Opinion

On its 150th anniversary, US Civil War matters more than ever

The conflict between North and South stands as one of the only civil wars in human history that did not end in monarchy or dictatorship. Its lessons hold enduring value for the modern struggle to defend liberal democratic principles without compromising them in times of existential crisis.

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When recently discussing the war in Afghanistan with a former high-level Pakistani official, I was whisked from the streets of Kabul by my interlocutor’s jaunty conclusion: “We’ve had the devils own day, haven’t we?”; to which I instantly replied: “ Yes – lick’em tomorrow though.”

With this brief, apparently enigmatic, exchange we both acknowledged our membership in a rather obscure subculture: non-American Civil War buffs. The dialogue we quoted was an actual exchange between Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman after the first day of the battle of Shiloh, the bloodiest battle fought in the western theater of the war.

Rather than further musing on the progress of the war in Afghanistan, we spent the next two hours talking about Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Gettysburg campaign, the siege of Petersburg, and Stonewall Jackson’s bold exploits in the Shenandoah Valley. Before we parted, my companion confessed that the US Civil War was the conflict he studied most for one simple fact: It is virtually the only civil war in human history which did not end in dictatorship or monarchy. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the last "gentleman’s war," this fact is often forgotten.

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There is indeed no equivalent in European history to parallel how democratically elected governments handle internal strife without becoming autocratic. Ancient Rome’s civil war ended after Octavian declared himself emperor. The English Civil War ended with Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorship. The French Civil War resulted in the first Empire. Francisco Franco established a fascist government in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War, as did Austria at the end of a brief war in 1934.

Enduring lessons for democracies in times of war

Consequently, the Civil War in the United States holds valuable lessons for democracies in times of war. It answered fundamental questions about the durability and resiliency of democratic governments in times of existential crisis.

Fought primarily by amateur soldiers, neither side questioned the inherent truth of democratic government in spite of military commanders publicly displaying their reservations regarding government’s conduct of the war. For example, Joseph “Fightin Joe” Hooker, the momentary commander of the Army of the Potomac, advocated dictatorship to end the military cul-de-sac into which the Union had wandered. Lincoln famously replied: “I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator…. Only those generals who gain success can be dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”

A year later, Lincoln appointed General Ulysess S. Grant to command all Union forces, investing him with unprecedented military powers. Only in the last months of the war was Jefferson Davis willing to appoint General Robert E. Lee commander of all Confederate forces, fearful of the consequences of uniting the aggregated military power of the Confederacy in one person. Political leaders of both North and South were aware of the intrinsic dangers military leaders can pose to a democratically elected government.

To non-Americans, it matters little whether the war was fought over slavery or states’ rights or what battles were won or lost by which side. More important to us should be the practical lessons we can derive from the conflict, for example, how a democratically elected president dealt with public opinion, the press, and censorship under the extreme duress or war. Further lessons to be taken from the Civil War are how the American president, a lawyer by profession, could suspend habeas corpus and arrest agitators without due process of law, what role the opposition played in the conflict, how governments in both the North and South reacted to war weariness, and how a national election could be completed successfully amid civil strife.

The Civil War also holds enduring lessons for democracies in times of war. This monumental rupture of the greatest democracy in human history provides valuable insight into the manipulative power of the press, the often zigzagging contradictions of elected leaders reconciling military strategy with electoral politics, and the seminal importance of public opinion and the home front. Most important, the Civil War affords a unique perspective on defending liberal democratic principles without compromising them and, above all, how a country that fought for four bloody years and suffered more than 600,000 deaths could emerge as one nation.

America: a living rebuttal to famous political philosophers

Political philosophers from Plato to Jean Jacques Rousseau were convinced that democracy could not be extended beyond the boundaries of a small city-state and would collapse due to internal strife in times of crisis. European history seemed to prove them right. The US Civil War, however, showed that this is not a historical dictum. The United States emerged out of the conflict as a stronger nation and more integrally than ever bound to its democratic liberal principles.

While there is little danger for most Western democracies to turn toward autocracy, the Civil War illustrates inherent dangers facing democracies at war.

Democratic government is not immune to excesses, misjudgments, and violations of the law. No government, however, should ever abandon its republican principles for the sake of expediency or necessity even in times of severe national crisis. That’s a lesson my Pakistani friends and many other citizens of the world should learn from the great American Battle Cry of Freedom.

Franz-Stefan Gady is an Austrian foreign policy analyst. He works for the EastWest Institute.

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