James M. McPherson

Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution

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Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution Summary

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Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution is a work of nonfiction by James M. McPherson. Published in 1991 by Oxford University Press, the book re-examines the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s role in a so-called “Second Revolution.” The book has received widespread critical acclaim. McPherson received the Pulitzer Prize for his most famous work, Battle Cry of Freedom, and he was president of the American Historical Association in 2003. He is currently a member of the editorial board for Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The book draws together seven essays compiled from papers and lectures McPherson himself delivered, which does unfortunately leave room for repetition and some element of redundancy. McPherson attempts to remove these redundancies while keeping the work unified.

The preface introduces the subject and McPherson’s perspective—how Abraham Lincoln brought around complete transformation like nothing seen before on American soil. During his presidency, over four million slaves are liberated, Southern political dominance is all but annihilated, populations move, federal courts have unprecedented jurisdiction and, for the first time, there’s a national currency and banking structure. As McPherson points out, it’s impossible to deny just how revolutionary Abraham Lincoln’s tenure is for the US.

Abraham Lincoln looks primarily at the period between 1861 and 1865, and the shifting political and economical landscape. The essays each aim to tackle facets of the Second Revolution from various ways. The first and final essays consider the revolutionary impacts of the Civil War more generally. The other five essays each examine an area of Abraham Lincoln’s leadership and how these traits brought about the changes.

The first chapter, “The Second American Revolution,” begins at the start of 1861, when there is concern over future slave rebellions and Southern secession. There is an acceptance of possible war and bloodshed, given the political changes across the globe and how they were brought about only by aggression and violence. There is a real push towards slaves rising and asserting their own power, and towards building a free-labour US.

This includes stripping slave-owners of land and power before executing or banishing them—and giving slaves constitutional rights such as the vote. However, McPherson reminds us that many gains made during this Second Revolution are later reversed and challenged by white violence and aggression. He also blames a Northern indifference to the fates of these slaves for loss of gained ground.

McPherson then introduces us to President Abraham Lincoln and his conservative tendencies. He is cautious and favours gradual changes with less disruption but likelier long-term success. He wants compromise and hopes to find agreement between divided parties. A country entirely divided can’t stand.

Abraham Lincoln, however, is also a fervent supporter of revolution and the right of the people to change their political landscape. Perhaps the Second Revolution is so successful because in charge is a president who believes in the need for change—and for the peoples’ right to enact revolution.

We then see how Abraham Lincoln is something of a “conservative revolutionary.” McPherson refers to this throughout the whole book. Abraham Lincoln is also a pragmatist, because he will do what is necessary to achieve the right result—he works with what the country is at the time, as opposed to what he wishes it is. This realism keeps his efforts focused, practical and relatable to his contemporaries.

McPherson highlights that only a president with exemplary leadership skills could successfully hold a country together during such a revolution. As head of the Republican party, he determines the pace of the revolution and keeps it manageable—even when it snowballs in directions he never imagined.

Abraham Lincoln has a special fondness for the word “liberty” and what it means to his contemporaries. McPherson’s essays show us that Abraham Lincoln recognises how liberty means so many different things to different countrymen, and this is a problem—they’re all fighting for something different.

He is honest about the difficulties in bringing together such a divided people, and he goes so far as to criticise the world view of liberty more generally. He wants a more uniform, clear meaning, so that when people work for liberty, they have the same goals in mind.

Although Abraham Lincoln is a conciliatory president, he is also a wartime president, and takes his duty as commander-in-chief of the military very seriously. In fact, he directly intervenes in missions and shapes strategy when required—unusual for a state leader. This level of involvement is entirely revolutionary.

McPherson notes that, perhaps most of all, Abraham Lincoln’s clear, accessible and succinct speech makes those on both sides listen to him and in turn listen to each other. He also helps mobilise his people and inspire them to achieve what they’re fighting for. His charisma is, undoubtedly, a reason for his success.

It is by examining these facets of Abraham Lincoln’s personality and presidency that McPherson shows us just how revolutionary this president was, and how the period can rightly be called a Second Revolution.