On the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, Ken Burns writes that it was American Civil War that made America what it is today.
‘Before the war, in speaking about our country, we said “The United States are” – plural. We saw ourselves as a union, a stitched-together collection of states, a “many” thing. After the war we then began to talk about America as a “one” thing, as a nation. And we began to say something that is still to this day ungrammatical; we say “The United States is…”
And we say it without thinking about it because something happened in those four years between 1861 and 1865, that, for whatever reasons it happened and for whatever consequences issued from it, formed this country in a way that not even the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did …
‘… One cannot but be inexorably drawn to that extraordinary poet-president who saved the Union, Abraham Lincoln: this unlikely, essentially lower-middle-class guy from the frontier, from Kentucky and Illinois, who had raised himself up and was able to not just articulate what was going on in the moment, but to gather together all the impulses of the past and to see into the possibilities of our future, and to do so without a lot of fuss. And to do so with a great deal of poetry, in the way he spoke about the war and about the struggle. And helped to … remake our country, helped to reshape and give new purpose to ideas that had perhaps become corrupted since the founding of the nation … He called it, in the Gettysburg Address, a “new birth of freedom” …
‘… The war defined us. It made us who we are, for good and for ill. Everything that came before led up to it, and … everything since has been in some ways, however faint, a consequence of it … paradoxically, it’s the moment where we try to rip ourselves in two that we come to terms with the greatest sense of unity that we’ve ever had. And that, in the end, is why the Civil War has always been and will always be the central subject in American history … Between 1861 and 1865, Americans made war on each other and killed each other in order to become the kind of country that could no longer conceive how that was possible.’
Ken Burns, maker of the TV documentary film series The Civil War
8-9 April, 1pm. Virgin Channel 236. Sky Channel 531
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