One hundred and fifty years ago, the South Caroline militia began to bombard Fort Sumter. Four years later, the war would end… at least the military conflicts. I grew up with little appreciation of the Civil War. My ancestors were fishing off the coast of Norway or escaping from concentration camps in Prussia 150 years ago. I grew up in California, where US history went from the Revolution to the Constitution to Missions along the western coast. I do recall a brick Civil War era fort preserved under an arch of the Golden Gate bridge. When I migrated to the east coast, and then to Virginia, I began to suspect that for some people the war was not over. When I moved to West Virginia, I began to learn more about old grievances about what northern forces had done to local families’ ancestors.
Not having direct stories to pass on about this struggle, I have an opportunity to view the events differently than those who are inclined to join one side or the other. One perspective on the war that interests me is how south and north both used rhetoric about freedom to justify their positions. However, the views of freedom were quite different. This suggests that freedom does not have only one definition. The conflict is about what version of freedom do we as a society want to pursue. With revolutions and civil wars breaking out in other nations of world, this debate is pertinent.
The Confederacy stood for an idea of freedom in which the state the was the best governing body to assure liberty for the individual. A smaller government could respond better to the needs and circumstances that affected that state. The Union stood for an idea of freedom in which liberty required equality, assured by a strong central government to kept states in check from oppressing segments of their populations. The economics and culture of slavery were the key issues of the day. Should individual states and farmers be the ones to decide whether to use slave labor, or should government emancipated slaves and allow them to have equal opportunity to work, wages, homes, farms, and communities. Today, similar debates continues with politicians, journalists, and letter-to-editor writers struggling between “states rights” and an “opportunity for all”.
I think that each side has merit. I think also that each camp needs to identify their form of liberty’s challenge. Can the state assure freedom for all their citizens, or is it mainly to sustain the privilege of those in power? If states rights, libertarianism, and the Tea Party want to limit federal powers so that they can keep more of their money, run their businesses without the consequences of regulation, and enforce their religious traditions to the exclusion of other people, they will fall into chaos. On the other hand, federalist proponents must consider the ever-growing burden of financing the bureaucracy to assure that rules and regulations are followed. They risk that society will be caught in a cycle of expanding services and expanding expectations, which can lead to bankrupting our governments, business, and individuals.
Meanwhile, middle eastern nations bring these ideas to a boiling point. Will they pursue governments which build liberty into their society? Will they fall into the turmoil of clan warfare? Will a theocracy assure liberty for only those who believe? Civil wars rarely end.
Moorefield Examiner, April 13, 2011