Americans have written more than 70,000 books about the Civil War—1 for every 19 hours since Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. We are awed by its sheer magnitude, staggered by its appalling human cost, and inspired by its looming heroes. According to James McPherson, a leading Civil War authority and retired Princeton historian, these factors help to explain why the war fascinates us, but not how it continues to shape us a century and a half later.
The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (Oxford University Press) brings together a dozen of McPherson’s essays about the conflict. They range widely, investigating the morality of the war, President Lincoln’s effectiveness as commander in chief, and the cultural impact of such unprecedented death and destruction, among other topics.
But McPherson’s most provocative writing explicitly addresses the war’s enduring relevance. He emphasizes three basic factors. The first involves what caused it. “Many of the issues over which the Civil War was fought still resonate today,” he observes. These include “matters of race and citizenship; regional rivalries; [and] the relative powers and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments.”
Equally striking are the war’s consequences. The United States as we know it was conceived not during the American Revolution but in the crucible of the Civil War. The struggle prompted an expansion of the role of government, transformed the US financial system, dramatically expanded the role of the federal court system, and—in the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau—introduced the first major social service agency.
Finally, the conflict initiated a lasting constitutional shift embodied in amendments abolishing slavery, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, and recognizing voting rights for black Americans. Although a century would pass before anything like substantial progress was made, these amendments both reflected and accelerated changing popular attitudes toward government. Whereas 11 of the first 12 amendments had limited the federal government’s power, those ratified in the war’s wake dramatically expanded it. If the patriots of 1776 had seen government as a threat to liberty, the Civil War convinced many to view government as an agent for protecting it. These two perspectives continue in tension to this day.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Robert Tracy McKenzie