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A Country Divided

The Civil war began in 1861—one hundred and sixty years ago. After so many years, does it still matter?

It was the most costly war, in terms of lives lost, in our history. From a population of just over thirty million, nearly seven hundred thousand men died and many more were wounded and disabled. But it ended a long time ago. Should we just move on?

Military leaders and those who study strategy examine the details of the movement of armies. As we read of heroic personal sacrifices, we can admire the courage of our forebearers. We can romanticize the past as a time of hoop skirts and gallantry as portrayed in Gone with the Wind.

From the time of early settlement in the 1600s, the North and South developed differently. With an economy built on labor-intensive cotton, tobacco and rice, the South depended on slave labor. An upper class that idealized wealth and luxurious living looked with scorn at the hard working, simple people of the North.

To ensure that the Federal government would balance the interests of North and South, the entry of a new Northern state into the Union was delayed until a slave state could enter. A few issues roiled the tranquility. When slaves escaped into the North, some assisted them to live in freedom or to move on to Canada which did not have slavery. But in 1850, a compromise provided that, if apprehended, fugitive slaves must be returned to their masters.

What broke this uneasy balance? A Supreme Court decision. The ruling that the descendants of those brought from Africa were not citizens might have been accepted by Northern states but the Court went further. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that a citizen may take his or her property to any other state. Applying this to slaves meant there were no “free states.” The South celebrated the decision and the North resolved it would not happen. No compromise was possible. Four years of war settled the question.

Do the internal divisions which caused the war continue to weaken and divide our country? William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Was he right?


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