I'M IN THE MIDDLE of a terrific new Civil War history: 1861 by Adam Goodheart. As the title suggests, it's about the events and states of mind that led up to outbreak of the war between the states. The book shines a light on a much different episode in American history than the one we celebrate today, July 4. But, like the July 4 holiday, it reminds us that one of the constant features of our nation's history is re-creation (not recreation, which is what we usually we do to observe these important historical mileposts).
In the months leading up to the Civil War, the people of the United States found that they could no longer live with the great compromises they had negotiated among themselves for decades. Though no one knew in late 1860 and early 1861 precisely how President-elect Abraham Lincoln would address the twin problem of slavery and potential disunion (according to the custom of the time, he made hardly any public appearances or utterances during his election campaign and before he took office), his earlier pronouncements and his party's platform strongly suggested an abandonment of the long-held status quo.
To the chagrin of the hardcore abolitionists, it was not quite full emancipation of slaves. But, on the other hand, Southerners feared Lincoln would end the institution of slavery, on which they (and really the entire country, North and South) relied. One by one, even before Lincoln took office and before the first shots at Fort Sumter, Southern members of Congress resigned their seats and headed back home to create a new and separate nation. In spite of last-ditch efforts by some to stave off this split by offering Southern states even more appeasements, the slide to secession -- and war -- seemed (at least in retrospect) inexorable. How frightening that must of have been for everyone, even those who were believed firmly in the righteousness of their cause.
If ever there were ripe moments for the U.S. to re-create itself, this was one of them -- though perhaps more abruptly and cataclysmically than any other since the Revolution. To draw on one of the overused images of our current age, neither Southerners nor Northerners wanted to kick the can of indecision further down the road as they had for decades. This was the end of the line, a calling of the question of whether this country could continue to look away from the stark inconsistency between the values it set on July 4, 1776 (and later in 1787 with the Constitution) and the practice of slavery. And it was apparently time to settle whether or not this was indeed one cohesive nation or a collection of many states, each with its own right to accept or ignore the fundamental principles of the federal government.
In 1776, the founders of the nation also engaged in a far-reaching act of re-creation. As in 1861, the status quo of colonization by Great Britain became untenable, and acknowledgment of that fact (The Declaration of Independence) was just the first act of bravery. The next -- defending that acknowlegment and even dying for it -- took even more courage. That's ostensibly what we celebrate today July 4.
But July 4 is also about the act of re-creation. America seems always to be in a constant state of re-creation, not necessarily on the scale we saw in the 1860s or during any of the other major historical turning points, but in small, simple, imperceptible ways. Perhaps like few places anywhere, America's social and political systems were built not only to withstand re-creation but to encourage it -- civilly and constructively. One of the core assumptions of our system is that the enterprise of nation building is never perfect or complete and that we must be able to improve it constantly.
That, to me, is one of the aspects of American Exceptionalism (not, as some voices today have implied, that we are always better and stronger than every other nation and that anyone who says otherwise is a traitor). It is, to me, one of the other reasons to celebrate on July 4.
To be sure, there have been other acts of social and political re-creation in American history that resulted in powerful upheavals -- the civil rights movement, the Great Depression and the rise of organized labor are notable among them. And there's no question that many of our major military engagements, particularly the great World Wars, transformed us socially and politically, not only here in the U.S. but on the global stage. But I think one can argue that none were nearly as traumatic and sweeping as the Revolution and the Civil War and that, before and after each, the U.S. was a completely different nation.
Thankfully, the simple, less noticeable acts of re-creation in America come and go without the crashes of lightning Americans endured when they spawned the new republic in the late 18th century and then fought fiercely to keep it intact in the mid-19th. As vituperative, grotesque and seemingly insoluable as our present-day political and social disputes can be, I truly can't imagine them reaching the sort of breaking point they did in 1861 when the only real option was all-out war. Maybe because we as a nation understand, even today, how truly painful that conflict was, I have strong faith in our ability as a nation, which revers the rule of law, to work out our differences civilly and peacefully (even if that means adopting some screwy options, which are not in short supply these days).
Happy Independence and Re-Creation Day.