The Revolutionary War established the independence of the American Colonies from Great Britain. The initial Articles of Confederation soon proved inadequate for the effective maintenance of the fledgling state, and a new constitution was drafted. To become operational, it had to be approved by at least 9 of the 13 states, and when that milestone was reached with New Hampshire’s ratification in the summer of 1788, the United States stood up among the nations of the world, representing the greatest experiment theretofore by any of them. The truth is, though, that it remained yet a working concept, and a decidedly tenuous one at that.
Surely this experiment was historic, invested with world-changing promise and hope, a triumph of incredible vision, genius and sacrifice. But the great and immensely difficult art of politics, exercised by monumental masters in its practice over those months hammering out the new constitution and guiding it to ratification, succeeded both by enshrining in the fabric of the nation unprecedented institutions ensuring new liberties and freedoms, and by turning a willfully blind eye to the continuance of another.
Several other genuinely vital issues divided equally dedicated patriots in those early years. But none was so searingly fissionable, so fundamental to the core identity of the nation and to the viability of the state as this one. And so tests of how we would define ourselves came frequently over the following decades, only to be put off with further dissimulation and incriminating compromise.
The final test – the grim understanding that the time was come to confront and remove this seething division – finally appeared, fully nine decades later, with the awful, wondrous American Civil War. The country was on the cusp of maturity, and could go no further without first closing this wound.
The nation understood the gargantuan stakes. Lincoln, on his way to take office even as the country was coming apart, knew he was about to undertake “a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” It was the entry – eyes wide open, now, and determinedly entering, still – into the agony of this war that finally and firmly established the United states as an enduring fact. Paul Johnson, in his magnificent “A History of the American People,” noted
The civil war . . . constitutes the central event in American history. It is also America’s most characteristic event which brings out all that the United States is, and is not. It made America a nation, which it was not before.
Why is that? Why was the formation and secure institutionalization of this country so fraught with risk, danger, so much anger, so much blood?
Why, despite all of that, was it ventured – and gained – nonetheless?
We will look at that next, with reviews that hopefully will help us see who we were over this formative period, what were our internal strengths, weaknesses, our conflicts over these, and what these made, and continue to make, of us.
But first, we’ll review a device I’ve come to only lately, but happily, and without which covering much of this ground would have been distinctly less gripping and edifying – and maybe even unlikely.