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ABRAHAM LINCOLN AS REVOLUTIONARY Otto H. Olsen With the possible exception of his beard, there is little about Abraham Lincoln that fits the modern, popular concept of a revolutionary.' Rather, Lincoln has been associated with qualities that are usually perceived, even by many leftists, as the antithesis of revolutionary. Typically these qualities include some combination of moderate, reasonable, kind, liberal, conservative, pragmatic, flexible, pious and law abiding.2 These hardly accord with the familiar extremism, cruelty, and violence of revolution. And so, the leader of the bloodiest war and one of the most stupendous social transformations in our history endures as a symbol of moderation and the rule of reason and law. There has been little inclination among the new left to consider Lincoln in any way an exemplar ofprogressive change. Some have been actually hostile, a reflection of the recent tendency to stress the failures rather than the achievements of the Civil War era and to judge radical Republicans by either lost alternatives or present day standards.3 Lincoln's concessions to racism, his experiments with colonization, his slow movement toward emancipation, his limited Reconstruction aims, and above all, perhaps, his reasonableness and restraint have encouraged an easy abandonment from the left. Conservatives and moderates, 1 An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the Fifth Annual Lincoln Symposium, Springfield, Illinois, February 12, 1978. I am indebted to William Burr, Larry Lynn, Richard Schneirov, and Paul Wolman, graduate students at Northern Illinois University, for inspiring the topic. 2 For example, James G. Randall, Lincoln the Liberal Statesman (New York, 1947); T. Harry Williams, "Abraham Lincoln: Pragmatic Democrat" and Norman Graebner, "Abraham Lincoln: Conservative Statesman," both in Graebner (ed.), 7"Ae Enduring Lincoln (Urbana, 1959). Decided exceptions that picture Lincoln as radical or revolutionary are Dwight Lowell Dumond, "Virtually an Abolitionist," in Don E. Fehrenbacher (ed.), The Leadership of Abraham Lincoln (New York, 1970), and William Burr and others, "Lincoln & the Second American Revolution," In These Times, I (February 9-15, 1977). 3 Julius Lester, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon Get Your Mama! (New York, 1968), 58; Louis S. Gerteis, From Contraband to Freedman: Federal Policy Toward Southern Blacks, 1861-1865 (Wesrport, 1973), 4-5, 78, 154: William A. Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976 (New York, 1976), 111-14. Steven Rosswurm drew my attention to the citation from Williams. 213 214CIVIL WAR HISTORY on the other hand, obviously relish the retention of Lincoln as a symbol of their own.But perhaps our concepts have become stereotyped by the troubles of the modern world. After all, if it was a revolution that we celebrated on our bicentennial, we have a goodly number of conservative revolutionaries to account for—George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton among others. Those revolutionaries not only lacked beards, but they also displayed all the qualities we have just associated with Lincoln; andthey, too, proceeded with slow and patient deliberation. Just as it was fifteen months from the bombardment at Fort Sumter to Lincoln's decision to proclaim emancipation, so, too, it was fifteen months from Lexington and Concord to the Declaration of Independence. A conservative distaste for the concept ofrevolutionin ourhistory also appears to reflect a belief that the American Revolution, together with the Constitution, represented something of a finality in social evolution. Our system is conceived of as eternal. Jefferson's speculation about periodically watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants is dismissed as rhetoric, and we assume that our system of elections and constitutional amendment can solve all our socialproblems in arational, legal, and peaceful way.4 The one insurmountable difficulty with this hope, as far as the Civil War is concerned, is that it was not fulfilled. The discouraging fact is that our system could not deal sensibly with the obvious anachronism of slavery in the modern world. Rational and peaceful evolution did not occur, and the war came. That war was not only violence incarnate, it had consequences that have been considered revolutionary. It radically altered the social order of the South by abolishing race slavery. In so doing it established the power and extended the program of a free labor, capitalist...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 213-224
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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