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Friday’s post, “The Cultural Consequences of the American Civil War,” has enjoyed more traffic than my usual posts thanks to a.) the controversial topic of the American Civil War (gasp!—someone’s not denouncing the South!) and b.) and Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown graciously sharing the post far and wide. Thanks, Doc!
It’s put me in a bit of a historical mood. In history, the important points—the Truth—is often in the details, but I’ve always appreciated the contemplation of the philosophical implications of historical events. Thus, my mini-essay on the American Civil War focused more on the cultural and political costs of the war than the nitty-gritty details.
The costs were, of course, considerable. Historians of a conservative bent will sometimes refer to “reconstitutions” in United States history, with the Progressive Era and its immediate offspring, the New Deal, often cited as a major “reconstitution.” The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which elevated anti-racism and social justice above the freedom of association, was another such reconstitution.
Similarly, the American Civil War, as I detailed yesterday, resulted in a reconstitution of the Constitution, as it served to centralize more power in the hands of the federal government, curtailing States’ rights in the process.
An observant reader will note that each of these “reconstitutions” reflected some revolutionary fervor or upheaval: the horror of war, the agitation of Progressive reformers, the privations of the Depression, and the struggle for equal rights. They almost all resulted in an increase in federal power, too, often to intrusive degrees. In each instance, the ratchet turned towards more centralization and fewer liberties overall.
But the American Revolution—which made the Constitution possible—is nearly unique in the annals of modern history—much less American history—in that it was a conservative revolution. That is, it was a revolution that sought to conserve—or, perhaps more accurately, to preserve—a set of traditions and privileges, rather than to tear them up, root and branch.