With the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium coming up in less than a month, I wanted to say a few words about why the Civil War matters. In recent years, the conflict has become a much-debated subject and in Oklahoma, several schools have changed their names to remove ties to Confederate soldiers. I know this is not always popular, but personally, I am fine with taking the Confederate flag down from the South Carolina State Capitol building. It was put there in 1961 in defiance of desegregation of schools. However, when we start to remove monuments and change historical buildings it’s like we are trying to take away the existence of the Civil War all together, something that I think is a mistake. Why should we care about a war fought over 150 years ago, my answer is that to understand the Civil War is to understand America.
What can the Civil War tell us? First, the way I teach the Civil War is that the battles of that conflict were the final battles of the American Revolution. When our Founding Fathers got together after they earned our freedom, they had a difficult time agreeing exactly what our new nation would look like and how the government should act. One of my pet peeves is hearing the Founding Fathers thought such and such. My question is always, “Which ones?” Please do not think they all agreed on everything. Our founders had to compromise over several key issues, even over serious moral issues like slavery. What they also did is leave several key issues for later generations. If they did not know how to solve an issue or could not agree, they punted.
The founders did not decide the role of the Federal Government—were we going to have a strong federal government or more states’ rights? If you think your reading of the Constitution is clear on this, just know that the brightest of the founders did not agree. Jefferson and Hamilton feuded over this their entire lives. Were we going to be an industrial nation, or one based on small farmers like those Jefferson hoped for? Would we be a slave nation or a free one? Who ultimately would we allow freedom for, who did Jefferson mean when he said all men are created equal? These are important issues, the kind that would decide the very nature of our republic, yet the founders punted.
American leaders continued to debate and push these issues along until the 1850s when politicians finally said enough is enough. Now unfortunately this stand, this unwillingness to punt questions to the next generation took the lives of almost 700,000 men. Yet it did finally answer the questions that had plagued our nation and divided us. It answered the questions the founders could not. It finished our revolution and made us Americans. We have a strong federal government, we are an industrial powerhouse, and we are a nation that believes in free labor and wants to live up to Jefferson’s words of all men are created equal. It made us Americans for the first time, not Virginians and Pennsylvanians, but Americans. Before the War, Americans would say the United States are a great nation, after the war they said the United States is a great nation. Just one word change, but it changes everything.
Another importance of the War for students is to put our current conflicts in perspective. The attacks on politicians and their supporters from both sides has gone far beyond decent society. However, when I hear my students say things have never been so bad I have to stop them. I can think of several times when it has been worse, the early 1800s, even the 1960s, but we are nowhere close to the 1860s yet. The good thing about studying these times and the elections like 1800 or 1968 is to know that we overcame. Of course, in 1860, we did have to fight a horrible war, but we still persevered. We came out better on the other side, stronger. If we kept going the way it was, we never could have taken on the threats coming out of Europe in the next century.
We also can learn that democracy is messy. We tend to think that nation building and democracy was simple, we did it easily. However, when you put it into context, it took a century and cost us 700,000 lives to create our modern republic. Maybe we should be easier on others.
This is why studying the Civil War is so important. It is how we remember what makes us America, with all our warts. Let us not forget this War, let us learn from it. Let us remember the words of President Lincoln when he said:
“…that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
In this vain I am pleased to announce the second Oklahoma Civil War Symposium on June 25 in Chickasha on the campus of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. I will kick off the event at 2 p.m. At 4 p.m., Dr. Carol Sheriff from the College of William and Mary will take the stage. Our keynote speaker is Harold Holzer, one of the nation’s leading scholars on Abraham Lincoln. His talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. More information can be found at usao.edu/okcivilwar.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha.