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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

February 03, 1991|Alex Raksin

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: And the Second American Revolution by James M. McPherson (Oxford: $17.95; 167 pp.). "Freedom" has become such an empty political catchword these days that it's a delight to have this opportunity to reflect back on a President who understood its true elusiveness. Abraham Lincoln was able to see through the Southern secessionists who claimed they left the union to preserve their rights as slave-owners "in the same spirit of freedom and independence that prompted the first American revolution." He understood that what philosopher Isaiah Berlin called "negative liberty"--freedom from interference by outside authority--could only be enforced if it did not impede "positive liberty," the freedom to realize one's potential.

Based mostly on James McPherson's lectures, these essays sometimes plod with the repetitions public speakers are obliged to make. McPherson's tone also seems too dispassionate; we hunger for irony, for instance, in his description of the federal government's decision to withhold land from hospitals in order "to preserve liberty." But this affectionate history provides a much-needed uplift from the doom of 1970s revisionism, which claimed the Civil War accomplished little for blacks, even though McPherson's notion that the Civil War was as important an event as the French Revolution seems overstated, given that its gains were largely nullified in the Southern counterrevolution of the 1880s.

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