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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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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.

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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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