Americans love revolutions. Our national identity began with a revolution, and a revolutionary war that lasted for eight years; and we cheer on other people’s revolutions, as though we find satisfaction in multiplying our own. “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “No country should be long without one.” An excited James Garfield, in his maiden speech in the House of Representatives in 1864, asked whether his colleagues “forget that the Union had its origin in revolution.” Ralph Waldo Emerson thought of revolution as the authentic instinct of humanity. “Wherever a man comes, there comes revolution,” he said in his Harvard Divinity School address of 1838. “The old is for slaves.”
LINCOLN’S DRIVE THROUGH RICHMOND
DENNIS MALONE CARTER (1866)
But sometimes our enthusiasm for revolutions blinds us to what is, and what is not, genuinely revolutionary. The English geologist and traveler George Featherstonhaugh took the temperature of American revolutionary fervor and dismissed it as mere patriotic puff, designed only to “stimulate that national vanity and self-sufficiency which are often so conspicuous in young countries, and to cherish in his fellow-citizens that inflated feeling of superiority over other nations.” So let us be clear about what a revolution is: A revolution is an overturning, a reversal of polarity, a radical discontinuity with what has gone before. It means, as the sociologist Jeff Goodwin wrote, “not only mass mobilization and regime change, but also more or less rapid and fundamental social, economic and/or cultural change, during or soon after the struggle for state power.”
Stacked against that definition, our founding revolution, and the revolutions that succeeded it, may not be so revolutionary after all. At first, the American Revolution presents us with a whopping set of discontinuities: The king of England disappears and is replaced by a notion of sovereignty residing in the people; democratic governments emerge in the new American states and coalesce in an unprecedented piece of formal statecraft, the Constitution; the property of prominent American Tories is confiscated; law-codes must be rewritten, and a major debate takes place over whether English common law should still retain authority or be superseded by legislative statute. But much of this revolutionary reshaping happened simply by elevating the revolutionaries’ already-in-place experiments in self-government to permanent status. “We began our Revolution, already possessed of government, and, comparatively, of civil liberty,” said Daniel Webster. “Our ancestors had from the first been accustomed in a great measure to govern themselves” and “had little else to do than to throw off the paramount authority of the parent state. Enough was still left, both of law and of organization, to conduct society in its accustomed course, and to unite men together for a common object.”
In 1843, when one of the last survivors of Lexington and Concord was interviewed by an overanxious antiquarian about his reasons for revolution, Captain Levi Preston of Danvers replied simply, “Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: We always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.” In other words, our revolution was a revolution against a revolution, and in defense of an already-existing (albeit de facto) democratic order. The real revolution, we might say, was the attempt of the king of England to meddle in those arrangements.
This ambivalence about revolutions has never been more of a problem than when we speak of the American Civil War—as we often do—as a “second” American Revolution, and especially when we are situated near the end of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. James Garfield said in 1864, “Our situation affords a singular parallel to that of the people of Great Britain in their great revolution of the seventeenth century.” Thaddeus Stevens hoped that Union forces would “free every slave—slay every traitor—burn every rebel mansion,” and make the war “a radical revolution.” And nearer our own time, Progressive historians of the 1920s and 1930s warmed to the notion of the Civil War as a revolution in which (according to Charles Beard, who first applied “second American Revolution” to the Civil War) “an industrial and commercial nation following in the footsteps of Great Britain” was transformed by “the power of capital, both absolute and as compared to land.”
Certainly there exists quite a long list of discontinuities with the American past that the Civil War opened up in American life—in the technology of war, in law and politics, in social relations and economics, and culminating in the abolition of slavery. But do these discontinuities amount to a revolution? Are they really even discontinuities?
The most obvious of these discontinuities in the Civil War have to do with the war itself, or rather the technology of war, since the received wisdom in military history for the past half-century has been that the seemingly endless casualty lists of Civil War battlefields were the product of unimaginative officers attempting to use the outdated tactics of Napoleon against the decimating wonder of the newly invented rifled musket and rifled artillery. And this technology really was remarkable in many ways. Unlike the trusty old British “Brown Bess” musket of the 18th century (which was useless at ranges greater than 80 yards), the Civil War-era rifle musket could hit an 11-inch bull’s-eye at 350 yards and could penetrate 6 inches of pine board at 500 yards.
But the rifle musket was not exactly a novelty by the time the American Civil War broke out. It received its first practical tests in North Africa in 1846, in the Crimean War of 1853-56, and in the North Italian War of 1859, and it had attracted quite enough use and attention for two American officers—George Willard and Cadmus Wilcox, both of whom fought at Gettysburg—to write handbooks on its use.
And for all the improvements in range and accuracy created by the rifle musket, it was still a black-powder, paper-cartridge muzzle-loader which required a cumbersome sequence of nine separate steps (known as “load in nine times”) to load. Although the optimum firing-rate was three rounds per minute, the practical reality under battlefield conditions was closer to one round every four to five minutes. Moreover, its fabled improvements in accuracy were also fatally limited: The rifling in the barrel which gave its bullets a self-correcting spin also slowed its velocity significantly from that of the old Brown Bess—from 1,500 to 1,115 feet-per-second—and allowed the bullet to drop as much as 14 feet over 300 yards. This, in turn, required the installation of back sights on the various brands of rifle muskets, which forced the shooter to raise the rifle upwards before firing. In effect, the bullet was not so much fired as it was dropped (and this dropping is echoed in numerous Civil War descriptions of combat in which bullets are said to have “dropped in showers”). So, whatever was gained in terms of pinpoint targeting had to be paid for by continuous mental adjustments for the movement of targets—and the actual environment of combat was not conducive to careful mental adjustments. “What precision of aim or direction can be expected,” asked one British officer, when “one man is priming; another coming to the present; a third taking, what is called, aim; a fourth ramming down his cartridge,” and all the while “the whole body are closely enveloped in smoke, and the enemy totally invisible?”
The answer, of course, was not much. After the battle of Stone’s River, Union major general William S. Rosecrans worked out a general estimate of how many shots needed to be fired to inflict one hit on the enemy, and came up with the astounding calculation that 20,000 rounds of artillery fired during that battle managed to hit exactly 728 men; even more amazing, his troops had fired off 2 million rifle cartridges and inflicted 13,832 hits on rebel infantry. In practical terms, this was still the sort of combat where men could stand upright on the battlefield with a fairly healthy margin of safety; the staggering length of the casualty lists was the result not of modernized weapons, but of the inexperience of both volunteer officers and soldiers in charging home with the bayonet and the consequent bogging-down of lines of battle in motionless exchanges of fire. The real revolution in weapons technology would occur not in the Civil War, but with the adoption of breech-loading rifles as standard infantry arms in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In that respect, far from being revolutionary, the weapons of the Civil War made it the last of the Napoleonic Wars rather than a revolutionary harbinger of the Western Front.
It has been argued that the Civil War was a revolution in warfare thanks to railroad transportation and the electrical telegraph. But once again, the military application of neither the railroad nor the telegraph was an innovation of the American Civil War. Both were put to their first practical test by the British Army in the Crimean War, and in 1859 Napoleon III took the railroads one step further, using them for troop transportation into northern Italy against the Austrians. French railroads moved 76,000 men in just 10 days, and in the run-up to the battles at Magenta and Solferino, it took some of Napoleon III’s regiments only five days to reach their concentration point in northern Italy from Paris.
The last resort for promoting the Civil War as a technological revolution is the famous combat of the two ironclad warships, Monitor and Virginia (earlier known in the U.S. Navy service as the USS Merrimack) at Hampton Roads in the spring of 1862. One point for revolutionary novelty does get scored by the battle at Hampton Roads—it was the first time that two ironclad warships fought each other. But the decades between Trafalgar and Hampton Roads had seen at least five different innovations in naval technology—the use of steam power to replace sail, the use of explosive shells rather than solid shot, the screw propeller, and rifled guns, in addition to iron armor—none of which originated in the United States, much less in the Civil War. During the Crimean War, both France and England constructed flotillas of ironclad “floating batteries” for use against their Russian antagonist, and in 1860, the British launched the first full-size, seagoing ironclad warship, HMS Warrior. It was with Warrior that the age of the iron warship really arrived. Even Monitor’s ingenious revolving turret followed the lead of the British gunnery expert Captain Cowper Coles, who had patented a design in 1859 for an armored “cupola” on a turntable and conducted trials on a prototype in September 1861.
If the Civil War was not exactly a “revolution in military affairs,” then perhaps it was such in law and politics. And again, on first opening the box, the Civil War does seem to have achieved three vital reconstructions of the old Constitution, namely, the abolition of slavery by the 13th Amendment, the definition of citizenship in the 14th and 15th Amendments, and the first use of presidential “war powers” by Abraham Lincoln. But the 13th Amendment abolished an institution whose extinction, as Lincoln and many others had been at pains to demonstrate, was already in the constitutional cards at the time of the founding; and the 14th and 15th Amendments involved repairing an oversight in the original Constitution (which, oddly, contained no definition of citizenship) and overturning the attempt of the Supreme Court to impose one in Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857.
Lincoln’s claim to possess, by virtue of his constitutional designation as commander in chief, certain unenumerated war powers was a constitutional novelty; and in the minds of the Democratic opposition who had their newspapers shut down and their leaders arrested and tried by military tribunals acting under those war powers, they seemed like a monstrous aberration. But one has to say, on the whole, that the volume of civil liberties violations during the Civil War pales by comparison with those which occurred during the two World Wars and even into the war on terror. Not until after World War II would the United States gradually slide towards a semipermanent state of military mobilization and the creation of what has unflatteringly been described as the national security state.
That has not discouraged the more ambitious among us from claiming that in fact a bright line can be drawn between Lincoln’s use of executive power and what is often construed as a centralizing revolution in federal government authority. Since the hallmarks of a centralized nation are (according to the libertarian political philosopher Murray Rothbard) “strong central government, large-scale public works, and cheap credit spurred by government”; and since Lincoln’s administration was also built on “high tariffs, huge subsidies to railroads, public works”; then, ergo, Lincoln was the forerunner of figures as various (and presumably nefarious) as Otto von Bismarck, Franklin Roosevelt, and Karl Marx. “Lincoln,” concludes libertarian writer David Gordon, “like his Prussian contemporary Otto von Bismarck . . . sought a powerful, centralizing state.”
If this was indeed Lincoln’s intent—to stage a quiet overthrow of the old Constitution and substitute the template for a Wohlfahrtsstaat—this would be a genuinely revolutionary development. But the attempt to portray the Lincoln administration, even in the midst of the Civil War, as the New Deal before its time strains credulity. True, the U.S. federal budget swelled from $76.8 million in 1860 to an astounding high of $1.9 billion in 1865; but it plummeted immediately thereafter to $424 million, fully half of which involved the payment of soldiers’ pensions, and by 1880, the federal budget was only 16.7 percent of what it had been in 1865. The federal civilian workforce rose from 40,000 in 1861 to 194,997 in 1865; but it, too, dropped precipitately by 1871, to 51,000. If this amounts to a revolutionary centralization of government, then we have begun to lose our grip on what we mean by a revolution.
Curiously, where a debate over the revolutionary nature of the Civil War really came to center stage was in the justification the Southern states offered for their attempt to leave the Union—the right to secede. Lincoln never questioned the right of the Southerners to stage a revolution: “Whenever” American citizens “shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” But one thing they could not do, Lincoln added, was pretend that the Constitution gave them authority to leave the Union and proceed as though they had changed nothing in the process. “The States have their status in the Union, and they have no other legal status,” Lincoln insisted. “If they break from this, they can only do so against law, and by revolution.”
The irony of this is that the one thing the Southerners would not dare to do was to claim that their attempted departure from the Union was revolutionary, because in that case, all legal bets would be off—the status of contracts, court systems, postage stamps, state constitutions, and, above all, property would come into doubt, just as they had done after the triumph of the American revolutionaries in 1783. And property would include slave property. So the Confederates were compelled to claim that their movement was not a revolution, but a secession, and thus keep up the appearances of continuity with the past, rather than run the risks involved in revolution. If the Civil War was a revolution even in this constitutionally arcane sense, it was a revolution in which the protagonists were surprisingly intent on denying that any revolution was occurring.
But certainly we should say that the Civil War was revolutionary in one overwhelming respect, and that was the emancipation of 3.9 million black slaves. And here, we do strike a genuinely discontinuous, revolutionary note, for the Civil War not only violently excised all legal traces of slavery from the Constitution, but practically destroyed all the wealth invested in it, to the tune of nearly $3 billion.
But was the overall goal of emancipation actually a revolutionary one? We tend to think of slavery today almost purely in terms of race, as a racial offense and a racial injustice, to be remedied only by full social and political equality. And in that sense, emancipation was a revolution, for in the long history of Western society, it was without precedent for a slave population of such magnitude to be absolutely and immediately emancipated, without compensation to its owners, and then boosted at once into the realm of citizenship.
But in the eyes of the emancipationists, racial redemption was not, in fact, the principal goal. The fundamental offense posed by slavery in their eyes was that it represented a step away from a democratic political order, and its replacement with the kind of Romantic aristocracy that reestablished itself in Europe after the French Revolution. What Lincoln hated in slavery was not just its racial injustice, but the reemergence in America of the old demon of monarchy, where some people were born with uncalloused hands, booted and spurred and ready to ride on the backs of everyone else, who had to work. Owning slaves, Lincoln complained, “betokened not only the possession of wealth but indicated the gentleman of leisure who was above and scorned labour,” and it appealed to “thoughtless and giddy headed young men who looked upon work as vulgar and ungentlemanly.” Slavery’s tendency to promote aristocratic habits and attitudes made Lincoln regard it as “the one retrograde institution in America”—not because it was racially unenlightened, but because it was “fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.”
So if a revolution was taking place in the Civil War years, it was a revolution by the slaveholding aristocrats of the South against the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. This was not just Lincoln’s perception, either. Ulysses S. Grant was moved by the fear that democracy in America was regarded as a fragile and unwelcome experiment “up to the breaking out of the rebellion, and monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it.” At the other end of the chain of command, Wilbur Fiske, who enlisted as a private in the 2nd Vermont Infantry, likewise believed that “slavery has fostered an aristocracy of the rankest kind,” and unless it was rooted up, it would choke the last stand of democracy. Walt Whitman, the “good, gray poet” who found part-time government work in Washington so that he could serve as a nurse in the army hospitals, wrote in 1863 that a divided America would reduce the world’s greatest experiment in democracy to the level of a banana-republic, which would then lie prone at the feet of England and France. “The democratic republic,” groaned Whitman, has mistakenly granted “the united wish of all the nations of the world that her union should be broken, her future cut off, and that she should be compell’d to descend to the level of kingdoms and empires.” So long as the war raged, Whitman believed, “There is certainly not one government in Europe but is now watching the war in this country, with the ardent prayer that the United States may be effectually split, crippled, and dismember’d by it.”
The prevailing ideal in the eyes of Lincoln—and almost every other opponent of slavery worth itemizing—was to stuff the evil genie of slavery back into the Southern box so that it could not spread, and then transform the society of the old South into a competitive society of small businesses and benevolent churchgoers. “The whole fabric of southern society must be changed,” urged Thaddeus Stevens, who was impatient of any result of the Civil War that did not induce discontinuity. But the discontinuity he had in mind was the establishment of continuity with the capitalist democracy of the North. “How can republican institutions, free schools, free churches, free social intercourse exist in a mingled community of nabobs and serfs? . . . If the South is ever to be made a safe Republic let her lands be cultivated by the toil of the owners, or the free labor of intelligent citizens.” The South thus would be re-made—into the image of a New England landscape, with small factories, free enterprise, banks, schools, and wages. “I look to a popular education so advanced that under . . . impartial law all creeds and all tongues and all races shall be gathered with an equal protection,” Wendell Phillips explained. “The great trouble of the South lies in its ignorance. Awake it to enterprise.”
The promoters of emancipation were not bent on promoting a revolution so much as they were intent on snuffing one out—a backward-looking, aristocratic revolution—in order to put the South back on the track it should have been on from the beginning of the republic.
The search for a revolution inside the Civil War is sometimes simply a search after something novel to say about an American event. Sometimes, however, the search for a “second American Revolution” is the offspring of a question that bedeviled Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and that bedevils historians of a Marxist persuasion today, the question posed by Werner Sombart a century ago: Why is there no socialism in America? Why, in other words, is there, in the land of the American Revolution, no interest in a social revolution of the classes? The answers on offer since then have been many and various. But one answer to Sombart’s question that has been overlooked may be Lincoln and the Civil War itself.
Lincoln and the Civil War imparted to the idea of democracy a nobility and a moral grandeur that democracy has sometimes lacked. After all, democracy assumes that the humblest of citizens is competent to participate in governing; if the humblest citizen turns out to be a boor, a simpleton, or a redneck, democracy will quickly begin to lose its luster. But the victory of the North over slavery was a moment in which democracy shed any appearance of the commonplace and the ho-hum, and was borne up on the wings of courage, self-sacrifice, and the soaring eloquence of one humble but extraordinary president. Democracy can be dreadfully ordinary, because it is about the interests of ordinary people, rather than about knights in armor and royalty in gold carriages; Lincoln and the Civil War gave democracy the strength of giants and put into its hand the shining sword of freedom. Perhaps, in looking for a revolution, people have mistaken the means for the end, for in the Civil War, what we got was not revolution, but freedom. And freedom is worth having, by revolution or any other means.