Second Revolution

Connecting leadership with the war’s outcome is crucial to McPherson’s interpretation. For him, history is not the operation of powerful forces on passive human beings. Such broad themes as the evolution of economic systems are important for any understanding of events, but McPherson believes that in the final analysis, history develops as it does because people make decisions. The “Second American Revolution” would not have occurred as it did, and perhaps might not have been a revolution at all, without the gentle hand of Abraham Lincoln.

The first argument comes to grips with a question of semantics. Should the Civil War be called a “revolution”? Obviously, the answer would depend on how one defines the term, but after treating a number of the possible variations and the resulting interpretations, McPherson argues convincingly that in order to understand the meaning of the Civil War within the context of American history the term “revolution” is indeed appropriate. While it is true that many of the gains of the former slaves were lost in a counterrevolution during the Reconstruction and the economic transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society would have occurred without war, the changes were still revolutionary. After all, slavery was abolished, and the lot of postwar blacks, while hardly ideal, was certainly better than that of chattel slaves. Most important, even with the growth of the Jim Crow system after Reconstruction, a foundation was laid for future change, and the nation was committed, at least symbolically, to the idea of equality. Moreover, the new political dominance of the Republican Party changed the nature of the American system. With the South weakened economically and politically, the Republican commitment to free-labor capitalism was allowed to develop unchecked and become almost synonymous with the American way of life.

Even if one accepts McPherson’s position, it is not necessary to assume that the revolutionary outcome...