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What The War Meant

March 2023
2min read

It would be hard to find a better concise examination of that terrible upheaval than Mr. Nichols provides. The conflict itself was brought on largely by the cultural limitations of the men on both sides—limitations “imposed by birth, environment, association and tradition.” Those limitations still exist, and all of us share in them; we are subject to them when we try to interpret and understand the enormous convulsion that took place in the i86o’s.

Here it is worth while to listen carefully to Mr. Nichols. He proceeds: “If the history of the conflict is to be written with even an approximation of truth, it is essential for those concerned to understand the nature of such cultural limitations. This is particularly important because those who were drawing Leviathan’s blueprints were circumscribed by these same limitations. These cultural determinants are emphasized because there is an almost irresistible impulse in the moralistic intellectual world in which so many Americans dwell to speak instinctively in terms of praise or blame, to condemn or to justify. The extent to which the balance is in favor of condemnation or commendation seems to depend largely upon the accident of who is making the analysis, upon his cultural definition. Do these limitations make inevitable a moral judgment, the casting up of an account? Is it not possible to accept the hypothesis that in the conduct of great masses of people there must, by some law of behavioral average, be as much to praise as to blame? In the long run, will not these judgments decree some sort of balance of virtue?”

Emotions, Mr. Nichols says, go in pairs, like negative and positive charges of electricity. None of us is all of one piece. We contain contrasts, and these contrasts were abundant in the i86o’s. Considering this fact, Mr. Nichols develops a thought which seems essential to any true understanding of the Civil War:

“These contrasts, operating in both sections, suggest the hypothesis that the North American ecology decreed the evolution of two different societies in an environment and a cultural organization that would encourage a mutual desire for union—something akin to matrimony—in which two obviously different individuals sought the satisfaction of a primal urge stronger than their individual wills in a union that in this instance was crowned with the fruits of their own creation: something new, a nation. This nationalism in the end proved stronger than their individual wills, and after an emotional crisis that drove them to the brink of destruction, the strength of their own creation, their nationalism, saved them from annihilation. When the historian applies the dry scientific concepts of the behavioral sciences to an analysis of this war, it becomes difficult to assign praise or blame or to award victory or defeat.

“The problem is further complicated by the puzzling possibility that the contestants were fighting for the same aim and that both achieved it. The war was a conflict to conserve the federal system and this end, which both sides really desired, was achieved. The Union forces were fighting for a federal system in which the principle was to govern that the rule of the majority should prevail. The South on its part was dedicated to a federal system in which the autonomy of a minority should be recognized. It fought primarily to ensure the South a veto in the system.”

We usually say that the Northern interpretation finally won, but Mr. Nichols is not sure that this is correct. Even in defeat, the South achieved much that it was fighting for. After Appomattox its states came back to positions of no small power; to this very day, as he sees it, the southern representation in Congress “can frequently exercise a veto and even control.” Power in the nation, he reminds us, is still divided, and the government remains a federal system. And he adds:

“The war at length came to its end when there was no reason for it to be fought any longer. It was perhaps a war that in a sense nobody won.”

If nobody won it, what then did it accomplish?

At the very least, says Mr. Nichols, it created a new Leviathan. Government was in fact remade. There was a vast new law-making program, begun while the war was still being fought and continued after the war was over. Merely to specify some of the points in this program—expanded use of subsidies, passage of the Homestead Act, development of the Pacific railroad, creation of the land-grant colleges, of a national banking system and of a protective tariff—set a pattern for the future development of the nation.

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