• Daniel Koch

The American Civil War and the Case for a "Long" Age of Revolution

The term “age of Revolution,” since it was used by Eric Hobsbawm in his trilogy of books on the “long” nineteenth-century in the 1960s, is normally used to describe the period between the American Revolution in the 1770s and the democratic revolutions that swept Europe in the late 1840s. Yet, the interpretation of the American Civil War of 1861-65 as a Second American Revolution suggests that the “age of Revolution” did not die on the barricades in 1848-1849. Historians, consciously or unconsciously, but all too often, consider “revolution” through the lens of Marxist interpretation. Events that have the appearance of being driven by bourgeois or proletarian forces attempting to overthrow the power structures above them are called revolutions, even if they fail. But if we consider a revolution to be something that achieves profound and fundamental change, then the Civil War should be seen as a revolution that was far more successful than any other in its age.

Civil War veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic, Cazenovia, New York, circa 1900.

On the face of it, the American Civil War was a rebellion (arguably a failed revolution) of several southern states who seceded, joined the Confederate States of America and waged war against the United States. But it catalysed a more significant northern-driven revolution against the injustices enshrined in the nation’s founding documents. Like other revolutions, it picked up momentum, becoming more radical over time. By the end of the war, its goals had shifted from simply preserving the Union to abolishing slavery and granting the full rights of citizenship to Black Americans throughout the United States. The restored nation was fundamentally different from the one that existed before the war, even if the full ramifications of the change took decades to set in.

Abraham Lincoln was an unlikely revolutionary. Through war as a Commander in Chief, however, Lincoln drove a change that was more radical and profound than any other of the world revolutions that are remembered by that name between the death of Bolivar in 1830 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Civil War’s most revolutionary moment was the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863, in which Lincoln announced that enslaved people in the states in rebellion would henceforward be free. Prior to this Lincoln had quashed his own generals’ attempts to emancipate slaves in confederate areas under Union control. The Proclamation did not abolish slavery in the border states that did not secede or in southern areas occupied by the Union army. Far more sweeping was Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in 1865, which ended slavery throughout the United States, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments ratified soon after Lincoln’s assassination, in which Blacks gained equality before the law in all parts of the United States.[1]

People saw and understood the Civil War as a revolution at the time and in subsequent generations. The Massachusetts intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1863 that the nation was “in the midst of a great revolution” overthrowing the “old remainders of barbarism” for the advance of “Christianity and humanity.”[2] The historian Andre Fleche has argued that Americans at the time used the term “revolution” to describe what was happening in their country as often as the terms “civil war” or “rebellion.” Many of the “Forty-Eighter” immigrants from Germany to the North (hundreds of whom served in the Civil War) viewed the struggle against slavery as a revolution against aristocracy and tyranny in the United States, with strong parallels to what the European revolutionaries of 1848 had tried to achieve.[3]

In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, historians including Charles and Mary Beard, James McPherson, Eric Foner, Bruce Levine and others continued to advance the interpretation of the Civil War and the destruction of slavery as a “Second American Revolution.”[4] If we take revolution in its broader meaning as a major and fundamental change in the way a country is governed, the move from a system in which well over half of the population (in some states) were legally enslaved to one in which the same were given full and equal rights of citizenship, including voting rights, is arguably as revolutionary a change as was effected anywhere in the nineteenth century.

While those rights were systematically stripped away from Black citizens after the Reconstruction era ended, they still remained enshrined in federal law and in the constitution. They were invoked during the post-World War II Civil Rights era to dismantle the system of Jim Crow and official segregation in the South, and to challenge segregation which existed – less “officially” but just as certainly – in many parts of the North. America is still a long way from overcoming the legacy of slavery and racism, and that is a valid counterargument to the idea that what Lincoln and the Radical Republicans achieved was a fully completed “revolution.” I would suggest, however, that the change to the nation’s constitution was more dramatic and more permanent than was the case in any of the other world revolutions between 1830 and 1917.

The Revolutions that rocked Europe in 1830 and 1848 were, for the most part, dismal failures. Where they did achieve change, it was (in most cases) illusory, temporary, or both. The July Revolution of 1830 in France did lead to a regime change, of sorts, but it simply replaced one King for another, albeit one who was more accountable to the people. The Revolutions of 1848 were much bigger, bloodier, and more widespread. But most of the revolutions were crushed immediately or reversed within a short space of time. The ones that succeeded – notably in France and in the Kingdom of Piedmont, Italy – managed to bring about new constitutions. In France’s case a Second Republic was declared in 1848. Enslaved people in France’s overseas colonies were freed. But by 1852, the Republic was dissolved, and Napoleon III subsequently reigned as Emperor. Piedmont’s reformed constitutional monarchy was perhaps the one lasting success, in that the constitution survived and later became the basis upon which the Kingdom of Italy was governed after unification.[5]

More consequential as “revolutions,” though they are not generally known by that name, were the events that coincided with, or took place in the five or six after the American Civil War. The Emancipation of Russia’s Serfs in 1861 was arguably a far larger-scale change than the emancipation of the slaves in the United States. It certainly “freed” a much larger number of people, roughly 23 million, compared to just under 4 million slaves in the United States. It was accompanied by the establishment of the first democratically elected bodies in Russia at a local level, the zemstva. It was perhaps less deserving of the distinction of a revolution that the Civil War though as it did not change the nature of Russian government at a national, or rather imperial, level. Russia was an autocracy before and after the emancipation. Furthermore, Russian serfs weren’t slaves, exactly, before 1861 and neither did they get the full range of rights that the slaves were granted in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.[6]

The Unifications of Italy in the 1860s and of Germany in 1871 were dramatic changes that resulted in millions of Europeans living – many for the first time – under constitutional monarchies, some with newly-gained voting rights. But both were far less democratic in structure than the United States. Later events that appear to fit the revolutionary model more readily, such as the Paris Commune of 1871 and the violence – or failed revolutions – of 1905-7 in Russia were frighteningly radical but achieved relatively little. However, all these events are – like the American Civil War – inextricably linked to the same ideas that drove earlier revolutions dating back to 1776, most of all the desire for a new nation in which all people could live under the rule of law and free from arbitrary or tyrannical authority.

The revolutionary nature of the Civil War suggests that the “age of Revolution” extended well beyond 1848. When Hobsbawm applied the name to that era, he was already extending a shorter period that R.R. Palmer had labelled the “Age of Democratic Revolution” which linked the American and French Revolutions up to 1800. Perhaps the parameters should be widened again, to 1865, or 1871. Or maybe, the age of revolution hasn’t ended at all. Hobsbawm called the period after the “age of Revolution” the “age of capital,” and that has certainly not played itself out yet either. If a century can be “long” then an “age” can be even longer. And until the dream of the revolutionaries of a world free of the worst forms of tyranny has been realized, the idealist may hope that age will continue.


[1] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 352-8. W.E.B. DuBois made a similar argument in Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1935), 55-83.

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Fortune of the Republic,” (1863) in Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson, eds., Emerson’s Antislavery Writings(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 146.

[3] Andre Fleche, The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 5; Bruce Levine, The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 8, 149-51, 168-70, 217-8, 260-3.

[4] Levine covers this branch of historiography in The Spirit of 1848, 8. Also see idem., “The Second American Revolution,” Jacobin, August 17, 2015; Kevin Gannon, “The Civil War as a Settler-Colonial Revolution,” Age of Revolutions, January 18, 2016.

[5] Derek Beales and Eugenio F. Biagini, The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy, 2nd ed. (London: Pearson, 2002), 87-99; R.J.W. Evans and Harmut Pogge von Strandmann, eds., The Revolutions in Europe, 1848-1849: From Reform to Reaction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[6] J.N. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History, 1812-2001, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 72-6, 80-1; Amanda Bellow, American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

Published in Muster, June 7, 2022.

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