The Civil War made America a modern nation, unleashing forces of industrialism and expansion that had been kept in check for decades by the quarrel over slavery. But the war also discredited the ideas and beliefs of the era that preceded it. The Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but almost the whole intellectual culture of the North went with it. It took nearly half a century for Americans to develop a set of ideas, a way of thinking, that would help them cope with the conditions of modern life. That struggle is the subject of this book.
- Pulitzer Prize
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
May 30, 2001
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Excerpt from The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand
It is a remarkable fact about the United States that it fought a civil war without undergoing a change in its form of government. The Constitution was not abandoned during the American Civil War; elections were not suspended; there was no coup d'?tat. The war was fought to preserve the system of government that had been established at the nation's founding -- to prove, in fact, that the system was worth preserving, that the idea of democracy had not failed. This is the meaning of the Gettysburg Address and of the great fighting cry of the North: "Union." And the system was preserved; the union did survive. But in almost every other respect, the United States became a different country. The war alone did not make America modern, but the war marks the birth of modern America.
As a political and economic event, the transformation is not hard to see or difficult to explain. Secession allowed the North, for four years, to set the terms for national expansion without interference from the South, and the wartime Congress did not let the opportunity slip. That Congress was one of the most active in American history. It supported scientific training and research; it established the first system of national taxation and created the first significant national currency; it made possible the construction of public universities and the completion of the transcontinental railway. It turned the federal government into the legislative engine of social and economic progress. And it helped to win a war. The military defeat of the Confederacy made the Republican Party the dominant force in national politics after 1865, and the Republican Party was the champion of business. For more than thirty years, a strong central government protected and promoted the ascendance of industrial capitalism and the way of life associated with it -- the way of life we call "modern."
To this extent, the outcome of the Civil War was a validation, as Lincoln had hoped it would be, of the American experiment. Except for one thing, which is that people who live in democratic societies are not supposed to settle their disagreements by killing one another. For the generation that lived through it, the Civil War was a terrible and traumatic experience. It tore a hole in their lives. To some of them, the war seemed not just a failure of democracy, but a failure of culture, a failure of ideas. As traumatic wars do -- as the First World War would do for many Europeans sixty years later, and as the Vietnam War would do for many Americans a hundred years later -- the Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it. Those beliefs had not prevented the country from going to war; they had not prepared it for the astonishing violence the war unleashed; they seemed absurdly obsolete in the new, postwar world. The Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but it swept away almost the whole intellectual culture of the North along with it. It took nearly half a century for the United States to develop a culture to replace it, to find a set of ideas, and a way of thinking, that would help people cope with the conditions of modern life. That struggle is the subject of this book.