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.

The Civil War as Revolution – Part I

[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.]


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, 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.