At the crossroads (7/17/2011)

Three months into the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, American and foreign observers alike continue to reflect on the reasons why that war, described by Robert Penn Warren as “the great single event of our history,” resonates in our national consciousness in a way that distinguishes it from other epochal events in U.S. history.

Each year, tens of thousands make a pilgrimage to the great battlefields. Each year witnesses the publication of some 100 new books and scores of essays and articles. Book clubs around the nation regularly feature discussion of prominent works on that tragic war.

A fine article penned by Harvard president and historian Drew Gilpin Faust, “Telling War Stories: The Civil War and the Meaning of Life,” published in the June 30 edition of the New Republic, reviews our deep-seated fascination with the Civil War and the attitudes and assumptions about it.

It is war, of course, a subject which fixes our attention like no other. But we’ve experienced other wars, and as momentous as they have been, they don’t draw the attention garnered by the Civil War. The Civil War, moreover, brought center stage the issue of slavery, which was so large and so dominant that it pushed most other issues to an off-Broadway status. Race, then at the “margins” of American history, Faust explains, now stands at its center, a proposition with which few will quarrel.

There are, indeed, striking explanations for the reverberation of the Civil War in Americans’ curiosity, imagination and discussions. I’ve long been fond of Shelby Foote’s characterization of the Civil War as “the crossroads of our being,” which, I believe, captures the essence of that singular moment. All was at stake — the future of slavery and our regard for humanity, the ideals of the nation and the direction of its future, the premise and promise of self-governance, and the nature of our constitutional order. The most fundamental choices about the nature of our country were on the line and had to be made.

That they might have been made in a legislative arena, built upon a foundation of civil discussion and deliberation, as the founders of this nation had imagined, was but a chimera after Southern states seceded from the Union. The path to resolution, tragically, lay through the battlefield. America stood, as Foote explained it, at the “crossroads.” The outcome of the war meant, of course, that we had begun anew: The values of 1776 and 1787, including those that had been aspirations, though for reasons of politics and prejudice, beyond implementation, had become something more than mere parchment.

Great work and challenges lay ahead, as they always do. As a nation, America stands always at a “crossroads,” continually defining itself on matters of great moment, in times of peace and war. In a democracy, it can be no other way.