Today marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and Brian Beutler has proposed making a national holiday out of the anniversary of the Confederacy’s surrender. Obviously that would be hugely controversial, but it’s for precisely that reason that Jonathan Bernstein likes the idea: “As a nation dedicated to politics at its founding, the U.S. is well-served by debating and deciding what we collectively remember about our moments of greatness, and about the men and women who deserve fame, in the best sense of the word.”
I couldn’t agree more. Holidays are often treated as non-political, or even trivial. But they’re only as trivial as we make them, and they’re almost never without a political edge. A push to make a national celebration out of the Confederacy’s downfall would lend seriousness to debates that are today far too trivialized, and it would make Americans more conscious of the unsettling political choices that led to our modern, de-politicized view of the Civil War.
Over the last four years, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has produced a trove of writing and scholarship that amounts to one of the more fruitful acts of national self-reflection in recent memory. It’s not just that many of our contemporary problems echo those of the mid-nineteenth century (and not only the Civil War—but as Eric Foner recently argued, Reconstruction too). Commemoration of the Civil War has also occasioned further reflection on the intellectual revolution inaugurated by Lincoln. Over time, Lincoln came to understand the war as a second founding, and when he used the Gettysburg Address to root the “project” of America in an expansive reading of the Declaration of Independence, he committed American politics to realizing the Declaration’s promise of equality—and, as he well knew as the prosecutor of a war against sectionalism, this was simultaneously a project of nation-building. Democratic equality and nationalization have long been linked in American history, and the implications of Lincoln’s vision are still controversial. Even today, expansions of equality—think, for instance, of same-sex marriage and Medicaid expansion—face staunchest opposition from a white, revanchist Southern bloc attracted to archaic compact theories of the Constitution (and seemingly unable to rid its ranks of neo-Confederates).
American political theorists have understood Lincoln’s insight for over a century: in 1909, for instance, Herbert Croly detected Lincoln’s emergent understanding of the links between democracy, equality, and nationalization as early on as his debates with Stephen Douglas. Lincoln’s opposition to popular sovereignty, wrote Croly, “made it plain that a democratic nation could not make local and individual rights an excuse for national irresponsibility.” Our own debates over equality and national power would be richer, and less full of distracting cant, if we took seriously Lincoln’s own views on the matter—and treated him less as a depoliticized demigod, comfortingly neutered of any opinions which might unsettle us today.
The form of trivialization that enables the “reunion” mythology of the Civil War is likewise disturbing. Suggesting a national holiday to commemorate the defeat of the Confederacy would inevitably invite charges of “divisiveness,” as if nothing could be worse for a democracy. But as historians like David Blight have demonstrated, the progress of national reunion after the Civil War was only possible because of an agreement among white Americans to manipulate, in the public memory, the sources of division that led to the fighting in the first place. In the interest of restoring comity, depictions of the war emphasizing the still-raw disagreements over slavery, emancipation, and racial equality were suppressed in favor of romantic narratives about heroic patriots on both sides. This rewriting of history purchased national reunion for white Americans at the cost of equality and membership for black Americans—and as a decision about the memorialization of U.S. history, it’s had a far more harmful impact on democracy than celebrating the end of the Confederacy ever could.
The Civil War can be seen as a distant, almost quaint historical memory—a fight in which the losers’ cause is now so long gone that further castigation is unnecessary, even churlish. If we take this view, then the War is a sad but not particularly relevant historical event, and not especially pertinent to our self-understanding. On this reading, it’s not only the war that loses significance: Lincoln, and his interpretation of the war’s meaning, must fade in importance too. But if this is not the view we take of the war, it’s because we think it was about something that remains meaningful in American politics—that Lincoln’s radical act of reinterpretation wasn’t wrong, that the cause of the war was serious enough to fight and die for, and that it still hasn’t faded from relevance. We can’t hold both views of the war at the same time. And if we choose to stick with the second view, the least we can do is take it seriously—and be willing to confront, rather than sentimentally ignore, the questions it poses to us.