In my ongoing competition with Fallows to see who can file blog-posts at the oddest hours, I offer this rather stirring conclusion to one of the most stirring works of history I've ever read:
The war solved no problem. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.
The overwhelming majority in Europe, the overwhelming majority in Germany, wanted no war; powerless and voiceless, there was no need even to persuade them that they did. The decision was made without thought of them. Yet of those who, one by one, let themselves be drawn into the conflict, few were irresponsible and nearly all were genuinely anxious for an ultimate and better peace. Almost all--one excepts the King of Sweden--were actuated rather by fear than by lust of conquest or passion of faith. They wanted peace and they fought for thirty years to be sure of it,.
They did not learn then, and have not since, that war breeds only war.
Wedgwood is writing, I believe, as Nazism is rising in Germany. Her book is filled with veiled references to the coming of that great conflict.
I've been asked to compare my thoughts on the 30 Years War with my thoughts on the Civil War. I think I have to begin with that first sentence--The war solved no problem. People with a better knowledge of Europe are welcome to quarrel with that. But it certainly feels like a mob war played out across a continent. For my part, I obviously think the Civil War solved a very real problem, one that, given the breadth and scope of slavery, could only be solved by violence.
When you view slavery as a few rich dudes owning a few poor dudes--and this is the common view of the thing--then the Civil War does seem like a mistake. A few few hot-headed abolitionists and hot-headed fire-eaters got carried away, and something really unfortunate happened. There's an actual school of professional history that's argued this. (Forgive me, but I can't remember whether it's the Revisionists or the Dunning school.) From that angle, you really can see how the War was a tragedy, and you really could spend whole days playing "What if?"
But I go back to Eric Foner's point that the Emancipation Proclamation "liquidated the largest concentration of property in the United States." I go back to David Blight's point, oft-quoted around these parts:
By 1860 there were approximately 4,000,000 slaves in the United States, the second largest slave society--slave population--in the world. The only one larger was Russian serfdom. Brazil was close. But in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars--that's just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today's dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars.
In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.
That is a lot of money. And it was made of a lot of me. I would not say that war is the only way to rupture something that valuable. But I'm also not really surprised that it took war to do it.
One final thing. I am a child of war. The Civil War birthed modern African-American political identity. Our political leadership can be traced back to many of the soldiers who served in that War. The notions of freedom and the franchise, and specifically the notion that these are things worth dying for, come from War. Our century-long journey into the American polity can be traced back to Port Hudson and Milliken's Bend, to Harriet Tubman leading Union raiders into Confederate territory. This is not abstract--the first proposals for the franchise were for black Union veterans.
Now, after so much reading on the War, I don't really know how to think of myself without it. I don't know how to think of America without it. I can mourn the dead, but it's very hard for me to mourn the War itself. It made me. And it made this country. This was the moment where all of that high talk of Enlightenment and Rights was made real. I guess I wish that could have happened in some other way. But I don't really see the point. It strikes me as wishing that we weren't human.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power