Book Review: The War That Forged A Nation

The War That Forged A Nation: Why The Civil War Still Matters, by James McPherson

In this particular book, James McPherson, one of the most noted contemporary historians about the Civil War, author of the well-regarded Battle Cry Of Freedom among other works, demonstrates that even when one is speaking a bit provocatively about contemporary politics, that one is a far better writer when one is well read and that the Civil War matters a great deal in contemporary politics. This book, which is a collection of twelve essays, eleven of which have appeared in other contexts, mostly in reviewing books, provides a great deal of food for thought in examining the effect of the Civil War on constitutional theory, in ways that are not necessarily for the better. In fact, the author indicates that there was a fundamental change in the conception of liberty as a result of the Civil War, one that increasingly emphasized positive liberty that authorized government to take certain steps, and when government cannot be trusted to do what is right, that led to a dramatic decline in freedom and in morality for our society as a whole, of which the Civil War was the inflection point.

In terms of its contents, this book is about 200 pages, making each essay between fifteen and twenty pages on average. Some of the essays look at the context of how the Civil War began through issues with Mexico and California. Some of the essays reflect on the legacy of Lincoln for freedom today, some of them debate the question of how freedom came through the combination of law from above, independent agency from below, and the progress of Union troops, and some essays reflect on questions of justice, risk-taking, and diplomacy. Throughout the book the author weaves his own criticism, sometimes friendly and sometimes less so, on a wide variety of books, some of which sound like they would make for very worthwhile reading material, and demonstrates his own moderately left-wing political philosophy, with its championing of activist government. Over and over again the author shows himself to be an astute reader of character, with an appreciation both of ideals as well as the pragmatic sort of behavior that it takes to put one’s ideals into practice given the presence of opposition and the need to persuade others.

What this book demonstrates above all is a taste for historical irony. For example, the Civil War was brought on by Southerners who desired to protect their own corrupt social institutions from the threat of change, and the change they feared as a long-term evil arrived as a result of their rebellion. Likewise, what may have been good with regard to freeing slaves, that is the use of the army and the machinery of the federal government, did not prove itself to be good at enforcing social equality, nor did it prove to be ultimately beneficial to the nation when the principle of expanded government concern for the well-being of others was advanced into bogus proposed new bills of rights, or where it was thought appropriate for a corrupt and inefficient central government to try its hand at solving social evils. The Civil War matters because in one sense it is not done; rather, it has expanded in scope, and demonstrated that a people without virtue is not fit to rule, and that where the power of government is invoked, even for good causes, there will be evil results in the loss of freedom since government is slow to relinquish power once it is given. That too makes the Civil War relevant, in that the recalcitrant and wicked Southerners who sought unsuccessfully to wreck the Union have managed to cost our society a great deal of its freedom as a result. So, for its thought-provoking analysis and the way it deals with a great deal of contemporary writing about the Civil War in a way that justifies the study of political and military history, this book is a worthwhile read, even if a sometimes unpleasant one.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History, Military History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Book Review: The War That Forged A Nation

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