“Old things are passing away,” wrote a black resident of California in 1862, “and eventually old prejudices must follow. The revolution has begun, and time alone must decide where it is to end.” The changing status of black Americans was only one dramatic example of what some historians call the Second American Revolution—the transformation of American government and society brought about by the Civil War.


Never was freedom’s contested nature more evident than during the Civil War. “We all declare for liberty,” Lincoln observed in 1864, “but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” To the North, he continued, freedom meant for “each man” to enjoy “the product of his labor.” To southern whites, it conveyed mastership—the power to do “as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.” The Union’s triumph consolidated the northern understanding of freedom as the national norm.

The illustration accompanying The American Flag, a piece of patriotic Civil War sheet music, exemplifies how the war united the ideals of liberty and nationhood.

Lincoln and the Female Slave, by the free black artist David B. Bowser. Working in Philadelphia, Bowser painted flags for a number of black Civil War regiments. Lincoln confers freedom on a kneeling slave, an image that downplays blacks’ role in their own emancipation.

The attack on Fort Sumter crystallized in northern minds the direct conflict between freedom and slavery that abolitionists had insisted upon for decades. The war, as Frederick Douglass recognized as early as 1862, merged “the cause of the slaves and the cause of the country.” “Liberty and Union,” he continued, “have become identical.” As during the American Revolution, religious and secular understandings of freedom joined in a celebration of national destiny. “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” proclaimed the popular song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe and published in 1862. Emancipation offered proof of the progressive nature and global significance of the country’s history. For the first time, wrote the Chicago Tribune, the United States could truly exist as “our fathers designed it—the home of freedom, the asylum of the oppressed, the seat of justice, the land of equal rights under the law.”

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