The best way to explain to the student why it is important to learn about the American Civil War is to point out that it is still being fought. It is the age old fight between conservatism and liberalism. The fight to keep what is precious against the impulse to progress. Though the division lines are much more blurred and complicated, the same fight is essentially been carried out by the Republicans and the Democrats in modern politics.
The problem with Civil War history as it is taught in American schools is that there is a lot of it, and most of it is only sterile fact chopping. If a theme is presented at all, it is usually a one-dimensional one of a straightforward fight against slavery. The Southern plantation owners are the villains, while Abraham Lincoln is made into an antislavery champion. But the fact is that even Lincoln owned slaves, and it was not until till the whole year into the war that he took any move to emancipate them. Antislavery became a rallying cry in the North only in the later stages of the war, and it took Lincoln a whole year after the end of the war to put into practice the Emancipation proclamation made in the heat of the war.
No, not even Lincoln knew what the war was about. He too must have been staggered by the ferocity of it, how brothers took up arms against brothers to defend a way of life that each deemed the best. In the end the war claimed the lives of 600,000, 2% of the nation’s population, and injured millions more. With hindsight we are better able to judge the conflict than the participants. Yes, the freeing of slaves was the central part of it. But it was much more.
It is possible to trace the conflict back to the argument between the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. In the end it was Locke’s argument that served as the inspiration for the founding of the American nation, enshrined in the wording of the Declaration of Independence, to ensure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for the American people.
But there were also inherent conflicts in the ideology of this new nation. It was a nation that had turned its back to the world. It wanted to establish its new libertarianism on a virgin continent, isolated from the old world order. In other words, it harbored both conservative and liberal tendencies. In the end these tendencies produced a rift between North and South. The South aimed to hold on to its prosperity born of slave run plantations, while the North turned to European culture and adopted industrialism, the harbingers of progress.
Seen in this light, the war was not only inevitable, but it was also inevitable that the Europeanized and industrial north would prevail. The larger world inevitably breaks through the isolationist barriers that the Americans build to shut it out. The same thing repeats itself time and time again in American history. The nation only entered the First World War in its dying hours, and then shut itself up again. But the war bought prosperity and world leadership, and the heady nation experienced the heights of the Jazz Age and the depths of the Great Depression that followed it. After the Second World War America could no more hold back the world.
But the struggle continues in many ways. After dominating the world both economically and politically for many decades, does the nation hold on to what it has, or does it let globalization take its course, which siphons manufacturing and jobs to the developing parts of the world? The Democrats would take a stance under the banner of promoting freedom and democracy to every corner of the globe. The Republicans would oppose this arguing that America must maintain its dominance through “realistic” means. Of course, this is a very general demarcation. Both sides aim to strike a balance between liberalism and realism.
None of this can be understood without understanding the American Civil War. In fact, its importance goes far beyond the borders of the United States. The American Way has now become the global way. Who at present does not face the struggle between holding on to what is precious in the present and stepping intrepidly into the future? The pity is that American history is not taught around the globe to the extent that it should be.