"Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution"

James McPherson

From Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1991), Chapter 1.  
This reproduction is for academic purposes only.

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        The foremost Lincoln scholar of a generation ago, James G. Randall, considered the sixteenth president to be a conservative on the great issues facing the country, Union and slavery.  If conservatism, wrote Randall, meant "caution, prudent adherence to tested values, avoidance of rashness and reliance upon unhurried, peaceable evolution, [then] Lincoln was a conservative."  His preferred solution of the slavery problem, Randall pointed out, was a program of gradual, compensated emancipation with the consent of the owners, stretching over a generation or more, with provision for the colonization abroad of emancipated slaves to minimize the potential for racial conflict and social disorder.  In his own words, Lincoln said that he wanted to "stand on middle ground," avoid "dangerous extremes," and achieve his goals through "the spirit of compromise...and of mutual concession."  In essence, concluded Randall, Lincoln believed in evolution rather than revolution, in "planting, cultivating, and harvesting, not in uprooting and destroying."  Many historians have agreed with this interpretation.  To cite just two of them:  T. Harry Williams maintained that "Lincoln was on the slavery question, as he was on most matters, a conservative"; and Norman Graebner wrote an essay entitled "Abraham Lincoln:  Conservative

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 Statesman," based on the premise that Lincoln was a conservative because "he accepted the need of dealing with things as they were, not as he would have wished them to be."

        Yet as president of the United States, Lincoln presided over a profound, wrenching experience which, in Mark twain's words, "uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations."  Benjamin Disraeli, viewing this experience from across the Atlantic in 1863, characterized "the struggle in America" as "a great revolution....{We} will see, when the waters have subsided, a different America."  The Springfield (Mass.) Republican, an influential wartime newspaper, predicted that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation would accomplish "the greatest social and political revolution of the age."  The historian Otto Olsen has labeled Lincoln a revolutionary because he led the nation in its achievement of this result. 

        As for Lincoln himself, he said repeatedly that the right of revolution, the "right of any people" to "throw off, to revolutionize, their existing form of government, and to establish such other in its stead as they may choose" was "a sacred right - a right, which we may hope and believe, is to liberate the world."  The Declaration of Independence, he insisted often, was the great "charter of freedom" and in the example of the American Revolution "the world has found...the germ...to grow and expand into the universal liberty of mankind."  Lincoln championed the leaders of the European revolutions of 1848; in turn, a man who knew something about those revolutions - Karl Marx - praised Lincoln in 1865 as "the single-minded son of the working class" who had led his "country through the matchless strug-

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gle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world."

        What are we to make of these contrasting portraits of Lincoln the conservative and Lincoln the revolutionary?  Are they just another example of how Lincoln's words can be manipulated to support any position, even diametrically opposed ones?  No.  It is a matter of interpretation and emphasis within the context of a fluid and rapidly changing crisis situation.  The Civil War started out as one kind of conflict and ended as something quite different.  These apparently contradictory positions about Lincoln the conservative versus Lincoln the revolutionary can be reconciled by focusing on this process.  The attempt to reconcile them can tell us a great deal about the nature of the American Civil War.

That war has been viewed as a revolution - as the second American Revolution - in three different senses.  Lincoln played a crucial role in defining the outcome of the revolution in each of three respects.

        The first way in which some contemporaries regarded the events of 1861 as a revolution was the frequent invocation of the right of revolution by southern leaders to justify their secession - their declaration of independence - from the United States.  The Mississippi convention that voted to secede in 1861 listed the state's grievances against the North, and proclaimed:  "For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England."  The governor of Tennessee agreed that unless the North made concessions to the South, "the only alternative left to us [will be] to follow the example of our fathers of 1776."  And an Alabama newspaper asked rhetorically:  Were not "the men of 1776, who withdrew their allegiance from George III and set up for themselves...Secessionists?"

        Southerners created the Confederacy to protect their

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"rights" against a perceived northern threat to those rights.  If we remain in the Union, said a Virginia slaveholder, "we will be deprived of that right for which our fathers fought in the battles of the revolution."  From "the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights...which our fathers bequeathed to us," declared Jefferson Davis, let us "renew such sacrifices as our fathers made to the holy cause of constitutional liberty."  In the middle of the war, a Confederate army officer declared that he had "never believed the Constitution recognized the right of secession.  I took up arms, sir, upon a broader ground - the right of revolution.  We were wronged.  Our properties and liberties were about to be taken from us.  It was a sacred duty to rebel."  A Confederate songster contained a stirring tune that linked the two revolutions, titled "Seventy-Six and Sixty-One."  Another song contained the following words:

Rebels before,
Our fathers of yore,
Rebel's the righteous name
Washington bore.
Why, then, be ours the same.

        Northerners were unimpressed by these claims of revolutionary legitimacy.  The principal right and liberty that southerners feared would be threatened if they remained in a Union governed by "Black Republicans" was their right to own slaves and their liberty to take them where they pleased in territories of the United States.  "Will you consent to be robbed of your property," secession leaders asked their fellow Mississippians, or will you "strike bravely for liberty, property, honor and life?"  A Georgia secessionist declared dramatically that if the South stayed in a Union "ruled by Lincoln and his crew...in TEN years or less our children will be the slaves of negroes.  For emancipation must follow

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and negro equality is the same result."  William Cullen Bryant, antislavery editor of the New York Evening Post, cited such statements to ridicule southern claims to be following in the footsteps of their revolutionary forebears.  That "is a libel upon the whole character and conduct of the men of '76," said Bryant.  The founders fought "to establish the rights of man...and principles of universal liberty."  The South was rebelling "not in the interest of general humanity, but of a domestic despotism....Their motto is not liberty, but slavery."  Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, added the New York Tribune, invoked "Natural Rights against Established Institutions," while "Mr. Jeff. Davis's caricature thereof is made in the interest of an unjust, outgrown, decaying Institution against the apprehended encroachments of Natural Human Rights."  It was, in short, not a revolution but rather a counterrevolution "reversing the wheels of progress...to hurl everything backward into deepest darkness...despotism and oppression."

        Many secessionists conceded that their movement was essentially a counterrevolution against the anticipated revolutionary threat to slavery.  Indeed, they proudly affirmed it.  "We are not revolutionists," insisted James B.D. DeBow, the South's leading journalist; "we are resisting revolution."  It was "an abuse of language" to call secession a revolution, said Jefferson Davis.  "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."  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 revo-

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lution."  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.  In 1861 the Confederate secretary of state advised foreign governments that southern states had formed a new nation "to preserve their old institutions" from "a revolution [that] threatened to destroy their social system."

        Northerners could scarcely have denied to the South the right of revolution for just cause, since Yankees were as much heirs of the legacy of 1776 as southerners were.  But that phrase, "for just cause," is crucial.  "It may seem strange," said Lincoln of Confederate leaders, "that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces."  Secession was not a just revolution, but an unjust counterrevolution.  As Lincoln phrased it in the summer of 1861, "the right of revolution, is never a legal right....At most, it is but a moral right, when exercised for a morally justifiable cause.  When exercised without such a cause revolution is no right, but simply a wicked exercise of physical power."

        In Lincoln's view, secession was just such a wicked exercise.  The event that precipitated it was his own election, which had been achieved by a constitutional majority according to constitutional procedures.  The Republicans had done nothing against the law, had violated nobody's constitutional rights.  Indeed, seven states had seceded and formed the Confederacy a month before Lincoln even took office.  As northerners saw it, the South, having controlled the national government for most of the previous two generations through its domination of the Democratic party, now decided to leave the Union just because it had lost an election.

        For Lincoln it was the Union, not the Confederacy, that was the true heir of the Revolution of 1776.  That revolution had established a republic, a democratic government of the 

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people by the people.  This republic was a fragile experiment in a world of kings, emperors, tyrants, and theories of aristocracy.  If secession were allowed to succeed, it would destroy that experiment.  It would set a fatal precedent by which the minority could secede whenever it did not like what the majority stood for, until the United States fragmented into a dozen pitiful, squabbling countries, the laughing stock of the world.  The successful establishment of a slaveholding Confederacy would also enshrine the idea of inequality, a contradiction of the ideal of equal natural rights on which the United States was founded.  "This issue embraces more than the fate of these United States," said Lincoln on another occasion.  "It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic or a democracy...can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity."  Nor is the struggle "altogether for today; it is for a vast future....On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men...to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life."

        To preserve the Union and maintain the republic:  these verbs denote a conservative purpose.  If the Confederacy's war of independence was indeed a revolution, Lincoln was most certainly a conservative.  But if secession was an act of counterrevolution to forestall a revolutionary threat to slavery posed by the government Lincoln headed, these verbs take on a different meaning and Lincoln's intent to conserve the Union becomes something other than conservatism.  But precisely what it would become was not yet clear in 1861.

The second respect in which the Civil War is viewed as a revolution was in its abolition of slavery.  This was indeed a revolutionary achievement - not only an expropriation of

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the principal form of property in half the country, but a destruction of the institution that was basic to the southern social order, the political structure, the culture, the way of life in this region.  but in 1861 this revolutionary achievement was not part of Lincoln's war aims.

        From the beginning of the war, though, abolitionists and some Republicans urged the Lincoln administration to turn the military conflict into a revolutionary crusade to abolish slavery and create a new order in the South.  As one abolitionist put it in 1861, although the Confederates "justify themselves under the right of revolution," their cause "is not a revolution but a rebellion against the noblest of revolutions."  The North must meet this southern counterrevolution by converting the war for the Union into a revolution for freedom.  "WE ARE THE REVOLUTIONISTS," he proclaimed.  The principal defect of the first American Revolution, in the eyes of abolitionists, had been that while it freed white Americans from British rule it failed to free black Americans from slavery.  Now was the time to remedy that defect by proclaiming emancipation and inviting the slaves "to share in the glorious second American Revolution."  and Thaddeus Stevens, the grim-visaged old gladiator who led the radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, pulled no punches in this regard.  "We must treat this [war] as a radical revolution," he declared, and "free every slave - slay every traitor - burn every rebel mansion, if these things be necessary to preserve" the nation.

        Such words grated harshly on Lincoln's ears during the first year of the war.  In his message to Congress in December 1861 the president deplored the possibility that the war might "degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle."  It was not that Lincoln wanted to preserve slavery.  On the contrary, he said many times:  I am naturally anti-slavery.  If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong."  But as president he could not act officially on his private "judg-

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ment [concerning] the moral question of slavery."  He was bound by the Constitution, which protected the institution of slavery in the states.  In the first year of the war the North fought to preserve this Constitution and restore the Union as it had existed before 1861.  Lincoln's theory of the war held that since secession was illegal, the Confederate states were still legally in the Union although temporarily under the control of insurrectionists.  The government's purpose was to suppress this insurrection and restore loyal Unionists to control of the southern states.  The conflict was therefore a limited war with the limited goal of restoring the status quo ante bellum, not an unlimited war to destroy an enemy nation and reshape its society.  And since, in theory, the southern states were still in the Union, they continued to enjoy all their constitutional rights, including slavery.

        There were also several political reasons for Lincoln to take this conservative position in 1861.  For one thing, the four border slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware had remained in the Union; Lincoln desperately wanted to keep them there.  He would like to have God on his side, Lincoln supposedly said, but he must have Kentucky.  In all of these four states except Delaware a strong pro-Confederate faction existed.  Any rash action by the northern government against slavery, therefore, might push three more states into the Confederacy.  Moreover, in the North itself nearly half of the voters were Democrats, who supported a war for the Union but might oppose a war against slavery.  For these reasons, Lincoln held at bay the Republicans and abolitionists who were calling for an anti-slavery war and revoked actions by two of his generals who had proclaimed emancipation by martial law in areas under their command.

        Antislavery Republicans challenged the theory underlying Lincoln's concept of a limited war.  They pointed out that

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by 1862 the conflict had become in theory as well as in fact a full-fledged war between nations, not just a police action to suppress an uprising.  By imposing a blockade on Confederate ports and treating captured Confederate soldiers as prisoners of war rather than as criminals or pirates, the Lincoln administration had in effect recognized that this was a war rather than a mere domestic insurrection.  Under international law, belligerent powers had the right to seize or destroy enemy resources used to wage war - munitions, ships, military equipment, even food for the armies and crops sold to obtain cash to buy armaments.  As the war escalated in scale and fury and as Union armies invaded the South in 1861, they did destroy or capture such resources.  Willy-nilly the war was becoming a remorseless revolutionary conflict, a total war rather than a limited one.

        A major Confederate resource for waging war was the slave population, which constituted a majority of the southern labor force.  Slaves raised food for the army, worked in war industries, built fortifications, dug trenches, drove army supply wagons, and so on.  As enemy property, these slaves were subject to confiscation under the laws of war.  The Union Congress passed limited confiscation laws in August 1861 and July 1862 that authorized the seizure of this human property.  But pressure mounted during 1862 to go further than this - to proclaim emancipation as a means of winning the war by converting the slaves from a vital war resource for the South to allies of the North, and beyond that to make the abolition of slavery a goal of the war, in order to destroy the institution that had caused the war in the first place and would continue to plague the nation in the future if it was allowed to survive.  By the summer of 1861, most Republicans wanted to turn this limited war to restore the old Union into a revolutionary war to create a new nation purged of slavery.

        For a time Lincoln tried to outflank this pressure by per-

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suading the border slave states remaining in the Union to undertake voluntary, gradual emancipation, with the owners to be compensated by the federal government.  With rather dubious reasoning, Lincoln predicted that such action would shorten the war by depriving the Confederacy of its hope for the allegiance of these states and thereby induce the South to give up the fight.  And though the compensation of slaveholders would be expensive, it would cost much less than continuing the war.  If the border states adopted some plan of gradual emancipation such as northern states had done after the Revolution of  1776, said Lincoln, the process would not radically disrupt the social order.

        Three times in the spring and summer of 1862 Lincoln appealed to congressmen from the border states to endorse a plan for gradual emancipation.  If they did not, he warned in March, "it is impossible to foresee all the incidents which may attend and all the ruin which may follow."  In May he declared that the changes produced by his gradual plan "would come gently as the dews of heaven, not rending or wrecking anything.  Will you not embrace it?...You can not, if you would, be blind to the signs of the times."  But most of the border-state representatives remained blind to the signs.  They questioned the constitutionality of Lincoln's proposal, objected to its cost, bristled at its veiled threat of federal coercion, and deplored the potential race problem they feared would come with a large free black population.  In July, Lincoln once more called the border-state congressmen to the White House.  He admonished them bluntly that "the unprecedentedly stern facts of the case" called for immediate action.  The limited war was becoming a total war; pressure to turn it into a war of abolition was growing.  The slaves were emancipating themselves by running away from home and coming into Union lines.  If the border states did not make "a decision at once to emancipate gradually...the institution in your states will be extinguished by mere

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friction and abrasion - by the mere incidents of the war."  In other words, if they did not accept an evolutionary plan for the abolition of slavery, it would be wiped out by the revolution that was coming.  But again they refused, rejecting Lincoln's proposal by a vote of twenty to nine.  Angry and disillusioned, the president decided to embrace the revolution.  That very evening he made up his mind to issue an emancipation proclamation.  After a delay to wait for a Union victory, he sent forth the preliminary proclamation on September 22 - after the battle of Antietam - and the final proclamation on New Year's Day 1863.

    The old cliché, that the proclamation did not free a single slave because it applied only to the Confederate states where Lincoln had no power, completely misses the point.  The proclamation announced a revolutionary new war aim - the overthrow of slavery by force of arms if and when Union armies conquered the South.  Of course, emancipation could not be irrevocably accomplished without a constitutional amendment, so Lincoln threw his weight behind the Thirteenth Amendment, which the House passed in January 1865.  In the meantime two of the border states, Maryland and Missouri, which had refused to consider gradual, compensated emancipation in 1862, came under control of emancipationists who pushed through state constitutional amendments that abolished slavery without compensation and went into effect immediately - a fate experienced by the other border states, Kentucky and Delaware, along with the rest of the South when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865.

        But from the time the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect at the beginning of 1863, the North fought for the revolutionary goal of a new Union without slavery.  Despite grumbling and dissent by some soldiers who said they had enlisted to fight for the Union rather than for the "nigger," most soldiers understood and accepted the new

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policy.  A colonel from Indiana put it this way:  whatever their opinion of slavery and blacks, his men "desire to destroy everything that gives the rebels strength."  Therefore "this army will sustain the emancipation proclamation and enforce it with the bayonet."  Soon after the proclamation came out, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant near Vicksburg that "the character of the war has very much changed within the last year.  There is now no possible hope of reconciliation with the rebels....We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them....Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is the equivalent of a white man put hors do combat."  One of Grant's field commanders explained that "the policy is to be terrible on the enemy. I am using negroes all the time for my work as teamsters, and have 1,000 employed."

        Lincoln endorsed this policy of being "terrible on the enemy."  And the policy soon went beyond using freed slaves as teamsters and laborers.  By early 1863 the Lincoln administration committed itself to enlisting black men in the army.  Arms in the hands of slaves constituted the South's ultimate nightmare.  The enlistment of black soldiers to fight and kill their former masters was by for the most revolutionary dimension of the emancipation policy.  And, after overcoming his initial hesitation, Lincoln became an enthusiastic advocate of this policy.  In March 1863 he wrote to Andrew Johnson, military governor of occupied Tennessee:  "The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.  And who doubts that we can present that sight, if we but take hold in earnest?"  By August 1863, when the Union army had organized 50,000 black soldiers and was on the way to enlistment of 180,000 before the war was over, Lincoln declared in a public letter that "the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion."

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        When conservatives complained of the revolutionary nature of these heavy blows, Lincoln responded that the nation could no longer pursue "a temporizing and forbearing" policy toward rebels.  "Decisive and extensive measures must be adopted."  Conservatives who did not like it should blame the slaveholders and fire-eaters who started the war.  They "must understand," said Lincoln in an angry tone, "that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt."  In a metaphor that he used several times, Lincoln said that "broken eggs cannot be mended."  The egg of slavery was already broken by 1862; if the South continued fighting it must expect more eggs to be broken, so the sooner it gave up "the smaller [would] be the amount of that which will be beyond mending."  Lincoln's fondness for this metaphor is interesting, for modern revolutionaries sometimes use a similar one to justify the us of violence to bring about social change:  you cannot make an omelet, they say, without breaking eggs - that is, you cannot make a new society without destroying the old one.

        Another way of illustrating how Lincoln came to believe in this revolutionary concept is to quote from his second inaugural address, delivered at a time when the war had gone on for almost four terrible years.  On the one hand were the famous words of the second inaugural calling for the binding up of the nation's wounds, with malice toward none and charity for all.  With these words Lincoln invoked the New Testament lesson of forgiveness; he urged a soft peace once the war was over.  But although he believed in a soft peace, it could be won only by a hard war.  This was an Old Testament concept, and for Lincoln's Old Testament vision of a hard war, examine this passage from the second inaugural:  "American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God...He now wills to remove [through] this terrible war, as the woe due to those by

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whom the offence came....Fondly do we hope - fervently do we pray - that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.  Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'"

        This was the language not only of the Old Testament, but also of revolution.  In the second respect in which the Civil War has been viewed as a revolution - its achievement of the abolition of slavery - Lincoln fits the pattern of a revolutionary leader.  He was a reluctant one at first, to be sure, but in the end he was more radical than Washington or Jefferson or any of the leaders of the first revolution.  They led a successful struggle for independence from Britain but did not accomplish a fundamental change in the society they led.  Lincoln did preside over such a change.  Indeed, as he put it himself, also in the second inaugural, neither side had anticipated such "fundamental and astounding" changes when the war began.

These words introduce the third respect in which the Civil War can be viewed as a revolution:  it destroyed not only slavery but also the social structure of the old South that had been founded on slavery, and it radically altered the power balance between the North and the South.  It changed the direction of American development.  This was what Mark Twain meant when he wrote that the war had "uprooted institutions that were centuries old...transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character."  It was what Charles A. Beard meant when he wrote (as quoted in the preceding essay) that the Civil War was a "social cata-

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clysm...making vast changes in the arrangement of classes, in the distribution of wealth, in the course of industrial development.

        The war ended seventy years of southern domination of the national government and transferred it to Yankee Republicans who controlled the polity and economy of the United States for most of the next seventy years.  It increased northern wealth and capital by 50 percent during the 1860s while destroying 60 percent of southern wealth.  The output of southern industry in proportion to that of the North was cut in half by the war; the value of southern agricultural land in relation to that of the North was cut by three-fourths.

        These changes occurred because when the Civil War became a total war, the invading army intentionally destroyed the economic capacity of the South to wage war.  Union armies ripped up thousands of miles of southern railroads and blew up hundreds of bridges; Confederate cavalry raids and guerrilla operations behind Union lines in the South added to the destruction.  More than half of the South's farm machinery was wrecked by the war, two-fifths of its livestock was killed, and one-quarter of its white males of military age - also the prime age for economic production - were killed, a higher proportion than suffered by any European power in World War I, that holocaust which ravaged a continent and spread revolution through many of its countries.

        Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan saw more clearly than anyone else the nature of modern total war, a war between peoples rather than simply between armies, a war in which the fighting left nothing untouched or unchanged.  "We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people," wrote Sherman in the middle of the war.  "We cannot change the hearts of those people of the South," he said in 1864 as his army began it march from Atlanta to the sea, "but we can make war so

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terrible...that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it."  While Sherman's army was marching through Georgia and South Carolina destroying everything in its path, Sheridan's army cut a similar swath through the Shenandoah Valley making sure that it, like Georgia and South Carolina, would produce no more food or munitions for Confederate forces.

        Although Abraham Lincoln was a compassionate man who deplored this destruction and suffering, he nevertheless assented to it as the only way to win the war.  After all, he had warned southerners two years earlier that the longer they fought, the more eggs would be broken.  Now, in 1864, he officially conveyed to Sheridan the "thanks of the nation, and my own personal admiration and gratitude, for [your] operations in the Shenandoah Valley"; he sent Sherman and his army "grateful acknowledgments" for their march through Georgia.

        The Second American Revolution, as Charles Beard viewed it, involved not only this destruction of the southern plantation gentry but also the consolidation of the northern entrepreneurial capitalist class in national power, supported by its rural and urban middle-class allies.  Legislation passed by the Union Congress during the war promoted this development.  The Republican party had inherited from its Hamiltonian and Whig forbears a commitment to the use of government to foster economic development through tariffs to protect industry, a centralized and regulated banking system, investment subsidies and land grants to high-risk but socially beneficial transportation enterprises, and government support for education.  By 1860 the Republican party had also pledged itself to homestead legislation to provide farmers with an infusion of capital in the form of free land.  Before 1860, the southern-dominated Democratic party that controlled the federal government had repeatedly defeated 

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or frustrated these measures.  During the war, Republicans passed them all:  a higher tariff in 1861; a homestead act, a land-grant college act, and a Pacific railroad act providing loans and land grants for a transcontinental railroad in 1862; and a national banking act in 1863, which, along with the legal tender act of the previous year authorizing the issuance of a federal currency, the famous greenbacks, gave the national government effective control over the nation's currency for the first time.  In addition, to finance the war the government marketed huge bond issues to the public and passed an Internal Revenue Act which imposed a large array of federal taxes for the first time, including a progressive income tax.

        This astonishing blitz of laws, most of them passed within the span of less than one year, did more to reshape the relation of the government to the economy than any comparable effort except perhaps the first hundred days of the New Deal.  This Civil War legislation, in the words of one historian, created a "blueprint for modern America."  It helped promote what another scholar termed "the last capitalist revolution" whereby the Civil War destroyed the "older social structure of plantation slavery" and installed "competitive democratic capitalism" in unchallenged domination of the American economy and polity.  That this capitalism itself became a form of entrenched conservatism exploiting labor and resisting change a generation or two later does not nullify the revolutionary meaning of its triumph over the slave South and plantation agriculture in the 1860s.  And as a former Whig who had favored these measures to promote banking, transportation, and industry as a means of bringing a higher standard of living to all Americans, and who believed that the abolition of slave labor would enhance the dignity and value of free labor, Abraham Lincoln was one of the principal architects of this capitalist revolution.

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What conclusions can we draw, then, that make sense of those contrasting pictures of Lincoln the conservative and Lincoln the revolutionary quoted at the beginning of this essay?  Although it may seem like an oxymoron, Lincoln can best be described as a conservative revolutionary.  That is, he wanted to conserve the Union as the revolutionary heritage of the founding fathers.  Preserving this heritage was the purpose of the war; all else became a means to achieve this end.  As Lincoln phrased it in his famous public letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery....What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union."  By the time he wrote these words, Lincoln had made up his mind that to save the Union he must destroy slavery.  The means always remained subordinated to the end, but the means did become as essential to the northern war effort as the end itself.  In that sense perhaps we could describe Lincoln as a pragmatic revolutionary, for as a pragmatist he adapted the means to the end.  Thus we can agree with the historian Norman Graebner who was quoted earlier as stating that Lincoln "accepted the need of dealing with things as they were, not as he would have wished them to be."  But instead of concluding, as Graebner did, that this made Lincoln a conservative, we must conclude that it made him a revolutionary.  Not an ideological revolutionary, to be sure - Lincoln was no Robespierre or Lenin with a blueprint for a new order - but he was a pragmatic revolutionary who found it necessary to destroy slavery and create a new birth of freedom in order to preserve the Union.

        "The dogmas of the quiet past," Lincoln told Congress in December 1862, "are inadequate to the stormy present.  As our case is new, we must think anew, and act anew."  It was the war itself, not the ideological blueprints of Lincoln

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or any other leader, that generated the radical momentum that made it a second American revolution.  Like most wars that become total wars, the Civil War snowballed into huge and unanticipated dimensions and took on a life and purpose of its own far beyond the causes that had started it.  As Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, neither side "expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained."  Or as he put it on another occasion, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."  But in conceding that the war rather than he had shaped the thrust and direction of the revolution, Lincoln was perhaps too modest.  For it was his own superb leadership, strategy, and sense of timing as president, commander in chief, and head of the Republican party that determined the pace of the revolution and ensured its success.  With a less able man as president, the North might have lost the war or ended it under the leadership of Democrats who would have given its outcome a very different shape.  Thus in accepting "the need of dealing with things as they were," Lincoln was not a conservative statesman but a revolutionary statesman.