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Where did it begin?

There is some genuine uncertainty about the actual circumstances giving rise to the American Civil War.

Did it begin with the Battle of Fort Sumter 156 years ago? Or was the real cause, rather, Lincoln's election months earlier, which set off the sequence of secessions that created the Confederacy?

Or are its real roots buried four score and some years deeper still, when we declared that all men are created equal, in a land where slavery already was firmly entrenched? Perhaps it began in 1789, when the U.S. Constitution came into force, This great founding document was informed by the aspirations of the earliest settlements on the east coast, the collision of their various visions, their struggle to separate from Great Britain, and their confrontation with the paradox inherent in trying to construct a governmental system that both provides institutional strength and safeguards individual liberty.

Is that, perhaps, where the great American Civil War really began? The immensely momentous creation of this world-changing document, after all, was made possible only by the inclusion of the tragically momentous three-fifths clause. While that excruciating political act did indeed enable the birth of this inexpressibly important new experiment, it left behind an awful, living, writhing wound in the political and social fabric of the new nation, the new people, that scars us still.

The issue of slavery in America, it is true, in its relation to the ability to create and firmly establish the United States, had profound political and societal dimensions, as well as the purely moral one. But it is also undeniable that in the unrelenting, raucous debates over this issue, which had flourished for generations already, the moral dimension was shown clearly to underlie all the others. It was implicit in the Constitution itself, as well as in the political compromises reached over the issue up to the Civil War. It was never seriously displaced by the cynical efforts to conceal the institution of slavery behind the genuinely profound struggle over State’s rights.

The issue was, always, the impossibility of sustaining a nation built upon such ideals as was ours, while still tolerating such sins against those as were inherent in the perpetuation of the institution of slavery on American soil.

And so, the great, wrenching, convulsive Civil War came. We will look next at some of what it brought with it.


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What it was about.

Some professional cynics, ever alert to avoid falling thrall to national mythology, argue that the American Civil War was not about ending slavery. It was, they disingenuously insist, merely about preserving the Union.

What truth there is in that is superficial, meaningless in the absence of the content it studiously evades.

The American experiment, from the beginning, was never about yet another political entity, driven merely by the age-old imperatives to rise or succumb. It was, rather, a distinctly new presence, on a new scale, created by its own people on the revolutionary premise that the sovereignty resided in them, and that “governments are instituted among men” – men such as these – “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

That’s the content, the deep motive force beneath the surface events, driving those, defining them beyond the ability of dedicated detractors to perceive. The Civil War was about what all of that meant as the contradictions unleashed by this vastly important effort forced their way into view, in this new political, social, cultural structure.

It was about what was such a government, who were such sovereigns; about the “just powers” of these governments; about the “unalienable rights” of sovereign men, men who are self-evidently created equal. It was about what all of that meant; about what it should mean; about what men could make it mean.

While many contemporaries, including even Lincoln himself, were uncertain initially about what approach might have prevented war, none were confused about what caused it.

Neither should be we, today. The truth is, pretending it was caused by, became about, or ever was preventable by addressing some issue other than ending slavery in this land would not have avoided this momentous Civil War; it would have only postponed it.

We will discuss this and related issues, next. We will elaborate what it was about. We will examine from whence sprang these fissures. We will ask what changed as a result of the war – and what didn’t.

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