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This study guide references the 1990 Oxford University Press edition of James M. McPherson’s Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. The book is a collection of seven essays originally delivered as lectures, all on the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, and his role in the Civil War (1861-1865). The book calls the Civil War era the “Second American Revolution” because, with Lincoln’s help, it brought about a fundamental transformation in the social and political make-up of the United States. Lincoln’s administration shifted national power structures away from aristocracy to Northern industrial capitalism, transformed the national economy, instituted a national currency, and passed amendments to the Constitution that emancipated slaves and redefined the concept of civil liberty in America. In each of these actions, Lincoln preserved the Constitution, forged by the Revolution of 1776, as the primary document communicating the laws and identity of the United States. Therefore, his second revolution changed the United States into the nation we know and live in today.
Chapter 1, “The Second American Revolution,” deals exclusively with the question of whether the Civil War can be understood as a revolution in social, political, and historical terms. This broad overview does not discuss Lincoln’s participation in the Civil War.
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Chapter 2, “Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution,” discusses Lincoln’s role in making the Civil War a revolutionary effort. This chapter provides most of the historical information that McPherson draws out in more detail in later chapters.
Chapter 3, “Lincoln and Liberty,” covers the conflicting conceptions of liberty operating in America in the late 1800s. While proslavery secessionists believed emancipation was a limitation of their freedom to own property, antislavery Republicans saw slavery as an insult to the natural freedom of all people. Lincoln is situated as a figure who navigates this difficult debate with moral integrity, ultimately eradicating slavery from the United States.
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Chapter 4, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” deals with Lincoln’s war strategy. This chapter shows how Lincoln eventually forced the Confederate Army to surrender through a dual strategy that attacked the problems of slavery and Southern insurrection in both the political and military spheres.
Chapter 5, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors,” details Lincoln’s skill as an orator and storyteller. A largely self-educated country lawyer who loved Shakespeare and the fables of Aesop, Lincoln infused his language with countless metaphors, parables, and images that made his complex points easily understandable to common people. This made him a more inspirational leader than his contemporaries, including the president of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis.
Chapter 6, “The Hedgehog and the Foxes,” begins with a proverb by the Greek poet Archilochus: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” (113). The proverb is employed to describe how Lincoln remained steadfast and single-minded in his goal to incite the surrender of the South and abolish slavery, even as his allies—foxier but less resolved—worked to counteract this goal.
Chapter 7, “Liberty and Power in the Second American Revolution,” describes how the Civil War brought about a new balance of legislative power in the United States. To protect emancipation, many responsibilities regarding the decisions of civil liberties were transferred from individual states to the federal government, and multiple amendments to the Constitution were passed to defend African American liberty and voting rights. Though worked against in the counter-revolution of the 1870s, these changes in the legislative make-up of the United States helped define the nation as we know it today.
By James M. Mcpherson