The Civil War as a Failure of Democracy

I’ve commented a few times on our tendency to celebrate the Civil War rather than see it as a failure of democracy.  Today I was perusing through a section of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America and thought I would share this:

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.  At 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 the 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 the modern life.

Menand traces the public careers of four American intellectuals, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles S. Pierce, and John Dewey.  Many of you are no doubt aware that these four men shaped the American pragmatist school of thought.  Menand argues that the Civil War shifted the way these men came to understand the concept of truth.  The shift involved the assumption that for our beliefs to be considered true they somehow had to connect or reflect reality.  Menand uses Holmes as the link between this older Enlightenment assumption of truth and a postwar theory which interpreted ‘true belief’ as a tool for social engagement.  In other words, beliefs are not "out there" waiting to be uncovered, but are tools to be used to maneuver in society.  True beliefs "work" for various reasons rather than being timeless and objective.

It is interesting that our popular understanding of the Civil War involves very little intellectual history beyond the political debates surrounding the abolitionist movement and secession.   Perhaps I am way off target here.   

2 comments… add one

  • Brooks Simpson May 18, 2006

    There are some other promising starts, notably George Frederickson’s The Inner Civil War. Somewhat to the side are Edmund Wilson and Daniel Aaron on literature. On politics, see my own The Political Education of Henry Adams, which speaks of a particular reformer’s hope that the Civil War would offer a new beginning.

  • Kevin Levin May 19, 2006

    Hi Brooks, — Thanks for the suggestions. I am familiar with Frederickson’s book, but I have to admit that I overlooked your study of Henry Adams — will definitely check it out.

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