I want to suggest two big lessons that we today might learn from the Civil War: The first concerns how to recognize when moral evil threatens to become increasingly intractable, even to the point of overwhelming the good.

Sitting at my desk in Louisiana the other week, where it was already as hot as it gets in Boston on the summer’s hottest day, my title, “Is the Civil War Long Gone and Far Away?,” seemed the way to pose the question I wanted to address on what I anticipated, correctly, would be a cool evening in the shadow of the Olympics, by the shore of the Puget Sound—though I had told the conference organizers that, had I been invited instead to speak in Richmond in August, I’d have prepared the same talk under the title, “Won’t the Civil War Ever Go Away?” My aim is to raise some questions, at the close of four-and-a-half years commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, about what the experience of that war has to tell us today: Whether the war still haunts us and our politics as it did for at least a century, whether it forms our national identity—or more precisely, because it was a civil war, our identities—and most especially whether there are any lessons to be remembered from it, derived perhaps in spite of those hauntings and identities, that ought to guide our political thinking and acting in the world we face.

I want to say at the outset that I think America is less haunted by the Civil War now than it was when the centennial was celebrated back when I was a young boy in the 1960s. I grew up in Maryland, near Washington, D.C., in a sense right in the middle of where the conflict had taken place, and though none of my ancestors had fought on either side, the war seemed all around me. We played in the woods on dirt mounds left from the forts ringing the capital; I had a sixth grade teacher who told us that when she was our age, near the beginning of the century, the old men at the hardware store in her hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia, were still telling stories about the battle that took place there in their youth; my piano teacher used to say her father had been born in a farmhouse at Gettysburg during the battle. But of course what really cast a shadow then was that the work of the war, so to speak, was just then being completed, as the Civil Rights Movement persuaded the country finally to honor the letter and the spirit of the constitutional amendments passed in the war’s aftermath, to complete in a Second Reconstruction the work that wasn’t accomplished in the first. Today perhaps we live more in the shadow of the 1960s, which ended up involving much more than Civil Rights, than we do in the shadow of the Civil War itself.

In a sense, then, the Civil War is indeed long gone and far away. Certainly it is only textbook history in a place like the state of Washington, barely settled at the time and to my knowledge not the scene of any skirmish. Indeed, the settlement of the country this far west and the emergence of the West Coast as the catalyst of technological innovation and economic development, not to mention trade across the Pacific, have played a role in burying the old conflicts back East deep in the past. Moreover, dramatic changes in the population of America since the Civil War and then again since its 100th anniversary make the war recede in American memory. Many, if not most, Americans can trace a substantial proportion of their ancestors to peoples who immigrated only after that war, and for them the Civil War is hardly part of their own family history. If those Americans who lived through the Civil War can be said, as historian James McPherson puts it, to have been stamped with one of three identities—white Southerner, white Northerner, or African-American—and if these identities remained pretty stable for the century afterwards, in the half-century since the 1960s things have changed pretty decisively. African-Americans, emerging only fifty years ago from the segregated existence that was imposed after Reconstruction failed, now exercise a distinctive influence in American culture, participate extensively (if still imperfectly) in mainstream economic and political life, and increasingly belong to families where African and European blood are mixed. White Northerners and Southerners have experienced increased mobility since the Second World War, mingling in the West and now moving back and forth from North to South back East, or at least often having family in both regions. Northern Virginia, Atlanta, Florida, Texas, probably even lots of places in North Carolina and Tennessee have as many New Yorkers and Midwesterners as natives, so to speak, and if the television feels a need to put subtitles on shows that depict and mock the rural South, the mood is comedy, not menace. To be sure, old wounds still show from time to time, for example when untoward behavior at a Southern fraternity goes viral on You-Tube, and serious issues concerning the place of religion in public life often carry an overtone of old North-South divisions. Still, I think it is hard to deny that in many respects the country has “moved on” from the old Civil War, now as far away in time from us as the landing of the Pilgrims was to the Founding Fathers.

But I said that I want to pause before we have “moved on” too far to invite reflection on the Civil War on the part of all of us, not only those who might identify as Yanks or Rebs or Freedmen. In the first place, 150 years actually is not all that long in political time, as you already have noticed in my mention of the Pilgrims and the Founders. It’s the interval as well between Luther and Cromwell, more or less, or between the French Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, or between the Founders themselves and the New Deal. In some of these examples, politics radically shifted, but in all of them political issues remained in many ways the same. Just recently in The New York Times there was an essay by liberal historian Paul Finkelman on how much the country today owes to the Civil War, not only the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which give rise to much of contemporary constitutional litigation, but also the explosive growth of the federal government, the first experiment with an income tax and a national paper currency, the expansion of the federal judiciary and federal law, and the early stirrings of the federal welfare state, from the Homestead Act and the land-grant colleges to the Freedmen’s Bureau and its provision for the desperately poor. Conservatives might well be less inclined than Professor Finkelman and the Times to celebrate all these developments, but we too have recourse to these innovations or to their successors, and we might be more apt to note as a legacy of that conflict the modernization if not the maturity of American armed forces. And there is no denying that many marks of American patriotism—from Memorial Day to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and many other songs—derive from the age of Lincoln.

In the second place, and even more soberly, I think we need to remember that civil war is not something to which our great republic is immune. Ironically, I think, the horrific bloodshed of our Civil War—the deaths of over 750,000 in a population of less than 32 million—drove deep in the psyche of Americans for several generations a sense of “never again,” and the great World Wars of the Twentieth Century, in which the sons of the North and the sons of the South fought together under the Stars and Stripes against common enemies further cemented a sense of common nationhood and common purpose. But it would go against that larger experience of mankind to think immunity from civil war has been granted to Americans forever. We are aware, after all, of deep divisions in our beliefs, even or especially about the most important things, even, as in antebellum days, about the basic order of our homes and families and perhaps as a consequence about the economic structure of daily life. Do we not see signs of the attitudes that characterized the hostility between abolitionists and slaveholders? Divisions in our churches? Withdrawal from common society? Regional distribution of our political parties? Distrust of our political institutions—the same institutions more or less that were in place in the 1850s? I don’t mean to exaggerate these differences or to suggest we are on the brink of disaster—but I don’t believe the younger generation of Americans can be complacent, as my generation surely has been, about whether our future as one people dedicated to shared ideals is assured.

I want to suggest two big lessons that we today might learn from the Civil War—not as conclusions to be stated as precepts, but really as curricula for study, maybe indicating traditions or practices to be recovered or improved upon. The first concerns the question, what to do in the presence of entrenched moral evil, or maybe more precisely, how to recognize when moral evil—always present in a world marred by imperfection or original sin—threatens to become increasingly intractable, even to the point of overwhelming the good. That is how Abraham Lincoln saw the situation of the United States with regard to slavery in the 1840s and especially the 1850s. Slavery, of course, was entrenched already at the time of the American Founding. It was legal in all the colonies that became states with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, though following the majestic principles of that Declaration it soon came to be abolished in all the states north of the Mason-Dixon line. Actually, that alone was no small achievement, and it proceeded differently in different circumstances. With Quaker leadership, slavery was first abolished in Pennsylvania in 1780, before the Revolution was over, through a gradual statute that emancipated all who were born after that date. Massachusetts, with few slaves, abolished slavery by judicial action in 1783, referencing the “all-men-are-born-free-and-equal” clause at the beginning of the state constitution drafted by John Adams and adopted in 1780. (Slavery seems to have subsequently ended in New Hampshire by attrition.) Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey followed with statutes of gradual emancipation of their own in the 1790s and early 1800s, usually establishing freedom for those born after a certain date once they reached an age of majority, allowing masters the use of their labor long enough to pay off the cost of their upbringing. Meanwhile, all these states made provision for manumission of existing slaves, sometimes allowing slaves to switch their status to something like indentured servants, able to purchase their freedom with a number of years of future work; and the status of slaves changed, allowing them to own property of their own and thereby save money and buy freedom—and giving them immunity from being sold south. Moreover, though provisions of the Constitution gave federal protection for slavery—the three-fifths clause, the clause committing the federal government to the suppression of insurrection, and the fugitive slave clause among others—the federal role in the early years was to limit slavery, first by enactment and reenactment of the Northwest Ordinance prohibiting slavery in that territory, then by abolition of the foreign slave trade on January 1, 1808, the first day it could be prohibited constitutionally. Perhaps most important was development of the doctrine that, drawing on the English common-law Somerset case of 1772, made freedom the presumption in law and allowed slavery only by positive enactment in the states. To be sure, legal developments were complex. The federal government often found itself insisting on the rights of slave-owners in international negotiations, and there was a claim, eventually vindicated in Dred Scott, that the Fifth Amendment protected property in slaves even in the federal territories where it had been forbidden by statute. But the abolitionists developed legal principles against the long-run security of the institution. As James Oakes has shown in his interesting recent book, Freedom National, on which I have relied for much of the foregoing, this entailed attention to the Constitution’s text, where slaves are not only not mentioned by name but are referenced as persons, not property—and it entailed as well attention to the practice of the law of nations, whereby slaves might be freed as contraband in the event of a war. Developing the statutes in the north and the legal doctrines throughout the country was long, hard work; it contributed to gradual amelioration even as it compromised with the Constitution’s protection of slavery in the existing states, itself a compromise effected for the sake of ensuring the Union.

When slavery became expansive—when the Slave Power achieved repeal of the Missouri Compromise, began to view a necessary evil as a positive good, and dreamed of a slave empire across Texas to the Pacific and down through Cuba to the Caribbean—Lincoln and others formed the Republican Party to contain it, to restore it to what they said was the Framers’ original intention, to set this institution based on a denial of natural rights back on a course of ultimate extinction. Southerners seceded and provoked the war to reject this outcome—not, I think, to defend state rights but to promote what they saw as an alternative future, though of course they saw their own way of life, dependent as they thought it was upon expansion of slave territory, under threat. Lincoln insisted in his famous Cooper Union Address that the Republican platform was the conservative one, the one in accord with the American Founding, while he thought the South, treating slavery as a positive good and denying the constitutionality of prohibiting slavery in the territories, was actually the innovator. Whether conserving a doctrine of natural rights—once a revolutionary banner—can be called a conservative program is an issue that deserves further attention, but not here.

I recommend, therefore, the study of how the end of slavery was legally prepared to your consideration as an example of how to fight moral evil, though of course it is also a warning, isn’t it? After all, the end of slavery required a terrible war, in the event, although against all expectations the Constitution survived it. The second great topic I recommend, which I will only touch briefly as I conclude, is the necessity, even for conservatives, to face courageously situations that require something genuinely new. This, I think, is what happened as a consequence of the Civil War. Because emancipation came suddenly to the South—as the necessary consequence of the war, not least because slaves ran to the Union lines in significant, if not overwhelming, numbers, effectively forcing their own legal emancipation through the Confiscation Acts and eventually the Emancipation Proclamation—the United States was suddenly faced with the question of forming a multiracial society, something not unknown to the world at large, but unknown to republics, where common action of fellow citizens is essential to political success. Here of course the story is again touched by tragedy, if later not without moments of triumph, a story that surely remains unfinished in our own day. Is the heritage of American constitutionalism—our common institutions and our common political principles—rich enough to allow us to meet this challenge? Does our 150-year failure, or at any rate only partial success, in resolving it indicate a fundamental weakness in our regime, in an order that relies explicitly on abstract principles and institutional mechanics rather than a shared authoritative culture to establish social peace and political justice? I will leave that question open, only to say that, so long as it remains unsettled, we have not escaped—and so must not forget—the Civil War.

This essay was originally delivered as a lecture at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Honors Program Summer Conference, “Traditions of Liberty,” Seabeck, Washington, June 9, 2015 and is published here with the author’s permission. 

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