Was the Civil War a second American Revolution? Jan 5, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 17 • By ALLEN C. GUELZO
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.”
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must be rewritten, and a major debate takes place over whether English common law should still retain authority or be superseded by legislative statute.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.”
Sherman breaks the deadlockNov 10, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 09 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
On September 2, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln received a telegram from General William Tecumseh Sherman that read, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” This was more than a victory. It was deliverance.
2:05 PM, Sep 17, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
At a school on MacDill Air Force Base, President Obama was asked whether he fought in the civil war. "No," Obama reportedly responded. "I was born in 1961."
Via the pool report:
The fight for Georgia Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
In the summer of 1864, the Union cause rested with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. They commanded the most formidable armies ever seen on the continent, yet neither had been in uniform four years earlier, when the war began. Both were West Point trained and had served, without distinction, in the regular army. One had left the army in disgrace; the other in frustration.
The fight that Grant regrettedJun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
The evening before the battle, a Union officer walked among troops who would be assaulting Confederate positions in the morning and observed something he had not seen before. As he wrote after the war, “I noticed that many of the soldiers had taken off their coats and seemed to be engaged in sewing up rents in them.”
10:39 AM, May 12, 2014 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
Good news for those of us – and our numbers are legion – who are abidingly and insatiably interested in the American Civil War and the large footprint it has left on our history: Mackubin Owens has published a splendid piece in the current National Review on the battles and maneuvers of 150 years ago that have come to be known as “The Virginia Overland Campaign.” In his treatment of
150 years ago—the appointment that won a war Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
He arrived without ceremony. No pomp, no pageantry. It was as far in spirit from Caesar’s entry into Rome as it could possibly have been. He had come to Washington to be made only the third lieutenant general in the nation’s history (George Washington and Winfield Scott were the others) and to assume command of all the Union armies and, consequently, the direction of the war from Texas to Virginia. He was being asked—commanded, actually—by civilian leadership to save the Republic. He was not the first.
And three years of foreign policy missteps. 8:35 AM, Mar 15, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
Today marks the third anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian rebellion, a popular uprising that started as a protest movement and degenerated into a civil war that has already claimed more than 146,000 lives. As the White House has come to enumerate the various reasons why it has balked at arming the rebels—they’re fragmented, they’re farmers, they’re al Qaeda—it’s worth remembering that even before the opposition picked up weapons to defend itself against a regime shooting at unarmed protestors, it took Obama nearly half a year before he called for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step aside.
8:01 AM, Oct 21, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
The New York Times think it's found a civil war among conservatives and Republicans. The Times quotes the boss:
Some optimistic Republicans note that both of those campaigns planted the seeds for the conservative movement’s greatest success: Reagan’s 1980 election and two terms as president.
6:07 PM, Aug 28, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
In an interview with PBS, President Obama says no decision has yet been made on Syria:
"I have not made a decision," said Obama. "I have gotten options from our military. I had extensive discussions with my national security team."
The president went on to say that "terrible things have been happening in Syria for quite some time" and that the "Assad regime there has been killing its own people."
Gettysburg: an epic tale of not quite enough and just in timeJul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
A century and a half later, the battle of Gettysburg’s place in the national consciousness is so secure that you think of it as inevitable: the great contest of arms toward which all the previous battles of the Civil War had been leading. Thus, all that came before the breaking of Pickett’s Charge was rising action, and all that followed, conclusion and denouement.
A masterpiece of military art Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
While Robert E. Lee was whipping Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville in May 1863, there were ominous developments for the Confederacy in Mississippi. During that month, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee crossed the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg and then executed a lightning campaign of maneuver that sealed the doom of that important Confederate stronghold, which surrendered on July 4.
1:02 PM, Apr 29, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
President Obama thanked the the National Academy of Sciences and said if it weren't for them, "I would not be here." He was referring to the work they did to help the Union in the Civil War.
Via the pool reports: