Allen Guelzo walks us through the various ways the Civil War has been thought of as marking a break from the past, from military affairs to law and politics, before asserting that “certainly we should say that the Civil War was revolutionary in one overwhelming respect, and that was the emancipation of 3.9 million black slaves.” But that argument is more complicated than you might think:
Here, we do strike a genuinely discontinuous, revolutionary note, for the Civil War not only violently excised all legal traces of slavery from the Constitution, but practically destroyed all the wealth invested in it, to the tune of nearly $3 billion. But was the overall goal of emancipation actually a revolutionary one? We tend to think of slavery today almost purely in terms of race, as a racial offense and a racial injustice, to be remedied only by full social and political equality. And in that sense, emancipation was a revolution, for in the long history of Western society, it was without precedent for a slave population of such magnitude to be absolutely and immediately emancipated, without compensation to its owners, and then boosted at once into the realm of citizenship.
But in the eyes of the emancipationists, racial redemption was not, in fact, the principal goal.
The fundamental offense posed by slavery in their eyes was that it represented a step away from a democratic political order, and its replacement with the kind of Romantic aristocracy that reestablished itself in Europe after the French Revolution. What Lincoln hated in slavery was not just its racial injustice, but the reemergence in America of the old demon of monarchy, where some people were born with uncalloused hands, booted and spurred and ready to ride on the backs of everyone else, who had to work. Owning slaves, Lincoln complained, “betokened not only the possession of wealth but indicated the gentleman of leisure who was above and scorned labour,” and it appealed to “thoughtless and giddy headed young men who looked upon work as vulgar and ungentlemanly.” Slavery’s tendency to promote aristocratic habits and attitudes made Lincoln regard it as “the one retrograde institution in America”—not because it was racially unenlightened, but because it was “fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.”
(Image: Fugitive slaves who had fled to the Union Army in 1862, just a year before the Emancipation Proclamation, via Wikimedia Commons)