How Revolutionary Was Our Second American Revolution?

smithsonian During my last visit to the American History Museum in Washington, D.C. I got to see their Changing America exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation and March on Washington.  It was predictable from beginning to end. The exhibit was divided between the two key events in an overall narrative that highlighted America’s inevitable embrace of freedom and civil rights. It’s as watered down an exhibit as you can get and no doubt appealed to our sense of ourselves as exceptional and heroic.  Visitors leave the 1863 side with little understanding of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, but with the echo of that overused phrase: “The Promise of Freedom.” It’s a phrase that fits comfortably within an overall narrative that points to the possibilities of freedom in the form of civil rights and an acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by blacks for the preservation of the Union.

But what if we are asking the wrong questions? Or what if the questions we tend to ask regarding what African Americans deserved during the postwar years needs to be posed alongside others? I can’t help but think about this as I make my way through Carole Emberton’s new book, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War. Here are a few of the key concerns she believes animated many Americans, including Republicans, during the immediate postwar years.

Republicans were just as concerned with containing black freedom as they were protecting black lives in the South. The fear of slave rebellion that gripped white Americans for at least two centuries instructed Republican lawmakers that federal intervention in the South was necessary to protect whites as well as blacks. The old specter of Saint-Domingue and more recent reports of violence from Jamaica sparked concerns that the American South also might be on the verge of an uprising. Furthermore, racist ideas about black criminality exploded after emancipation, not only among white Southerners but whites in the North as well, setting the stage for the South’s Redemption in the mid-1870s. By then, events in the former Confederacy seemed to prove that freedom had been the “great crime” that George Fitzhugh claimed.

While the language of redemption helped assuage the grief, uncertainty, and guilt many Americans felt surrounding the war and emancipation, leading lawmakers to pass the nation’s first civil rights legislation, there remained a troubling ambivalence about the growing power of the federal government as well as some uncertainty about ex-slaves’ peaceful incorporation into the nation. A growing concern about reestablishing social order, not only in the South but also throughout the country, cast an ominous cloud over the joyous emancipation celebrations that marked the end of the war. In this context, the idea of redemptive suffering could circumscribe rather than enhance former slaves’ quest for freedom. As the question of what freedpeople were to be redeemed from–white violence or themselves–began to circulate among those in charge of overseeing the transition from slavery to freedom, the prospects for federal intervention to protect freedpeople diminished. Thus, even at the moment when the nation appeared to be most sympathetic to the plight of freedpeople, the process of nation building and the imperatives of economic reconstruction compromised this sympathy. (pp. 34-35)

What I like about this approach is that it recasts the popular history of a victorious North v. a defeated South to that of a nation attempting to deal with the consequences of freedom within a racial culture that had changed little. In fact, I read Emberton as arguing that emancipation and freedom brought assumptions about black violence and white supremacy across the nation into much sharper relief. Such a perspective makes it much easier for me to understand the emotional pleas of Northern Democrats such as Samuel Cox, who worried about the consequences of emancipation in Ohio back in June 1862. More importantly, it offers an alternative framework for understanding the next 100 years of American history and beyond.

Finally, Emberton’s interpretation points to just how appropriate it was that fifty years ago this week the most important civil rights march took place in our nation’s capital and not in the Deep South.

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15 comments… add one
  • Edwin Thompson Aug 27, 2013 @ 5:06

    Kevin – I saw this exhibit in the spring. It has been there since last December and we were told it will be moved to the new African American History and Culture Museum when it opens on the mall in 2015. I thought it was arranged quite well for such a small exhibit. The new museum should be interesting – and long overdue. Those Americans should have been honored a long time ago.

    Thanks for the heads up on Carole Emberton book. That is a good excerpt from the book, but it doesn’t support your blog title of “second American revolution”? The American revolution from 1776 was always about personal liberty and the civil war, women’s suffrage, civil rights, etc – all extensions of our original revolution. Let’s not forget that post civil war America struggled with eugenics to support our racist view of cultures. No – the slavery issues and resulting civil war was an orignal founding father fight (as Lincoln said in his campaign speeeches)and one of the good fights that American fought. Even if the fight was against ourselves. In 1861, America’s good and evil sides fought, and our good side won the war.

    I didn’t read her book (but I may now), but she seems to be speaking more to human nature and the difficulty in changing cultural values (wich is difficult for all of us). Also – on your last comment about the deep south. Let’s remember that it will soon be the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing and we just passed the 50 anniversary of the children’s march in Birmingham where dogs and fire hoses were let loose on them. The civil rights march had to happen in Washington – a quarter million people marching in the deep south in 1963 would not have gone well. Dogs and fire hoses would have been the least of the worries. In 2013 it can be done. Lot of business for restaurants and hotels – hahaha.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 27, 2013 @ 5:10

      Historians such as James McPherson have referred to the Civil War as a Second American Revolution given the end of slavery and the Reconstruction Amendments. I highly recommend reading the book. Thanks for the comment.

  • Chris Evans Aug 26, 2013 @ 15:00

    Peter Parrish in his wonderful 1975 book ‘The American Civil War’ has a excellent couple of chapters summing up Reconstruction and then the meaning of the war.

    He really does a good job and talks about whether the War was revolutionary or not.

    I recommend readers seek it out as I really don’t know if anyone has so concisely and eloquently spoke about the consequences of the war on this nation.


  • London John Aug 26, 2013 @ 7:27

    “more recent reports of violence from Jamaica sparked concerns that the American South also might be on the verge of an uprising.” It’s rather surprising the Morant Bay Rebellion made an impression in the US as the actual rebellion was a pretty small affair with maybe a dozen killed. The reason it’s remembered is the grotesque over-reaction by the government with 1000 or more black people killed by British troops or summarily executed. The reaction in Britain divides the victorian intelligentsia into racists and anti-racists. The anti-racists led by Charles Darwin formed the Jamaica Committee to try to prosecute Governor Eyre for his atrocities. The racists formed the Governor Eyre Defence and Aid Committee. The leader was Thomas Carlyle (no surprise there) but the membership of Charles Dickens and John Ruskin may surprise. But what was there to particularly concern Americans?

    • M.D. Blough Aug 26, 2013 @ 8:42

      The fear of servile rebellion was deep and profound among American whites, not just in the South, and grossly disproportionate to any actual instances of rebellion which were few and far between.

      • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2013 @ 8:43

        Hi Margaret,

        I can’t recommend Emberton’s book enough. Definitely belongs on your reading list.

      • Patrick Young Aug 26, 2013 @ 9:47

        I was watching an “roundtable” of actors and artists at the 1963 March on Washington that was on CSPAN 3 Sunday. The interview noted that people were afraid of violence from the protesters. One of the roundtable members noted that violence had come from whites, not blacks, during the Civil Rights marches.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 26, 2013 @ 7:23

    not only do neo-Confederates use the term, it was used by actual Confederates themselves. Stonewall Jackson used it when he said farewell to the Stonewall Brigade (Jackson had been reassigned to a command in the Shenandoah Valley). The scene was featured in “Gods and Generals.”

    • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2013 @ 7:30

      Thanks for the reminder. Guess I have come across it.

  • Jimmy Dick Aug 26, 2013 @ 4:58

    It was not revolutionary at all. Nothing new was being introduced by the Confederacy. It was the actions of a group of men who wanted to maintain the system they had put into place that gave them the majority of power. There was absolutely nothing revolutionary in trying to maintain that system.
    I find the attempts to consider the Civil War a revolution to be nothing more than an attempt to give legitimacy to the Confederacy. The people who were trying to secede in 1860-61 couldn’t hold a candle to the men and women of the American Revolution. From 1760-1783 the people were involved in a tremendous change in the way they perceived their very existence in the world and the British Empire. They desired to change that position which was revolutionary.
    The Civil War was caused by a desire to not change a position. It was the complete opposite of what makes something revolutionary.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2013 @ 5:05

      The reference to a Second American Revolution is usually made in regard to emancipation, freedom and the Reconstruction Amendments. Not sure why you are emphasizing the leaders of the Confederacy, though they certainly thought of themselves as following in the footsteps of the Revolutionary generation.

      • Patrick Young Aug 26, 2013 @ 6:39

        Kevin, I’ve sometimes heard folks refer to the Confederacy as a “Second American Revolution” designed to return America to the principles of the Constitution. Of course, i never meet these folks in person, but I have occasional intercourse with them on the net.Since they use the term in a non-confrontational way, I assume that within their milieu this is considered unexceptional language.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 26, 2013 @ 6:40

          Interesting. I’ve never heard the Confederacy referred to as such. I assume this is coming from the Hunter Wallace fringe.

      • Jimmy Dick Aug 26, 2013 @ 17:50

        They were following in the footsteps of their ancestors, but they were only continuing the Revolution created by them. The American Revolution has not ended nor is it close to ending. You can’t have a Second American Revolution because the first one is still in progress. It is a process of change that sweeps all before it as it transforms everything in its path. When American colonists began to question slavery as being incompatible with liberty in the 1760s and 70s (although Quakers and others were questioning its morality long before then) the death knell of slavery was sounded. It too was bound up in the Revolution and its radicalism. Unfortunately, like so many things it took time to end, but it ended.

        This is why the Confederacy and its leaders were wrong about their creating a Second American Revolution. They were attempting to stop what the Revolution was and failed. They never had a chance of preventing it, only delaying it for a while. We see this still occurring as various groups or factions attempt to prevent change in American history. Those changes usually involve egalitarianism and that is really at the core of the American Revolution in many ways. Freedom, liberty, and justice for all demand equality.

  • Patrick Young Aug 26, 2013 @ 4:09

    What sometimes is neglected is the Republican distrust of poor, propertyless people generally, regardless of race. The large masses of rural black and urban immigrant proletariats, however necessary for Republican economic development, were treated similarly by the Republicans. The approach to both was both wary and paternalistic. Where Democratic Party urban machinery provided paths to power for organized immigrant constituencies, both immigrant and black proletariats were largely shut out of equivalent collective power within the Republican Party. When Northern white Republicans “lost interest” in the civil rights of blacks, the black constituency lacked the levers necessary within the party to compel attention.

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