Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

Blog Post #3 : James McPherson- The Revolution of 1860

The book The Revolution of 1860 by James McPherson provided insight into the road and adaptation of African Americans from slavery to a feeling of independence. He begins by introducing Dread Scott, a black man known for the infamous supreme court, and compares him to John Brown, who advocated for adopting “a “provisional constitution” for the republic of liberated slaves to be established(202) and resorted to violence to gain a voice, compared to Federick Douglass, who “had been a pacifist” (203) but resorted to “forcible resistance” (203) after the racist fugitive law was passed. With these analogies, the argument for the necessity of playing the same way as the other side—in this example, slavery supports violent actions—needs to be replied to in a rational manner rather than maintaining one-sided diplomacy.

This reminded me of Malcom X, an AfricanAmerican activist, and the distinction between his method and Martin Luther King’s peaceful one. Both were slain by the government, yet both contributed to the civil rights movement’s achievements. As a result, I pondered, “How is speech not more potent than violence?” McPherson concludes the reading by articulating the form in which Lincoln won the election via the unsuccessful democratic tactic of presenting three candidates “to deny Lincoln their electoral votes and throw the election into the House.” (232) As a result of the republicans’ seizing power, “antislavery men [concluded] that a revolution had taken place,” (233), which, as history has it, led to the civil war in which the union secured the freedom of the nation’s slaves.

One thought on “Blog Post #3 : James McPherson- The Revolution of 1860”

  1. Good post, although you get a little tripped up by the long sentences in paragraph one. Was McPherson comparing John Brown to Dred Scott, or Frederick Douglass, or all three?

    Interestingly, you are not the first person to see the disputes among abolitionists as prefiguring the later divisions between advocates of non-violence like MLK and the “by any means necessary” approach of Malcom X. There is a further school of thought within the literature that sees some antebellum free Black activists, like Martin Delany and Henry Garnet, as anticipating a kind of “Black nationalism,” in contrast to others, like Douglass, who emphasized an integrationist approach. But, as always, there’s a danger of oversimplifying these viewpoints and positions, and comparisons should made carefully!

    Your post also raises larger questions both about the point of McPherson’s chapter and about the philosophy and morality of fighting injustice. Which was the “revolution” that McPherson had in mind, John Brown’s raid or Lincoln’s election? Does the latter show that peaceful, political solutions are ultimately more effective than violent ones—or does the fact the Lincoln’s election almost immediately triggered the Civil War suggest that violence is inevitable when large interests of property are at stake?

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