Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Civil War at 150

FortSumter2Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and the beginning of the Civil War.  While World War II was a significant watershed—ushering in the era of the United States as a world’s superpower—the Civil War marks the defining moment of American history.  As such, it is important to reflect on this conflict as well as developments leading up to it.

Not surprisingly, this pivotal event has been studied from virtually every conceivable angle.  Not only have the battles and soldiers been examined in minute detail, but the social, economic and political ramifications have also attracted wide interest from historians and Civil War buffs. Various commemorations between now and 2015 are likely to intensify this interest.

I welcome these developments because the opportunity to encourage more thinking about our national experience is always beneficial in helping us understand our society.  Hopefully, these impending celebrations and memorials will rival those which took place so extensively fifty years ago.

While the heroes and sacrifices and the villains and the opportunism—representing a wide array of the human condition—will undoubtedly receive broad attention this year and beyond, it is important to keep in mind the big picture:  How a country was sundered and then was reborn.

There certainly were a number of contributing reasons for this cataclysm; it is, however, unrealistic to minimize the direct and indirect role of slavery; indeed, it was a significant issue from the founding days.   Of all the issues that were compromised by the framers at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, none was as significant as slavery. 

Northern drafters had misgivings about slavery and about accommodating southerners’ desire to use slaves for purposes of congressional representation.  But, in the end, they supported the idea of counting slaves as three-fifths of a person.  Hence, we get the infamous “three-fifths compromise.”  One rationalization was that slavery was largely seen as a dying institution anyway.

But the invention of the cotton gin gave new life to the institution.  The South—now so heavily depended on unfree labor—became increasingly more committed and defensive of a way of life which was expanding by the turn of the 19th century.  Not only was economics involved, but also political power.

Politicians became increasingly keen to the balance between the free and slave states and what that meant for influence in Congress.  As a result, by 1820—and for forty years afterward—the country saw various efforts to restrict or expand slavery, understanding that the admission of new states supportive of slavery and those opposed would have a huge impact on the clout of each region.

In 1820, Maine was admitted as a free state and Missouri as a slave state.  As political machinations continued decade after decade, efforts were made to affect compromises or to craft national legislation which would avert serious and violent sectional confrontation.  In effect, they were kicking the can down the road.

But the 1850s increasingly saw violence and an unwillingness to make further accommodations.  Year by year, the situation deteriorated so much so that by 1858 New York Republican senator William Seward was able to talk about the “irrepressible conflict.”

The years between 1858 and 1861 were crowded with passion and a growing recognition that Seward might be right.  The final provocation for southern activists (often known as “Fire-Eaters”) came with the election of the northern candidate Abraham Lincoln in November 1860.  Three months later seven seceding southern states organized the Confederate States of America.

The Confederate attack on the fort in the Charleston harbor on April 12, 1861 was the first act of war; this was followed by a number of preliminaries which culminated in the shocking opening battle at Manassas, Virginia in July.  The war would claim more than 600,000 lives until it ended in April 1865.

It has been said that the United States entered the Civil War as a country and emerged as a nation.  Lincoln and the northern Republicans expanded the role of the government in a variety of areas such as education and subsidization of business.  Slavery was ended even though racial discrimination would remain common for another century.  And the war firmly decided the supremacy of the federal government.

This upcoming sesquicentennial commemoration will allow Americans to revisit these and other issues.  Hopefully, many of these events will provide a thought-provoking vehicle to examine such fundamental issues as freedom, equality, and the rights and responsibilities of government.

For a fine overview, see the National Archives:  http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/civil-war/

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