Fact and Counterfact: The "Second American Revolution" Revisited

By Ransom, Roger L. | Civil War History, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Fact and Counterfact: The "Second American Revolution" Revisited


Ransom, Roger L., Civil War History


To be sure the battles and campaigns of the epoch [Civil War] are significant to the military strategist; the tragedy and heroism of the contest furnish inspiration to patriots and romance to the makers of epics. But the core of the vortex lay elsewhere. It was in the flowing substance of things limned by statistical reports on finance, commerce, capital, industry, railways, and agriculture, by provisions of constitutional law, and by pages of statute books--prosaic muniments which show that the so-called civil war was in reality a Second American Revolution.

Charles and Mary Beard

It has been seventy years since Charles and Mary Beard used the term "Second American Revolution" to describe their interpretation of the American Civil War. Writing at a time when the debates over reunion and reconciliation had finally subsided; when the construction of monuments to the fallen heroes had been largely completed, and when the pension claims of all but a few surviving veterans had been settled, the Beards felt that the time had come when "the economist and lawyer, looking more calmly on the scene," could discover "that armed conflict had been only one phase of the cataclysm, a transitory phase; that at bottom the so-called Civil War, or the War between the States ... was a social war, ending in the unquestioned establishment of a new power in the government, making vast changes in the arrangement of classes, in the accumulation and distribution of wealth, in the course of industrial development, and in the Constitution inherited from the Fathers."(1)

Over the intervening years the term "Second American Revolution" has undergone numerous reinterpretations, yet it remains a fixture in the vocabulary of historians of the Civil War Era.(2) The term is most frequently associated with the proposition advanced by the Beards that the Civil War dramatically altered the balance of political power between North and South and greatly accelerated the emergence of industrial capitalism in the years after the war. More recently, historians who see the elimination of slavery and destruction of the slave regime in the South as the revolutionary outcome of the war have referred to the changes in the South after 1865 as the Second American Revolution--albeit an unfinished revolution. A third view is that of the contemporaries who lived through the war; they saw revolutionary aspects in their struggle. Southerners regarded their "rebellion" as a revolution against tyranny--in this case: Northern Republicans--and looked for inspiration to the war in which their forefathers had rebelled against King George. Northerners, by contrast, saw the conflict as an effort to hold together the sacred union that was formed out of the rebellion against England. For both sides, the Civil War was a continuation of the struggle for freedom that began in 1776.

The Beards were quite specific as to the nature of the changes they called a "revolution." In 1940 Louis Hacker succinctly summarized what subsequently became known as the Hacker-Beard Thesis:

   The American Civil War turned out to be a revolution indeed. But its
   striking achievement was the triumph of industrial capitalism. The
   industrial capitalist, through their political spokesmen, the Republicans,
   had succeeded in capturing the state and using it as an instrument to
   strengthen their economic position. It was no accident, therefore, that
   while the war was waged on the field and through Negro emancipation, in
   Congress' halls the victory was made secure by the passage of tariff,
   banking, public-land, railroad, and contract labor legislation.(3)

The removal of Southern political presence from the government during the war enabled passage of these laws, and suppression of the rebellion ensured that the Republican program of political economy would dominate postwar policy. Ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments gave the vote to the freed slaves, destroyed the economic base of the slave oligarchy that had stymied Northern political objectives before the war, and laid the legal groundwork for the emergence of an industrial order. …

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