Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as “Revolutionary”

with 6 comments

[Note: This post is part of a series on The Civil War as Revolution which is available at the following links: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War, and Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as Revolutionary.]


Indulge me while I – mull over and expound upon – one of Dr. McPherson’s essays in Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution.

If the mantel of “revolutionary” is worn by individuals who – because of their unique presence – drive transformational change, Abraham Lincoln must certainly be considered among them. Such a label might at first seem unfitting in that Lincoln was known for his conservatism. Indeed his early actions reflected caution and a desire for a limited, minimally disruptive war. His journey toward “revolutionary” took a big leap forward when the Border States ignored his repeated offers of graduated and compensated emancipation. His failure to sway them left him angry enough to, as McPherson phrased it, “embrace the revolution.” Lincoln’s “revolutionary” response? He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the final version of which was delivered on New Year’s Day 1863. With it came a new “revolutionary” charter for the war: forceful overthrow of slavery and the South with it.

Emancipation Proclamation
McPherson considers the enabling of black soldiers to fight and kill their former masters “by far the most revolutionary dimension” of Lincoln’s “emancipation policy.” And embrace it Mr. Lincoln did. Over 180,000 black soldiers would serve in Northern armies before the conflict ended. I must agree with Mr. McPherson’s conclusion that Lincoln evolved to fit the pattern of a revolutionary leader and became – once over his initial reluctance – arguably more radical than some of the founding fathers

District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln
Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 (Library of Congress)
Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree


6 Responses

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  1. Rene,

    First, congratulations on your new CW blog. Will you post info about which school you are attending and your courses as well as your other academic background?

    Second, from my readings, I believe that if nothing else, Lincoln was an excellent politician and a very practical, realistic man. He had a wonderful ability to read the poltical winds to decide when or if to undertake an action or policy. Like many doers, he spent little time analyzing his political perspective and just proceeded with what he thought would best accomplish his aim: saving the Union at all costs. And importantly, unlike his counterpart, the thin-skinned Jefferson Davis, Lincoln was not loathe to admit his errors and take action to correct them. The more I read about him, the more I’ve come to admire him. BTW, Dr. McPherson’s works are terrific; I have most of them and use them often.

    “FNG” was a term related to the Vietnam Conflict although I didn’t hear it since I was there early on–1965. I has to do with a derogatory reference to a new arrival in RVN–a F______ New Guy.

    Larry F.

    Laurence Freiheit

    November 9, 2007 at 4:23 pm

  2. Larry,

    Thanks so much for dropping by Wig-Wags and for your thoughtful comment. I agree with your assessment of Lincoln. While I am just beginning to know him better through my readings, I find myself pulled in. Damn, the man could write.

    As for him being a “doer,” I found fascinating that he would spend hours and even days at the telegraph office so that he could stay connected and engaged with his commanders. It must have been difficult for him to not be in the field more often.

    Jefferson Davis appeared to have the same need at least when he had a “do nothing” commander like Johnston in command. William C. Davis’ account of JD trekking out to Johnston’s camp each day was revealing. I’m anxious to read more about Davis. I picked up “Jefferson Davis, American” by William J. Cooper, Jr. and hope to read it over break. I also have “Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War” by David Herbert Donald and all volumes of the Pulitzer Prize Edition of “R.E. Lee, A Biography” by Douglas Southall Freeman that are on my list to read as well. The latter I picked up in a fiercely fought auction on e-bay. While in good shape, the set has the look, feel and smell of old, treasured books.

    Thanks for the additional information on “FNG.” How appropriate! (LOL!). Hope I can prove my metal.



    Rene Tyree

    November 10, 2007 at 12:41 am

  3. Hello,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Lincoln and his revolutionary thoughts. His journey from conservative thoughts about slavery in general evolved steadily towards emancipation, of course. His primary goal in the beginning was the preservation of the Union. He even stated that if he could preserve the Union without freeing a single slave, he would do so.

    This is not to be interpreted that Lincoln accepted slavery. Quite the opposite, he abhorred it. He was moved to hate it when he journeyed to New Orleans as a young man and saw the evils of it himself.

    Lincoln is today criticized for not doing more to free the slaves earlier in his term in office, and therefore, history revisionists claim he was a racist for not doing so. But they miss the point entirely. He was in a position of political weakness and even military weakness thanks to the state of the war in 1861 and 1862. Only after victory at Antietam in 1862, did Lincoln feel the time was right for issuing the Emancipation.

    Of course, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves. It was, however, a critical *psychological* and *political* tool which both further served to demoralize the South. It also helped to win the political favor of the abolitionist forces and helped to guarantee Lincoln’s re-election in 1864.

    Thank you for your take on Lincoln. I find it to be quite good and you’re off to a great start with your blog. I’m going to be adding it to my own blogroll.

    Geoff Elliott

    November 17, 2007 at 10:16 pm

  4. Geoff,
    Thanks so much for your insightful comments. I completely agree with you about the “psychological” impacts of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a brilliant move on Lincoln’s part.

    Mr. Lincoln was certainly an intriguing figure. His section may be the fastest growing in my library. I certainly appreciate the focus that you and others are providing in the blogosphere. And thanks for adding me to your blogroll!


    Rene Tyree

    November 18, 2007 at 4:45 pm

  5. […] For more…see the post Cogitating on Abraham Lincoln as “Revolutionary.” […]

  6. Hi Rene, Wow what can I say great site! I would like to respond to Geoff on his comment of Lincoln not being racist. Based on our current interpretation of the word he would have been. Look at his coments in the first debate with Douglass in Ottawa Ill. http://www.nps.gov/archive/liho/debate1.htm His early sympathy for the black man is tempered by his racial superiority, ” I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” This position held by most white people then and now is the basis of all racism. His comments in this debate don’t overshadow his future works, they just place it within the context of his mindset at that time. Mario

    Mario Minichino

    December 9, 2007 at 3:25 pm

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