One hundred and fifty years ago, American passions over politics blew off the lids we usually keep in place on our political debates and turned a war of words into a war of arms. By its end, the US Civil War had taken the lives of 620,000 Americans – the population equivalent of 6 million today. And despite the emancipation of more than 3 million slaves, the war ended up replacing slavery with a century's worth of racist Jim Crow laws.
The reasons for war were many and complicated, but the fundamental issue was how to define liberty. "We all declare for liberty," Abraham Lincoln said in 1864, but after that, all similarity evaporated. "With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor," Lincoln said.
Four years of war finally settled that question.
I have the uneasy sensation, however, that the lids are rattling again. The past year in US politics has been full of more alienation and polarization than at any time since 1861, all of it now capped off hellishly in the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona. And just as in 1861, that divide has opened up over a single deep question. Then, the question was "What makes for liberty?" In 2011, it is "What makes for justice?"
A fundamental collision of values
This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with "don't ask, don't tell" and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Today's passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.
Still, if it's the fundamental clash over justice that really is making the lids rattle, there is nothing that makes their blowing off inevitable. Even allowing for that vast gulf in understanding of a fundamental concept like liberty, Northerners and Southerners discovered in the Civil War how alike they still were. The Confederacy adopted a Constitution that was a virtual replica of the US Constitution. Southerners fought to defend a slave system, but privately nursed terrifying doubts about its rightness. Billy Yank and Johnny Reb fraternized across the battle lines. After General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, General Grant introduced Lee to his military secretary, Col. Ely S. Parker, a full-blooded Seneca sachem. "I am glad at last to meet a real American," Lee remarked. "General Lee," Parker said softly, "we are all Americans."
Remembering that likeness in 1861 could have pulled us back from the abyss that our great struggle over liberty was moving us toward.
If Southerners could have admitted their own doubts about slavery more freely; if Northerners could have recognized that ending slavery was not as easy as throwing a switch and that some process was needed (as Lincoln said) "by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new"; if we had remembered that we were warring over liberty in front of a hostile world audience that hoped both sides would lose – then we might not have been so eager to poke sticks into one another's eyes, and slavery could have been dismantled without walking across the broken glass of Reconstruction.
The need for prudence
Such prudence would serve us well today – and all the more because we know in 2011 how very much it cost us in 1861. Lincoln's injunction from his first inaugural address comes back to us: "My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject."
He appealed to the "mystic chords of memory" that bound us together, and he pleaded for "a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people." Even in 1865, he avoided provocation by locating the causes of the war, not in a failure of democracy or on the shoulders of the Southerners, but in the will of God.
Think before we push the envelope one more time, before we stoke one more fire for partisan gain, before we invent one more ideological sneer whose outcome merely feeds our self-righteousness. See the beam in your own eye before demanding a court order to remove the splinter in your brother's. Realize that the slowness of our constitutional system is not a cause for impatience, but a wise and deliberate way to induce self-restraint and reflection.
Democracy lives by reason and persuasion, not by statute or decree. Its purpose is not to give us what we want, but to free us to do what we should. In 1861, we learned those lessons in a singularly hard way. Today, "from every battle field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land," our Civil War sesquicentennial should teach them to us again.