By James M. McPherson

During the fateful years of 1860 and 1861 James A. Garfield, a representative in the Ohio legislature, corresponded with his former student at Hiram College, Burke Hinsdale, about the alarming developments in national affairs. They agreed that this "present revolution" of Southern secession from the Union was sure to spark a future revolution of freedom for the slaves.

Garfield quoted with approval the famous speech by Republican leader William H. Seward, in which Seward had characterized the ideological conflict between the proslavery South and the free-labor North as "an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces" which "means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either a slave-holding nation, or a free-labor nation." Garfield echoed Seward’s certainty of the outcome. The rise of the Republican party, they agreed, was a "revolution," and "revolutions never go backward." Southern secession meant that this revolution would probably triumph in the violence of civil war.

If that turned out to be the case, wrote Garfield, so be it, for the Bible taught that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins." Or as Hinsdale put it: "All the great charters of humanity have been writ in blood . . . England’s was engrossed in [the blood] of the Stuarts – and that of the United States in [the blood] of England." Soon, perhaps, the slaves, would achieve their charter of freedom in the blood of their masters.1

Shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, James Garfield joined the Union army and rose eventually to the rank of major general. From the outset, he believed that Northern victory would accomplish the revolution of freedom for the slaves. In October, 1862 he insisted that the war must and would destroy "the old slaveholding, aristocratic social dynasty" that had ruled the nation, and replace it with a "new Republican one." A few months later, while reading Louis Adolph Thier’s ten-volume History of the French Revolution, Garfield was "constantly struck" with "the remarkable analogy which the events of that day bear to our own rebellious times."2

In December 1863 Garfield doffed his army uniform for the civilian garb of a congressman. During the first three of his seventeen years in Congress, Garfield was one of the most radical of the radical Republicans. He continued to view the Civil War and Reconstruction as a revolution that must wipe out all traces of the ancien regime in the South. In his maiden speech to the House of Representatives on January 28, 1864, he called for the confiscation of the land of Confederate planters and the redistribution of this land among freed slaves and white Unionists in the South. To illustrate the need for such action, Garfield drew upon the experience of the English revolutions against the Stuart kings in the seventeenth century and the American Revolution against Britain in the eighteenth. "Our situation," he said, "affords a singular parallel to that of the people of Great Britian in their great revolution" and an even more important parallel to our forefathers of 1776. "The Union had its origin in revolution," Garfield pointed out, and "confiscation played a very important part in that revolution . . . Every one of the thirteen States, with a single exception, confiscated the real and personal property of Tories in arms." The Southern planters were the Tories of this second American revolution, he continued, and to break their power we must not only emancipate their slaves, "we must [also] take away the platform on which slavery stands – the great landed estates of the armed rebels . . . Take that land away, and divide it into homes for the men who have saved our country." And after their land was taken away, Garfield went on, "the leaders of this rebellion must be executed or banished from the republic. They must follow the fate of the Tories of the Revolution." These were harsh measures, Garfield admitted, but "let no weak sentiments of misplaced sympathy deter us from inaugurating a measure which will cleanse our nation and make it the fit home of freedom . . . Let us not despise the severe wisdom of our Revolutionary fathers when they served their generation in a similar way."3

Garfield later receded from his commitment to confiscation and his belief in execution or banishment. But he continued to insist on the enfranchisement of freed slaves as voters, a measure that many contemporaries viewed as revolutionary. Garfield linked this also to the ideas of the first American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence, he said in a speech on July 4, 1865, proclaimed the equality of birthright of all men and the need for the consent of the governed for a just government. This meant black men as well as white men, said Garfield, and to exclude emancipated slaves from equal participation in the government would be a denial of "the very axioms of the Declaration of Indepedence."4

In 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution as a moderate compromise that granted blacks equal civil rights but not equal political rights. When the Southern states refused to ratify this moderate measure, Garfield renewed his call for revolutionary change to be imposed on the South by its Northern conquerors. Since the Southern whites, he said in early 1867, "would not cooperate with us in rebuilding what they had destroyed, we must remove the rubbish and rebuild from the bottom . . . We must lay the heavy hand of military authority upon these Rebel communities, and . . . plant liberty on the ruins of slavery."5

This rhetoric of revolution was hardly unique to Garfield. Numerous abolitionists, radical Republicans, and radical army officers were saying the same things. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips was the most articulate spokesman for a revolutionary policy. He insisted that the Civil War "is primarily a social revolution. The war can only be ended by annihilating that Oligarchy which formed and rules the South and makes the war – by annihilating a state of society. The whole social system of the Gulf States must be taken to pieces." The congressional leader of the radical Republicans, Thaddeus Stevens, was equally outspoken. We must "treat this war as a radical revolution," he said. Reconstruction must "revolutionize Southern institutions, habits, and manners. . . The foundations of their institutions. . . must be broken up and relaid, or all our blood and treasure have been spent in vain." The colonel of a Massachusetts regiment stationed in the occupied portion of South Carolina during 1862 said that the war could be won and peace made permanent only by "changing, revolutionizing, absorbing the institutions, life, and manners of the conquered people."6

It was not only the radicals who perceived the Civil War as a revolution. Many other contemporaries also compared the American Civil War to the great revolutions of history. A British writer characterized the radical leader Thaddeus Stevens as "the Robespierre, Danton, and Marat of America, all rolled into one."7 A Northern Democratic newspaper in 1863 compared the abolitionists who were urging the overthrow of the Southern ruling class to "the ‘Committee of Twelve’ of the days of the Reign of Terror."8  In 1863, Democratic Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, leader of the antiwar "Copperhead" faction of his party, expressed the fear that the war would produce "universal and social revolution, anarchy and bloodshed, compared with which the Reign of Terror in France was a merciful visitation."9 The conservative and pro-Confederate Times of London consistently described the radial Republicans as the Jacobins of the second American Revolution, a label that was subsequently picked up by some historians and used as an epithet to portray the radicals as bloodthirsty fanatics.

Southern whites who came home from the war in 1865 to find the old regime swept away spoke in the language of revolution to describe the changes they found. A shell-shocked newspaper editor in Memphis declared that "the events of the last five years have produced an entire revolution in the entire Southern country."10  A confederate general and former planter in Louisiana who returned to New Orleans after the war to make a new start in life wrote sadly at the end of 1865 that nothing was the same in the city he had once loved: "Society has been completely changed by the war. The revolution of ’89 did not produce a greater change in the ‘Ancien Regime’ than has this in our social life."11  A South Carolina journalist agreed, adding that it was "the maddest, most infamous revolution in history."12

Many European radicals also viewed the American Civil War as a revolution. In London, Karl Marx followed the American war with intense interest. He wrote extensively about it in articles for a Vienna newspaper and in private letters to his colleague Friedrich Engels. Marx described the secession of the "slave oligarchy" as a counterrevolution against the growing power of the Northern bourgeoisie. Marx considered the war for the Union against this counterrevolution to be a "world-transforming . . . revolutionary movement" that "will have a beneficient[sic] effect on the whole world" once the Yankees understood that to win the war they would have to "adopt revolutionary methods" – to proclaim emancipation and enlist the slaves to fight for their freedom. When the North did this in 1863, Marx was ecstatic. Only three years earlier, he wrote, "the problem [had been one of] making no further concessions to the slaveholders, while now the abolition of slavery is the avowed and in part already realized aim . . . Never has such a gigantic transformation taken place so rapidly." "Out of the death of slavery," wrote Marx after the war, would spring "a new and vigorous life" for working class people of all races, for "labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded." In January 1865, Marx drafted an Address of the International Workingmen’s Association to President Lincoln. This document praised Lincoln as "the single-minded son of the working class" who had led "his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world . . . The workingmen of Europe feel sure that as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes."13

Other European radicals shared Marx’s vision. Young Georges Clemenceau, future leader of the extreme Left in French politics and premier of France during the later stages of World War I, lived in the United States from 1866 to 1869 and wrote articles on American politics for a radical Paris newspaper. He described the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of the freedmen, and the victory of the free-labor bourgeois North over the slaveholding aristocracy of the South as "one of the most radical revolutions know in history."14

One could go on at great length piling up quotations from contemporary observers representing various political viewpoints who regarded the Civil War as a revolution. But three more examples should be more than sufficient to clinch the point. In the middle of the war, a moderate Republican newspaper called the abolition of slavery "the greatest social and political revolution of the age." In 1865 a moderate Democratic newspaper declared that by destroying both slavery and "the domineering slaveholding aristocracy . . . this tremendous war has wrought in four years the revolutionary changes which would probably have required a hundred years of peace." And in 1869 the historian and literary scholar George Ticknor, a retired professor at Harvard, wrote that the war had created a "great gulf between what happened before in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen hereafter. It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born."15

Like Ticknor, many modern historians have viewed the Civil War as a great turning point, a "second American Revolution" in the words of Charles Beard. As Beard viewed it, slavery and emancipation were almost incidental to the real causes and consequences of the war. The sectional conflict arose from the contending economic interests of plantation agriculture and industrializing capitalism. Slavery happened to be the labor system of plantation agriculture, but apart from that it was not a crucial issue in and of itself except for a handful of abolitionists. In effect, the war was a class conflict between a Yankee capitalist bourgeoisie and the Southern planter aristocracy. "Merely by the accidents of climate, soil, and geography," wrote Beard, "was it a sectional struggle." The triumph of the North under the leadership of the Republican party, which represented the interests of Northern capitalism, brought about "the unquestioned establishment of a new power in the government, making vast changes in the arrangement of classes, in the distribution of wealth, in the course of industrial development." If the overthrow of the king and the aristocracy by the middle classes of England in the 1640′s was to be known as the Puritan Revolution, and the overthrow of the king, nobility, and clergy by the middle classes and peasants of France as the French Revolution, maintained Beard, then "the social cataclysm in which the capitalists, laborers, and farmers of the North and West drove from power in the national government the planting aristocracy of the South" was the "Second American Revolution, and in a strict sense, the First" – the first because the Revolution of 1776 had produced no such changes in the distribution of wealth and power among classes.16

Beard’s interpretation was a modern variant of Marx’s perception of the Civil War, with the question of slavery – which was of central importance for Marx – shunted into the wings. Although not strictly a Marxist, Beard was influenced by reading Marx. Avowed Marxist historians such as Herbert Aptheker and James S. Allen (the pen name of Sol Auerbach) have emphasized more than did Beard the issue of slavery. For them, the outcome of the Civil War was not merely a triumph of Northern industrial capitalism over plantation agriculture; it was also a victory of the radical bourgeoisie in alliance

with the black proletariat and elements of the white proletariat over the Southern aristocracy.17  That a large percentage of the white "proletariat" in both North and South either supported the Confederacy or opposed emancipation, however, is something of an embarrassment to the Marxian interpretation.

A scholar whose work owes much to Marxian analytical categories is the political sociologist Barrington Moore, who has portrayed the Civil War as "the last Capitalist Revolution." Moore’s argument is subtle and complex, hard to summarize briefly without distortion. He sees the revolutionary dimension of the war as not simply a triumph of freedom over slavery, industrialism over agriculture, the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy – but as a combination of all these things. Plantation agriculture in the South was not a form of feudalism, Moore insists; rather, it was a special form of capitalism that spawned a value system and an ideology which glorified hereditary privilege, racial caste, and slavery while it rejected bourgeois conceptions of equality of opportunity, free labor, and social mobility. Thus the war was a struggle between two conflicting capitalist systems – one reactionary, based on slave labor, and fearful of change; the other progressive, competitive, innovative, and democratic. Although the slave system presented no obstacle to the growth of industrial capitalism as an economic system, it did present a "formidable obstacle" (here is where Moore differs from Beard) "to the establishment of industrial capitalist democracy . . . at least any conception of democracy that includes the goals of human equality, even the limited form of equality of opportunity, and human freedom . . . Labor-repressive agricultural systems, and plantation slavery in particular, are political obstacles to a particular kind of capitalism, at a specific historical stage: competitive democratic capitalism we must call it for lack of a more precise term." In this sense the free-labor ideology of the Republican party in the Civil War era was heir to the radical bourgeois ideologies of the English and French Revolutions, and the triumph of this ideology in the 1860′s was therefore the "last revolutionary offensive on the part of what one may legitimately call urban or bourgeois capitalist democracy . . . It was a violent breakthrough against an older social structure."18

The large number of historians as well as contemporaries who have perceived the Civil War as a revolutionary experience would seem to have established something of a consensus on this question. But in recent years a number of historians have been questioning the idea that the Civil War accomplished any sort of genuine revolution, and some have even denied that it produced much significant change in the social and economic structure of the South or in the status and well-being of black people.

The initial challenge to Beard’s thesis of the war as an economic revolution came from economic historians in the 1960′s. They argued, first, that the basic developments which produced the industrial

revolution in the United States – the railroad, the corporation, the factory system, the techniques of mass production of interchangeable parts, the mechanization of agriculture, and many other aspects of a modernizing industrial economy – began a generation or more before the Civil War, and that while the war may have confirmed and accelerated some of these developments, it produced no fundamental changes of direction. Economic historians demonstrated, second, that the decade of the 1860′s experienced an actual slowing of the rate of economic growth, and therefore the war may have retarded rather than promoted industrialization.19

The first of these arguments is well taken. Crucial innovations in transportation, technology, agriculture, the organization of manufacturing, capital formation and investment did take place in the early nineteenth century. The Civil War did not begin the modernization and industrialization of the American economy. But this truth actually supports rather than contravenes the Beard and Moore theses. Most of these antebellum modernizing developments were concentrated in the North. The South remained a labor-intensive, labor-repressive, undiversified agricultural economy. The contrasting economic systems of the antebellum North and South helped to generate the conflicting proslavery and anti-slavery ideologies that eventually led to war. Northern victory in the war was therefore a triumph for the Northern economic system and the social values it had generated. The war discredited the economic ideology and destroyed the national political power of the planter class. In this sense, then, the Civil War produced a massive shift toward national domination by the Northern model of competitive democratic free-labor capitalism, a transformation of revolutionary proportions as described by Beard and Moore.

This ties in with the second point concerning the slowdown in the rate of economic growth in the 1860′s. It is true that the rate of growth during the decade of the 1860′s was lower than in any other decade between the 1830′s and the 1930′s. But these growth data include the South. The war accomplished a wholesale devastation of Southern economic resources. If we consider the Northern states alone, the stimulus of war production probably caused a spurt in the economic growth rate. It was the destruction of the Southern economy that caused the lag. After the war the national economy grew at the fastest rate of the century for a couple of decades, a growth that represented a catching-up process from the lag of the 1860′s caused by the war’s impact on the South.

Let us take a closer look at that impact. Union invasion of the Confederacy and the destruction of Southern war industries and transportation facilities, the abolition of slavery, the wastage of Southern livestock, and the killing of one-quarter of the South’s white male population of military age made an economic desert out of large portions of the South. While the total value of Northern wealth increased by 50 percent during the 1860′s, Southern wealth decreased by 60 percent. In 1860 the South’s share of the national wealth was 30 percent; in 1870 it was only 12 percent. In 1860 the average per capita income of Southerners, including slaves, was two-thirds of the Northern average; after the war the Southern average dropped to less than two-fifths of the Northern, and did not rise above that level for the rest of the nineteenth century.20

The withdrawal of Southern representatives and senators from Congress when their states seceded also made possible the passage of Republican-sponsored legislation to promote certain kinds of economic development, legislation that had previously been frustrated by the opposition of the Southern-dominated Democratic congressional delegations or by the vetoes of presidents. During the war the Republican Congress enacted higher tariffs to foster industrial development; national banking acts to restore part of the centralized banking and monetary structure destroyed in the 1830′s by Jacksonian Democrats; land grants and government loans to build the first transcontinental railroad, a project defeated in the 1850′s by Southern opposition; a Homestead Act to grant 160 acres of government land to settlers, a measure also opposed by Southerners and vetoed by President James Buchanan before the war; and the land-grant college act of 1862, which turned over federal land to the states to provide income for the establishment of state agricultural and vocational colleges, which became the basis of the modern land-grant state universities.21

The war had a crucial impact on the long-term sectional balance of political power in the nation. Before 1861 the slave states, despite their declining percentage of the population, had used their domination first of the Jeffersonian Republican party and then the Jacksonian Democratic party to achieve an extraordinary degree of power in the national government. In 1861 the United States had been living under the Constitution for seventy-two years. During forty-nine of those years, the President of the United States had been a Southerner – and a slaveholder. After the Civil War a century passed before another Southerner was elected president. In Congress, twenty-four of the thirty-six Speakers of the House down to 1861, and twenty-five of the thirty-six presidents pro tem of the Senate, were from the South. For more than a half century after the outbreak of the war, none of the speakers or presidents pro tem was from the South. From 1789 to 1861, twenty of the thirty-five Supreme Court justices had been from the South. At all times during those years the South had a majority on the Court. But only five of the twenty-six justices appointed during the next half century were Southerners.

These sweeping transformations in the balance of economic and political power between North and South undoubtedly merit the name of revolution. But this was a revolution in an external sense, and was only a part of what contemporaries meant when they described the war as a revolution. More important, in the eyes of many, was the internal revolution: the emancipation of four million slaves, their elevation to civil and political equality with whites, and the destruction of the old ruling class in the South – all within the space of a half-dozen years. This was what the disgruntled South Carolinian whom I quoted earlier meant when he deplored Reconstruction as "the maddest, most infamous revolution in history," and what the sympathetic Frenchman Georges Clemenceau meant when he spoke of "one of the most radical revolutions known to history." This was what freed slaves meant in the 1860′s when they said jubilantly, "the bottom rail’s on top, and it’s gonna stay right there."

But in recent years a number of skeptical historians have maintained that the bottom rail never was on top – that a true internal social revolution never took place. Such scholars as C. Vann Woodward, Jacque Voegeli, and William Gillette have argued that the Republican party’s commitment to equal rights for the freemen was superficial, flawed by racism, only partly implemented, and quickly abandoned.22  Other historians such as William McFeely, Louis Gerteis, Peter Ripley, and Lawrence Powell maintain that the policies of the Union occupation army, the Freedman’s Bureau, and the national government operated in the interests of the white landowners rather than the black freedman, and were designed to preserve a docile, dependent, cheap labor force in the South rather than to encourage a revolutionary transformation of land tenure and economic status.23  And finally, another group of scholars, particularly Jonathan Wiener, Jay Mandle, and Dwight Billings maintain that the domination of the Southern economy by the old planter class continued unbroken after the Civil War, and that by such devices as the crop lien system, debt peonage, share-cropping, and a host of legal restrictions on black labor mobility, the planters kept their labor force subservient and poor in a manner little different from slavery.24  Thus, in the words of Louis Gerteis, the war and Reconstruction produced no "fundamental changes" in the "antebellum forms of economic and social organization in the South." No "social revolution" took place because the abolition of slavery produced no "specific changes either in the status of the former slaves or in the conditions under which they labored."25

These recent studies have left the question of the Civil War’s revolutionary dimensions in considerable doubt and confusion. Part of the problem stems from the elastic meaning of the world "revolution." The term is often thrown around with careless abandon. In our own time we have been living through dozens of supposed revolutions: the technological revolution, the cybernetic revolution, the sexual revolution, the black revolution, the green revolution, the feminist revolution, the youth revolution, the paperback revolution, the stereo revolution, the revolution of rising expectations – to name only a few.

By these standards, the Civil War was indeed a revolution – but so was just about everything else in American history. If we turn for help to the large scholarly literature on revolutions, we find almost as wide a variety of meanings as in common parlance. Definitions range from such brief statements as: Revolution "connotes a sudden and far reaching change, a major break in the continuity of development"; or "a sudden overthrow of established authority, aimed at a fundamental change in the existing social order"; to more complex and sweeping definitions, such as "a Revolution is a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activity and policies." Some analysts, mainly political scientists and political historians, focus on revolutions that overthrow existing governments. For one such analyst, revolution is a "sudden and violent change in the political system and government of a state," while another defines it as "the drastic, sudden substitution of one group in charge of the running of a territorial political entity for another group." But for other scholars, especially, but by no means exclusively those influenced by Marxist thought, even a violent overthrow of political institutions or rulers is not a genuine revolution unless, in Marx’s words, it produces "a social transformation in which the power of the obsolescent class is overthrown, and that of the progressive, revolutionary class is established in its place."26

Faced with such a bewildering variety of definitions, one might be tempted to agree with the historian who decided that the only way to study revolutions as historical events was to "accept as revolution what men of a certain period experienced as revolution and so named it themselves."27  But since many contemporaries called the American Civil War a revolution, this would not help us with the analytical problem raised by historians who deny that it really was a revolution. Let us instead adopt a common-sense working definition of revolution, and then return to the question whether the Civil War meets this definition. Let us define revolution simply as the overthrow of the existing social and political order by internal violence. Does the Civil War qualify? Certainly it does on the question of violence. It was by far the most violent event in our history. In fact, the 620,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War almost equalled the number of American fighting men killed in all other wars combined. What about the overthrow of the existing social and political order? As noted earlier, in an external sense the war did destroy the South’s national political power, so thoroughly crippled the region’s economy that it took nearly a century to recover, and by abolishing slavery undermined the basis of the antebellum social order. In these aspects, the Civil War overthrew the ancien regime about as thoroughly as any previous revolution in history had done.

But what about the arguments cited earlier that the war and reconstruction did not accomplish a genuine revolution in the relations of whites and blacks or of planters and farm laborers in the South? To a considerable degree, I think, these arguments are flawed by presentism, by a tendency to read history backwards, measuring change over time from the point of departure. Such a viewpoint looks first at the disabilities and discrimination suffered by black Americans in the mid-twentieth century, or at the even greater disabilities and racism of which blacks were the victims at the beginning of the century, and concludes that there must have been little or no change since slavery. But this is the wrong way to measure change. It is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope – everything appears smaller than it really is.

A few statistics will illustrate the point. When slavery was abolished, about 90 percent of the black population was illiterate. By 1880 the rate of black illiteracy had been reduced to 70 percent, and by 1900 to less than half. From the perspective of today, this may seem like minimal progress. The fact that half the black population in 1900 was still illiterate, compared with less than a tenth of the white population, may seem shameful. But look at it from the standpoint of 1865: the rate of literacy for blacks increased by 200 percent in fifteen years and by 400 percent in thirty-five years. This was significant change. Or take another set of educational data: in 1860, only 2 percent of the black children of school age in the United States were attending school. By 1880 this had jumped to 34 percent. During the same period, the proportion of black school attendance was still only half as much as the proportion of whites in 1880. But the change since 1860 was dramatic – dare we say revolutionary? The relative proportions of blacks and whites attending school had changed from 1/30 to more than 1/2. No other period of American history witnessed anything like so great a rate of relative change.28

Or let us look at the economic condition of the freed slaves in the generation after emancipation. This is the issue that has attracted most of the attention of historians who deny the existence of meaningful change. The grim reality of sharecropping and rural poverty in the South seems at first glance to confirm their argument. But recent studies of the economic consequences of emancipation by economists Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch, who have attempted to measure precisely how much change did take place, provide evidence for a different conclusion. In the first place, Ransom and Sutch point out, the abolition of slavery represented a confiscation of about $3 billion of property. In effect, the government nationalized the principal form of property in one-third of the country, without compensation. This was without parallel in American history – it dwarfed the confiscation of Tory property in the American Revolution. When such a massive confiscation of property takes place in other countries, especially after a war on the scale of the American Civil War, it is quite properly called revolutionary.

The slaves constituted what economists call "human capital." Emancipation transferred the ownership of this capital to the freed slaves themselves. This had important consequences for the new owners of this capital, according to Ransom and Sutch. They calculate that under slavery, the slaves in the seven cotton states of the lower South had received in the form of food, clothing, and shelter only 22 percent of the income produced by the plantations and farms on which they worked. With the coming of freedom, this proportion jumped to 56 percent, owing to the ability of free laborers to bargain for higher wages – in the form of money or a share of the crop – than they had received as slaves. This did not mean that the overall standard for living improved quite this dramatically for blacks, because the postwar sluggishness of the Southern agricultural economy meant that the average per capita income in the region declined. Blacks were getting a bigger slice of the pie, but it was a smaller pie. Nevertheless, Ransom and Sutch concluded that between 1857 and 1879 the average per capita income for blacks in Southern agriculture increased by 46 percent, while the per capita income for whites declined by about 35 percent. Put another way, black per capita income in these seven states jumped from a relative level of only 23 percent of white income under slavery to 52 percent of the white level by 1880. Thus, while blacks still had a standard of living only half as high as whites in the poorest economic region of the country – the negative point emphasized by the historians cited earlier – this relative redistribution of income between blacks and whites within the South was by far the greatest in our history.29

Or take the question of land ownership, a vital measure of wealth and status in an agricultural society. Again, at first glance the picture seems to confirm the argument of the "no change" historians. Abolitionists and Republicans like Garfield had urged the confiscation of land owned by wealthy Confederates and the allocation of part of this land to freedmen, in order to bring down the old elite in the South and to elevate the slaves to the status of landowners. This would have been a truly revolutionary act. But confiscation was too radical for most Republicans, and even if it had been tried the Supreme Court might have ruled it unconstitutional. There was no meaningful land reform in the South. Planters lost their slaves but not their land. In this respect the war accomplished only half a revolution. Nevertheless, there were significant changes even in the matter of land ownership. In 1865 scarcely any blacks owned land in the South. But by 1880, 20 percent of the black farmers owned part or all of the land they farmed (the rest were renters or sharecroppers). By 1910, 25 percent of the black farmers owned land. At the same time, the proportion of white farmers who owned land was decreasing – from more than 80 percent at the end of the war to 60 percent in 1910. Here again, while blacks remained far below whites, the war made possible a large and important relative change.30

Finally, let us look at one more index of change within the South – political power. At the beginning of 1867, no black man could vote in the South. A year later, blacks were a majority of registered voters in several ex-Confederate states. No black man yet held political office. But three or four years later, about 15 percent of the officeholders in the South were black. By way of comparison, in 1881, sixteen years after the Voting Rights Act of 1865, about 3 percent of the office-holders in the South were black. In 1870, blacks provided 3/4 of the votes in the South for the Republican party, the party that controlled the governments of a dozen states in which five years earlier most of these black voters had been slaves. It was this phenomenon, more than anything else, that caused contemporaries – black and white, Northern and Southern, radical and conservative – to describe the events of those years as a revolution. As a black speaker at a political meeting in Savannah in 1868 put it: "A revolution gave us the right to vote, and it will take a revolution to get it away from us"31

This quotation leads me to my concluding point. The Civil War did partially overthrow the existing social and political order in the South – overthrow it at least as much as did the English Revolution of the 1640′s or the French Revolution of the 1790′s. Neither of these revolutions totally destroyed the ancien regime, and both were followed by counter revolutions that restored part of the old order, including the monarchy. But scarcely anyone denies the label of revolution to these events in English and French history. And I think that the events of the 1860′s in the United States also deserve the name of revolution. This revolution was also followed by a counterrevolution in the 1870′s, a counter- revolution that combined white violence in the South with a revival of the Democratic party in the North and a growing indifference of Northern Republicans toward the plight of Southern blacks. The counterrevolution overthrew the fledgling experiment in racial equality. But it did not fully restore the old order. Slavery was not reinstated. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were not repealed. Blacks continued to own land and to go to school. The counterrevolution was not as successful as the revolution had been. We can conclude, then, that the events of the 1860′s were not a failed revolution, but an unfinished revolution.

End Notes

1 James A. Garfield to Burke Hinsdale, Jan. 22, 1860, Jan. 15, 1861, Hinsdale to Garfield, Jan. 8, 1860, Jan. 13, 1861, in Mary A. Hinsdale, ed., Garfield-Hinsdale Letters (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1949), 49, 55, 47, 52.  go back

2 James A. Garfield to Lucretia R. Garfield, Oct. 7, 1862, Feb. 22, 1863, in Frederick D. Williams, ed., The Wild Life of the Army: Civil War Letters of James A. Garfield (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1964), 160, 238.  go back

3 Burke A. Hinsdale, ed., The Works of James Abram Garfield, 2 vols. (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1882), I, 4, 6-7, 11, 13-14, 17.  go back

4 Ibid., 86-87.  go back

5 Ibid., 249.  go back

6 Quoted in James M. McPherson, Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 269,402.  go back

7 Quoted in Eric Foner, "Thaddeus Stevens, Confiscation, and Reconstruction," in Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, eds., The Hofstadter Aegis: A Memorial (New York: Alfred A. Knoft, 1974), 154.  go back

8 Boston Post, quoted in Liberator, Feb. 6, 1863.  go back

9 Quoted in Joel H. Silbey, A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1977), 101.  go back

10 Memphis Argus, quoted in Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 110.  go back

11 Richard Taylor to Samuel L. M. Barlow, Dec. 13, 1865, Barlow Papers, Henry E. Huntington Library.  go back

12 Quoted in Kenneth M. Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 170.  go back

13 Saul K. Padover, ed. and translator, Karl Marx on America and the Civil War (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1972), 263, 264, 272, 260, 237; James S. Allen, Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy 1865-1876 (New York: International Publishers Co., 1937), 149.  go back

14 George E. B. Clemenceau, American Reconstruction, ed. Fernand Balensperger, translated by Margaret Mac Veagh (New York and Toronto: Dial Press and Longmans, Green, and Co., 1926), 294.  go back

15 Springfield Republican, Sept. 24, 1862; New York Herald, May 3, 1865; Ticknor quoted in Morton Keller, Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), 2.  go back

16 Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1927), 2 vols., II, 53-54.  go back

17 See Herbert Aptheker, The American Civil War (New York: International Publishers Co., 1961); and Allen, Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy.  go back

18 Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 152, 112.  go back

19 See especially Thomas C. Cochran, "Did the Civil War Retard Industrialization?" Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 48 (1961), 197-210, and David T. Gilchrist and W. David Lewis, eds., Economic Change in the Civil War Era (Greenville, Del.: Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation, 1965).  go back

20 McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 369-374.  go back

21 Ibid., 374-75.  go back

22 C. Vann Woodard, American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1971), 140-183; V. Jacque Voegeli, Free But Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro during the Civil War (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976); William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction 1860-1879 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979).  go back

23 William S. McFeely, Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968); Louis S. Gerteis, From Contraband to Freedman: Federal Policy Toward Southern Blacks 1861-1865 (Westport, Conn.; Greenwood Press, 1973); C. Peter Ripley, Slaves and Freedmen in Civil War Louisiana (Baton Rouge; Louisiana State University Press, 1976); Lawrence N. Powell, New Masters: Northern Planters during the Civil War and Reconstruction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).  go back

24 Jonathan M. Weiner, Social Origins of the New South: Alabama 1860-1885 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978); Jay Mandle, The Roots of Black Poverty: The Southern Plantation Economy after the Civil War (Durham: Duke University Press, 1978); Dwight D. Billings, Planters and the Making of a "New South": Class, Politics, and Development in North Carolina 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979).  go back

25 Gerteis, From Contraband to Freedman, 3-5.  go back

26 Alfred Meusel, "Revolution and Counter-Revolution," Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 13 (1934), 367; Willem F. Wertheim, Evolution and Revolution: The Rising Waves of Emancipation (London: Penguin Books, 1974), 134; Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 264; Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), 4; E. H. Carr, "The Russian Revolution: Its Place in History," in Lawrence Kaplan and Carol Kaplan, eds., Revolutions: a Comparative Study (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 281.  go back

27 Jacques Ellul, Autopsy of Revolution, trans. from French by Patricia Wolf (New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1971), ix.  go back

28 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial.  go back

29 Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 4-7; Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, "Growth and Welfare in the American South of the Nineteenth Century," Explorations in Economic History, 16 (1979), 222-227.  go back

30 Ransom and Sutch, One Kind of Freedom, 84; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Negro Population 1790-1915 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1918), 609.  go back

31 Clemenceau, American Reconstruction, 259.  go back

go to top of page

go back to Hayes Historical Journal – Volume III No. 5

Category : Capitalism / Democracy / Slavery / US History

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.