The Civil War

For most American students, some of the best days of elementary school are the ones leading up to Thanksgiving. We make handprint turkeys from construction paper, learn about corn, beans, and squash, and hear all about the idyllically symbiotic early interactions between Europeans and Native Americans. Life is good.

A few years down the road, the picture changes somewhat. We hear tell of fighting and betrayal – or even death. It was all just a big misunderstanding, we're told. We move on. But every so often, we get an additional glimpse of the horror surrounding early European involvement in the New World so that, by the time we're adults, we can better handle the fact that a fifth of the planet's population (guess which fifth) died as a result of Columbus sailing the ocean blue.

This baby-steps process of learning about the Columbian Exchange is more or less the American template for dealing with bad history. Just think back on the early days of school you spent tackling the Civil War. The lessons probably consisted of making stove-pipe hats and fake Lincoln beards – and joyfully hearing about how the war eradicated slavery.

As early teens, we start reading about things like how Lincoln, dictator-style, not only gave speeches declaring that he would support slavery if it meant saving the Union, but also suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Regardless of whether we'd even heard of habeas corpus up until this point, the moment feels like a bad breakup. As time goes on, a new piece is added to the puzzle. Although Lincoln remained publicly neutral toward slavery, he condemned it privately. This leads to another epiphany: politicians can be misleading. By the time we're in college, we've basically lost any footing we thought we had in the argument.

People throw a lot of names around whenever they talk about the causes of the Civil War – John Brown, Dred Scott, the Mason-Dixon Line… Lincoln comes up every now and again – but something that doesn't often get its fair share of the attention is federal versus state power. No, it's not as catchy as some of the other topics, nor can it easily be characterized via macaroni and construction paper, but the fact that it's basically the longest running argument in US history ought to give us some pause for thought.

After all, this is the stuff our founding fathers saw fit to duel each other over. When Aaron Burr was busy shooting Alexander Hamilton, the US was less than half the size it was during Lincoln's inauguration. Suffice it to say that the issue of central control gets even trickier after your country has stretched all the way across the continent.

Secessionists believed that the US government should ideally be a loose pact between states and that the federal government should have no power beyond what is explicitly outlined by the Constitution. Unionists, on the other hand, tended toward stronger central powers and a looser interpretation of the Constitution. They resented the idea a slave could be taken into a free state with no consequences from the federal government simply because somewhere, a slaveholding state said it was a-okay.

Secessionists have since been accused of using the states' rights argument to defend slavery… just like unionists have been accused of using abolition to disguise an interest in increasing federal power. Either way, all the political, racial, financial, and moral grounds for fighting touched on the same old issue. And if you think that the Civil War was the final word on federal versus state power, just check out the Alaskan Independence party, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Confederate flag, the hard liquor smuggled into Utah, or the legitimacy of a same-sex marriage license in a state like Arkansas.