Nena and I have been watching The Civil War series by Ken Burns over the last two weeks. If you have not seen it you must. Most libraries have it for checkout. Unless you had an exceptional history teacher in high school or college, most of us know very little of one of the most important events in American history. Ask 10 adults when the American civil war was fought and to name one important leader on each side.
The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is next year so this is a good time to really study the Civil War and start to understand the issues that caused it (more then abolition of slavery) and how those issues still play a roll in American life and politics.
So what did we learn after watching Ken Burns The Civil War? First, as Shelby Foote said, “Before the Civil War it was The United States are, after the Civil War it was The United States is.” The Civil War forged the ideas of a United States, as expressed in the Constitution, into the reality of The United States of America.
Many people believed (and still do) that the Constitution setup a federalist system, where the balance of power resided in the states not the president and congress. That was the philosophy behind southern states deciding that they had the right to leave the United States of America and form the Confederate States. In 1861 people identified with the state they lived in more then the country. Robert E. Lee, a West Point graduate, was offered the position of general of the Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln, but Lee was a Virginian and since Virgina was a Confederate state he commanded an army for the South. Lee thought that slavery was a scourge, but if his state was to fight to keep slavery he had no choice but to support Virginia. Lee did have a choice and he chose his state over the United States.
The issue of federalism continues to this day to divide people. States rights is often code word for “I want to keep oppressing people in my state so stay away.” The argument that big government is ineffective has some merit, but so are town and state governments.
I do have a better understanding of the causes of The Civil War and that the big issues people killed each other over are still with us today.