Who won the American Civil War?

Who won the American Civil War, the North or the South?

I asked myself that question recently when visiting the battlefield in Gettysburg. Standing on Seminary Ridge, I looked across the tranquil fields to Cemetery Ridge, one mile distant, and in my mind’s eye imagined 75,000 men arrayed on my ridge, and an equal number on the opposite ridge, those masses of men trying to kill as many of the other side as possible.

Only 144 years ago Americans were killing each other in large numbers -- for what purpose? The war came to an end, but was the cause of that war resolved? Given the slaughter and suffering so close to home, this seemed a relevant question to ask.

You’ll say, my question is outrageous. Of course it was the North that won. The South surrendered; slavery was abolished; and the Federal government became so strengthened, that today no one would even think of claiming that an individual state has the right to secede.

I’ll say -- as a first retort -- that although slavery was indeed abolished nominally, the spirit of slavery, surely, survived at least 100 years longer, in segregation and discrimination. The war abolished that institution, but no war could itself change hearts in the way required.

Even today we are not free of hindering persons, or advancing them, based on their race. No one would say that we’ve arrived at a society in which a man is “judged by the content of his character.”

But next--and this is my second point--consider the principle for which the Civil War was fought. After all, it was fought for a principle. To prove the point, I’ll take Lincoln as my authority. Standing on that battlefield of Gettysburg, when he gave his famous speech, Lincoln referred to the proposition, that “all men are created equal.”

Our nation was “dedicated” to that proposition, Lincoln said, and the war was about whether that principle would be affirmed, or abandoned.

That this principle was at stake became clear during Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas. In those debates, Douglas was the great advocate of freedom of choice: each state should be free to choose, he urged, whether it would have slavery or not. When it came to slavery, the North should keep its laws off of the South. For Douglas, the important issue concerning slavery was not whether slavery was right or wrong, but rather, “Who decides?” The individual states, not the Federal government, should decide.

When Lincoln pointed out in reply that slavery was inconsistent with the proposition that “all men are created equal,” and that therefore it was in practice impossible for anyone to allow slavery while still holding to that proposition, Douglas brazenly denied the proposition. The words “all men,” Douglas insisted, meant only “all white men.”

That is why Lincoln frequently said during the war that his fight was with those men who wished to deny that “all men are created equal.” For Lincoln, the Civil War was a battle not simply for the unity of the United States , but also for the original understanding (and constitution, in the most basic sense) of our country -- a battle not simply for the “body” of the nation, but also for its “soul.” If the principle that “all men are created equal” were abandoned, then, Lincoln thought, the United States as it was originally founded, even if it remained “united” and integral, would have gone out of existence. The nation “originally dedicated” to that proposition would no longer exist.

So my original question may now be stated with precision. I asked whether the North or the South won the Civil War. This is equivalent to the question: Is our country today still dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal”?

I hope you won’t understand me to be simply making a debater’s point if I observe, first, that that proposition cannot be taught in the United States today as something held in common and true. The proposition says that all men are created, that is, by God--it says, that is, that we have a divine origin and that our lives are therefore sacred. This idea is regarded as a “religious” doctrine and therefore as something that can be affirmed only privately. If the proposition is affirmed in a public setting, it can be affirmed only as something historical, which “people used to say.”

I’ll leave it to you to figure out whether it is possible for a nation to be “dedicated” to a proposition which cannot be publicly affirmed as held in common and true.

But then consider also whether we haven’t corporately rejected the proposition that “all men are created equal,” because of the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion. Roe v. Wade adopts a reasoning precisely parallel to that of Stephen Douglas. People should be free to choose (abortion/ slavery). What is important is not whether (abortion/ slavery) is wrong, but rather “who decides?”

And if someone were to point out that it is impossible to hold that all human beings are equal, while allowing that some human beings may be killed upon the preference of another, a careful reader of Roe vs. Wade will reply that, for the Supreme Court, it is not the case that “all human beings” are equal, but only that “all born human beings” are equal.

The South, then, has actually won, since, most certainly, Lincoln has lost.

Michael Pakaluk is a visiting associate professor at Catholic University of America.