Congress)abraham-lincoln-revolutionary.jpg

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

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[i] James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press), 11., [ii] Ibid., 14., [iii] Ibid., 16., [iv] Ibid. [v] Ibid., 17. McPherson sites studies by Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch., [vi] Ibid., 17-18., [vii] Ibid., 18., [viii] Ibid., 19., [ix] Ibid., [x] Ibid., 23.

The Civil War as Revolution – Part IV

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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 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 III

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[Note: This post is part of 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.]

Gettysburg, Pa. Dead Confederate soldiers in "the devil's den." LOC Digital Ref#: (LC-B811-0277A) Gardner, Alexander, 1821-1882, photographer.

Barrington Moore “sees the revolutionary dimension of the American Civil 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.” He saw it as“a violent breakthrough against an older social structure.”[i] In this Moore is in agreement with James McPherson that the American Civil War qualifies as an upheaval of the period’s status quo by intense domestic violence. As historians have pointed out on numerous occasions, the Civil War is unsurpassed in its degree of violence in the American experience. As to the overthrow of the “existing social and political order,” a survey of the changes driven by the war makes the point for the Civil War as revolutionary. External Changes Driven by the Civil War McPherson categorizes the transformations resulting from the Civil War as revolution in an external and internal sense.[ii] He considers external revolution to be “the sweeping transformation in the balance of economic and political power between North and South.”[iii] Sweeping political change occurred at the point of “withdrawal of southern representatives and senators from Congress when their states seceded.”[iv] It made possible the passage of Republican-sponsored legislation that promoted economic development in line with the Republican agenda, legislation that had been continually blocked by the southern-dominated Democratic Party. During the war, Congress “enacted:

  • land grants and government loans to build the first transcontinental railroad
  • higher tariffs to foster industrial development
  • national banking acts to restore part of the centralized banking system destroyed in the 1830s by Jacksonian Democrats
  • a homestead act to grant 160 acres of government land to settlers, and
  • the land-grant college act of 1862, which turned over federal land to the states to provide income for the establishment of state agricultural and vocational colleges, which became the basis of the modern land-grant universities.”[v]

East and West Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail. Source: Public Domain: Wikipedia Commons

These changes were made possible because the war had changed the long-term sectional balance of power.[vi] It broke the domination of the country’s leadership by members of the slave-holding elite of the South.

In 1861 the United States had lived under the Constitution for seventy-two years. During forty-nine of those years the president had been a southerner-and a slave-holder. After the Civil War a century passed before another resident of the South was elected president. In congress, twenty-three of the thirty-six speakers of the House down to 1861, and twenty-four of the thirty-six presidents pro tem of the Senate, were from the South. For half a century after the war, none of the speakers or presidents pro tem was from the South. From 1789 to 1861, twenty of the thirty-five Supreme Court justices had been southerners. At all times during those years the South had a majority on the Court. But only five of the twenty-six justices appointed during the next half-century were southerners.[vii]

In the next post, I’ll take a look at internal changes driven by the American Civil War.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

[i] James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 9

[ii] Ibid., 13, [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., 12., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., [vii] Ibid., 12-13.

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The Civil War as Revolution – Part I

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[Note: This post is part of 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.]

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Earlier this month, I posted some thoughts on Abraham Lincoln as revolutionary. It ties to one of the topics we were asked to consider this term, whether the Civil War should be considered the second American revolution. I suspect it is an essay question in many American history programs dealing with the Civil War. I’d like to explore this over the next several posts. A proper place to start is with the question, what is revolution?

Fist [Source Wikopedia Commons]According to William A. Pelz in his study on the history of German social democracy, “revolution” comes from the German word “Ugmwälzung” which means “rotation,” as in the turning of an axle. He posits that “in the socio-political realm, revolution means the displacement of a state, governmental, social and economic system by another, higher, more developed state, governmental, social and economic system… Two things are essential to the concept of revolution: that the rotation (Ugmwälzung) be comprehensive and fundamental–that everything old and antiquated be thrown out, weeds torn out by their roots; that a higher and better state replace that which has been done away with. Both conditions must be maintained.”[i] Thus social revolution results in nothing less than transformation.

Painting by Eugene De la Croix (Charenton-Saint-Maurice, 1798 – Paris, 1863) July 29, Liberty guiding the people. Musée du Louvre. Public Domain

Pelz offers two examples of undisputable social revolution. The first, not surprisingly, is the French Revolution, “…the revolution par excellence…that swept away the last remains of medieval feudalism and created the foundation of modern bourgeois society.”[ii] The second example – though hardly resembling the first – was none the less more profound. It was triggered by “the introduction of machine work, which fundamentally altered the nature of work and thereby the basis of state and social life. Every sphere of human existence was penetrated by this revolution (Umwälzung). These two organically related revolutions (Umwälzungen) born of the same impetus, only manifesting themselves differently, are probably the most important revolutions known to history. They toppled and purged from top to bottom and brought humanity forward with a violent jolt.”[iii]

Revolution in politics has been described as “fundamental, rapid, and often irreversible change in the established order.”[iv]

Wikipedia Commons_Photo by Luc Viatour
Da Vinci

Revolution involves a radical change in government, usually accomplished through violence[,] that may also result in changes to the economic system, social structure, and cultural values. The ancient Greeks viewed revolution as the undesirable result of societal breakdown; a strong value system, firmly adhered to, was thought to protect against it. During the Middle Ages, much attention was given to finding means of combating revolution and stifling societal change. With the advent of Renaissance humanism, there arose the belief that radical changes of government are sometimes necessary and good, and the idea of revolution took on more positive connotations. John Milton regarded it as a means of achieving freedom, Immanuel Kant believed it was a force for the advancement of mankind, and G.W.F. Hegel held it to be the fulfillment of human destiny. Hegel’s philosophy in turn influenced Karl Marx.[v]

Historian James McPherson offers the following as a “common sense” definition for revolution: “an overthrow of the existing social and political order by internal violence.”[vi] With this as background the question becomes, does the American Civil War qualify for revolution status? Was it sufficiently transforming?

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

More in tomorrow’s post but let me leave you with this quote from Mark Twain.
No people in the world ever did achieve their freedom by goody-goody talk and moral suasion: it being immutable law that all revolutions that will succeed must begin in blood, whatever may answer afterward.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

[Addendum: This series on The Civil War as Revolution continues at the following links:  , Part II, , Part III,, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]

[i] Pelz, William A. and William A. Pelz, eds. Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy: A Documentary History. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 264-265, Book on-line. Available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=15096547. Internet. Accessed 13.October 2007.

[ii] Ibid., 265.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007

[v] Ibid.

[vi] James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16.