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books How German Atheists Made America Great Again

What was the Civil War about? In a word, slavery. The driving force in American politics in the decades after the American Revolution was the rise of an arrogant, ruthless, parasitic oligarchy in the South, built on God-ordained economic inequality.

In the 1850s, critics of American slavery in the United States were influenced by German thinkers like Karl Marx and Ludwig Feuerbach.,(Compilation Credit New York Times: From left: AP; Corbis; Popperfoto/Popperfoto, via Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

AN EMANCIPATION OF THE MIND: Radical Philosophy, the War Over Slavery, and the Refounding of America, by Matthew Stewart

THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECOND AMERICAN REPUBLIC: Reconstruction, 1860-1920, by Manisha Sinha


What was the Civil War about? In a word, slavery.

What actually caused the war, however, is a vastly more difficult idea. Try this explanation on for size: The driving force in American politics in the decades after the American Revolution was the rise of an arrogant, ruthless, parasitic oligarchy in the South, built on a foundation of Christian religion and a vision of permanent, God-ordained economic inequality.

Though much of the South was poor, this new aristocracy was vastly rich. Two-thirds of all estates in the United States worth more than $100,000 were in the hands of Southern white men. Their goal in seceding was to undo the basic ideals of the American republic and keep their wealth.

These counterrevolutionaries — for that is what they were — insisted that men were by divine design unequal, both racially and economically. To fight this notion and crush what amounted to an existential threat to democracy, the antislavery movement needed ideas as much as, ultimately, guns.

That’s the narrative that frames Matthew Stewart’s engaging and often surprising new book, “An Emancipation of the Mind. The title refers to the rise of new ways of thinking in the antislavery movement, what Stewart calls “the philosophical origins of America’s second revolution.”

AN EMANCIPATION OF THE MIND: Radical Philosophy, the War Over Slavery, and the Refounding of America
By Matthew Stewart
W. W. Norton & Company; 400 pages
Hardcover:  $32.50
March 26, 2024
ISBN: 978-1-324-00362-5


W. W. Norton & Company


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The most significant ideas that Stewart traces are religious. From 1770 to 1860, religion in America underwent a massive shift. The number of churches exploded, North and South. Soon, most of these churches, using clear and manifold endorsements of slavery from the Bible (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ”), were promoting and actively defending the slave republic.

As the antislavery crowd soon learned, it was impossible to spin “slavery is sin” arguments against biblical literalism. Ending slavery, Stewart says, “was hardly part of God’s plan.” This wasn’t just a Southern opinion: Three out of five clerics who published pro-slavery books and articles were educated at Northern divinity schools. Two decades before the outbreak of war, abolitionism was still a skulking pariah, a despised minority in the North as well as the South.

The abolitionists clearly needed help. Enter the Germans, specifically the freethinking Germans whose radical republican philosophy underpinned the failed European revolutions of 1848. “Freidenkers’’ like the theologian David Friedrich Strauss and the philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach formulated ideas of the laws of nature and “nature’s God” that were at odds with the tenets of Christianity.

A large group of German intellectuals, fresh from the battles of 1848, arrived on American shores, joined the abolitionist movement and radicalized it. As he did in his 2014 book “Nature’s God,” which traced the way that the heretical philosophies of Spinoza and Lucretius influenced American founders like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, Stewart here argues convincingly that these philosophers found willing listeners in the persons of Abraham Lincoln, who kept Strauss and Feuerbach on his shelf; Frederick Douglass, who saw American Christianity as “the bulwark of slavery”; and the abolitionist firebrand Theodore Parker, whose lectures reached as many as 100,000 people a year in the 1850s.

Wasn’t much of this simply revolutionary atheism? Yes, it was, and it’s a bit of a shock to find out how close Lincoln and Douglass were to these ideas, though they paid lip service to more conventional Christian beliefs when translating them for the public.

The other big idea here — also with help from the Germans, especially Karl Marx (a great admirer of Lincoln, who, Stewart argues, liked him too) — has to do with the economics of slavery. “At the root of the ills of the slave system,” writes Stewart, “lies the extreme economic inequality that it inevitably produces — not just between races but among the white population.”

Between 1852 and 1862, Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote 487 articles for The New York Daily Tribune; Lincoln likely read them. They explained the war as “nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labor.”

After the war came Reconstruction. How do you deconstruct Reconstruction? Very, very carefully. It’s one of the toughest, most maddeningly complicated tasks in the writing of American history. That’s because Reconstruction — the word we use to denote the failed post-Civil War attempt to build a more inclusive country — unfolded in different ways in different states, on different timetables and with a wildly proliferating cast of players.

In her new book, “The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic,” the historian Manisha Sinha not only has taken on this vast subject, but has greatly expanded its definition, both temporally and spatially. Her Reconstruction embraces the Progressive Era, women’s suffrage, the final wars against Native Americans, immigration and even U.S. imperialism in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. She covers these difficult issues with remarkable skill and clarity.

By Manisha Sinha
Liveright / W. W. Norton; 562 pages
Hardcover:  $39.99
March 26, 2024
ISBN:  978-1-63149-844-2



In Sinha’s telling, the achievements of Reconstruction — we are in the latter 1860s and early 1870s here — are truly amazing. The federal decision to use the Army against recalcitrant ex-Confederates to secure rights for Black people resulted, she writes, in “a brief, shining historical moment when abolition democracy triumphed in much of the South and across the rest of the nation,” which “meant the inauguration of a progressive, interracial democracy.”

These years saw the passage of constitutional amendments that guaranteed citizenship, equal protection under the law and the vote for Black men. They also saw the rise of a powerful Freedmen’s Bureau, Black voting on a massive scale and the election of thousands of Black representatives to national, state and local office. More than 600 Black politicians were elected in the South to state legislatures alone.

Black Americans and freedpeople, Sinha reminds us, were themselves behind much of this change, a process she calls “grass-roots reconstruction.” As she laid out in her 2016 book “The Slave’s Cause,” and shows more briefly here, they documented atrocities and pushed to have them exposed, filed petitions, swore out affidavits at the risk of their lives and formed political organizations and lobbies.

But the Second American Republic would soon come crashing down, the victim of another violent counterrevolution whose principal weapons were racial terror and political assassination. In its place rose a New South, where class distinctions were shored up, where the government was by and for white men and where the belief that Black people were inferior to white people was firmly in place. Instead of economic freedom, Americans got debt peonage, stolen wages, criminalized self-employment and a convict leasing system. The great flowering of education during Reconstruction was trampled too as terrorists burned down more than 600 Black schools.

Sinha tells these stories well. She also pushes out beyond the conventionally defined subjects of Reconstruction. In her account, the ascendancy of Jim Crow and the conquest of the West, among other forms of repression, are profoundly connected, and not only because the government failed to protect Black liberty as well as Indigenous land rights and sovereignty. The Army that was raised to fight Southern counterrevolutionaries was redeployed in the West to subjugate Indians. The literacy requirements used to disenfranchise Black Americans in the South also proved effective in targeting immigrants and working-class people in the North.

Still, the ideals of the Second Republic did not completely wither on the vine. Sinha convincingly advances her vision of Reconstruction all the way forward to 1920, when the 19th Amendment granted women’s suffrage. That landmark event was inspired by the marquee equal rights amendments of the Reconstruction era, which, Sinha writes, “bequeathed a legacy of political activism and progressive constitutionalism” on the movement, a breath of air that gave America new life.

[S.C. Gwynne is the author of “Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War.”]