In a society responsive to momentary fads and impulses, the American people's continuing fascination with the Civil War can be taken as a sign of cultural stability. Popular interest in the war has a universal dimension, reflecting the ability of citizens in modern times to recognize and appreciate the timeless virtues of courage, honor, duty, and sacrifice. Fully to understand the place the war occupies in American memory, however, it is necessary to consider the historical context in which it occurred and its significance as a constitutive national experience. The Civil War exerts the powerful hold that it does on the public imagination because it is the central event in American history.
The Civil War resolved ambiguity about the nature of the Union that in the course of the slavery controversy became intolerably divisive. It determined the direction of national development according to the northern understanding of the principles, forms, and institutions for which the Revolution was fought and the Constitution established in 1787. The war is the pivotal event in American history in two distinct yet related senses. First, at the level of political principle and perhaps for all time, the war tested the territorial-institutional integrity of the United States as a nation. In constitutional terms, it marked a showdown between the principles of states' rights and national supremacy. Yet, titanic as the conflict was, it was not the ultimate showdown between these principles. Although the war altered the terms of the federal--state relationship, it did not eliminate competition and conflict between the states and the national government as a basic ground of American politics.
The second sense in which the Civil War is the central event in American history concerns race relations and civil rights policy. Slavery and race were involved in the making of the Constitution and the creation of the Union. The extent to which slavery and race were constitutive of the nation and defined its political character and identity was left in dispute by the Founding Fathers. The Civil War