Revolutionary War, loyalist leaders like Benjamin Franklin’s son Governor William Franklin, warns of “all the horrors of a Civil War” when advising his constituents to remain loyal to the crown.[footnoteRef:1] Therefore, the American Revolution and the Revolutionary War were self-consciously considered to be a type of Civil War. Furthermore, when the Civil War of the 1860s broke out amid the United States, it seemed that similar dialog was being used to describe the secessionists in the South as what was being used to describe the American Revolutionaries rebelling against the Crown. In President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, he affirms the will to respond “in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.”[footnoteRef:2] Yet did the Civil War produce, as McPherson claims, a “Second American Revolution,” creating changes that were both more dramatic and more radical than those that took place a century earlier? Indeed for the freed slaves, the Civil War was without a doubt more revolutionary and radical than was the American Revolution. [1: William Franklin. “All the Horrors of a Civil War.” Making the Revolution: America 1763-1791.] [2: Abraham Lincoln. Emancipation Proclamation. September 22, 1862. Retrieved online: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/emancipation.html]
The seeds for a grander social, political, and cultural revolution than that which took place in the 1770s had been laid through intellectual debate in the United States. Centuries earlier, Thomas Jefferson urged the nation to conduct soul seeking regarding the practice of slavery, urging masters to voluntarily cease the practice of slave labor. Jefferson argued that slave ownership was unethical and that social norms in the United States need to change. Jefferson also warned against the use of military measures to retain slave labor. Jefferson urges American slave owners, as he had been, to emancipate their slaves and welcome a new social order based on equity. “I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.”[footnoteRef:3] Jefferson understood the need to abolish slavery out of an ethical imperative, and foresaw the problem of race relation normalization. Yet when the Constitutional Congress met, the matter of slavery was left unresolved. Few politicians were as astute as Jefferson in recognizing the need to resolve the issue lest it fester into the Civil War. Perhaps even Jefferson did not foresee that an actual war would be fought, spilling blood of tens of thousands, before the South would willingly change its social order. [3: Thomas Jefferson. Excerpts from Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston, 1 pages 144-151, 169-171). Retrieved online: http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/jefferson-on-slavery.php]
The American Revolution was therefore tame in comparison to the Civil War. The principles upon which the Americans fought were principles shared in common by the British. Both the colonialists and the loyalists sought economic prosperity and both believed in the same general form of democratic government in which only white males deserved the right to vote. For a while in Britain and in the colonies, only white males who owned property were considered eligible to vote, but this difference was not nearly as significant as that between the North and the South during the Civil War. North and South battled over deeper and more fundamental issues. Before, during, and after the American Revolution, organizations like the American Anti-Slavery Society hoped to form a more perfect union that recognized that “slaveholding is a heinous crime in the sight of God.”[footnoteRef:4] However, the issue of slavery remained essentially unresolved due to the relatively large number of people who supported the institution. Although the trans-Atlantic slave trade was banned, slavery itself was not because there were simply too many people who benefitted from the institution. The issue of slavery — as well as of women’s rights — was put off and ignored when framing the Constitution of the United States. As the abolition movement grew stronger, the South foresaw the radical shift in public opinion regarding slavery. The South now had two choices: either to respond as Jefferson had suggested and gain the consent of the masters in emancipating the slaves; or alternatively, to declare an independent Confederacy of Slave States. The South chose the latter, causing the former to initiate the fighting. Instead of allowing the South to cede unopposed and simply becoming a trading partner with a slave owning nation, Lincoln and the north chose to fight to abolish the slave trade entirely in North America. [4: The American Anti-Slavery Society. Constitution. December 4, 1833. Retrieved online: http://www.tncrimlaw.com/civil_bible/antislavery_society.htm]
Winning the Civil War transformed social realities in ways the Revolutionary War did not. After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed nation did need to establish rule of law, determine how strong to make and maintain the federal government, and ascertain what type of standing army might be needed to provide for the common defense. There were certainly changes that took place in American society from the time of the colonies and British rule to the time of nation-building. Whereas the colonies depended on the British for things like organizing trade agreements, the United States had to take care of federal issues on its own. Westward expansion, industrialization, and other factors that influenced the changes taking place in the American economy were also important issues in the decades preceding the Civil War. Yet these types of changes were always taking place in the society. What was different about the Civil War was the fact that a humanitarian cause was used for the first time in recent history as the primary purpose of fighting the war. The South ceded for financial purposes, as well as reasons related to perceived freedom and independence. Yet the north invaded because of an ethical imperative to liberate the slaves and create the union that most of the founding fathers and American leaders like Benjamin Franklin’s son and Thomas Jefferson had envisioned. The Civil War represented deep changes in the character of the United States. The South did not approve of the social and political changes.
In many ways, the Civil War revealed a deep chasm between the people living in some parts of the nation and those that live in other parts. The American Revolution retained the British social order and simply restructured local economies and political systems, whereas the Civil War helped to eliminate the racist social order, at least officially, which ultimately helped dismantle other oppressive social systems such as patriarchy. Abolitionism and feminism were tightly linked issues, and many abolitionist societies were led by women. The connection between abolition of slaves and the emancipation of women is clear, but it would be generations after the Civil War that women as well as blacks were allowed to participate in the political process. After the American Revolution, the only notable changes to the society included the right of non-property owning men throughout the former colonies to participate in the political process. During the American Revolution, the types of technologies that existed during the Civil War did not yet exist, and likewise, the advancements in philosophical and ethical thought taking place in Europe and North America had yet to manifest. The Civil War took place at a time where slavery was becoming a serious embarrassment for America because the institution conflicted so deeply and significantly with prevailing ethical beliefs.
In the Gettysburg Address, marking the closure of the Civil War, Lincoln refers to the birth of a new nation and “a new birth of freedom” for America.[footnoteRef:5] Lincoln not only kept together the new nation, but helped to abolish the institution of slavery and begin the slow process of erasing racism from the global consciousness. Whereas the old social order consisted of physical, psychological, political, and economic oppression, the new social order demanded greater responsibility of its citizens in participating in politics. Citizens were held accountable for their ethical beliefs as the theme of equality became more meaningful in America. The passing of the 19th Amendment is a testimony to the radically new social norms governing American society. Passing constitutional amendments is usually an arduous process. The true guarantee of gender equity remains to be seen in the United States, but the Civil War at least helped to eliminate the social patterns of oppression. Women’s suffrage can be viewed as a direct extension of the 15th amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote to black men. [5: Abraham Lincoln. Gettysburg Address. November 19, 1863. Retrieved online: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/gettysburg-address.html]
Although the seeds for deeper revolution had already been planted prior to the American Revolution, the American Revolution resulted in only minor social and political changes. The American Revolution was simply about establishing a new nation that was exempt from crown taxation policies. The Civil War on the other hand, resulted in major social and political changes. Slavery was abolished, meaning the destruction of an entrenched social order in the American south: what many Southerners called their “way of life.” A way of life that was oppressive and contrary to American values had festered for several centuries, and the Civil War ended that: a far more remarkable achievement than what took place on July 4, 1776.
The American Anti-Slavery Society. Constitution. December 4, 1833. Retrieved online: http://www.tncrimlaw.com/civil_bible/antislavery_society.htm
Franklin, William. “All the Horrors of a Civil War.” 1775. Found in Making the Revolution: America 1763-1791. Retrieved online: http://americainclass.org/sources/makingrevolution/rebellion/text1/loyalists17751776.pdf
Jefferson, Thomas. Excerpts from Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston, 1 pages 144-151, 169-171). Retrieved online: http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/jefferson-on-slavery.php
Lincoln, Abraham. Emancipation Proclamation. September 22, 1862. Retrieved online: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/emancipation.html
Lincoln, Abraham. Gettysburg Address. November 19, 1863. Retrieved online: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/gettysburg-address.html
McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
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