American history's Great Divide: The War Between the States

by Charley Reese (Jan 29, 1937 - May 21, 2013)
Columnist, Orlando Sentinel (Fla) 1971-2001
used by permission of the author

It is no exaggeration to say that the War Between the States is the continental divide of American history. Everything before 1860 was leading up to the war, and everything after 1865 has been a direct consequence of the war and the reconstruction that followed. Hence, if Americans don't understand that war, then they don't understand their country or themselves.

It's true that it's the most written-about aspect of American history, but most of the books -- and the interest -- have been on the military campaign, which is the least-important part. The war, after all, was an effect not a cause. Unless you contemplate a military career, you will not learn much useful by simply poring over maps and reading about the battles. What are most important are the political and cultural forces that led to the war and the political and cultural forces that emerged from it.

Some European historians have referred to the war and reconstruction as America's French Revolution. Two distinct political philosophies clashed, and only one survived. Just as the French Revolution established a centralized government with no competing sovereignties, so, too, did Lincoln's war establish in America a centralized government with no competing sovereignties.

The American Revolution, fought by 13 independent states in a loose confederation, produced a government that was a republic of sovereign republics. It was the states that created the federal government by delegating to it a few of their sovereign powers. The differences that would one day erupt into war were already evident in the ratification debates. Patrick Henry, for example, who fiercely opposed the new constitution, argued that differences between sections of the country were already too sharp. He predicted, accurately, it turned out, that as soon as one section grew strong enough, it would attempt to dominate the other.

But, nevertheless, it was clearly understood that what was being created was not a national government but a federal government with only very limited powers and duties. Several of the states, including New York, explicitly stated in their ratification resolutions that they reserved the right to withdraw the powers delegated should they decide that the federal government was exceeding its powers.

For the first 30 years or so, no one even questioned the right of states to secede. During that time, New England states twice threatened to secede. It was customary in those days to speak not of the United States but of these United States. We should recall that the original 13 states had been in existence as colonies -- with separate and distinct identities -- for more than 150 years prior to the Declaration of Independence.

As time passed, some Americans began to think more and more in terms of a supreme national government. Andrew Jackson, a Southerner, was one of them. Nevertheless the majority of Southerners held to the original philosophy, and there were many clashes in Congress between North and South over many issues. Slavery did not become a hot point of controversy until several decades had passed.

Jefferson Davis' Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government and Alexander Stephens' History of the War Between the States will give you a graduate-level course in American history. They are both clearly written. Judging by the ignorant statements made in the Confederate-flag flap, many people have huge gaps in their knowledge. American history is too important to be learned from Hollywood and cheap political demagogues.

No people should allow political sleaze to rewrite their country's history.

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on January 25, 2000.

Charley Reese was born in Washington, Georgia, and reared in Georgia, East Texas, and the Florida Panhandle. He was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and defending the South's position in the Civil War was a common theme of his writings. He frequently used Confederate anecdotes as illustrations. He believed the American Civil War to have been caused by sectional differences, not slavery. His writings repeatedly praised Robert E. Lee and vilified Abraham Lincoln. He was a member of the National Rifle Association and a staunch defender of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and critic of gun control. In his final years, he devoted many of his columns in support of a non-interventionist foreign policy. (wikipedia)