What is it good for?

Trump comment reminds of important Civil War lessons

Let’s not condemn Donald Trump for suggesting that people ask, “Why was there the Civil War?” It’s a relevant question, perhaps now more than ever.

In the 152 years since the end of the bloody conflict that pitted the North against the South, the most important issue in the Civil War remains unresolved. America still disagrees on what kind of country it wants to be.

We view the world through opposite lenses, often depending on which region of the country we live in. We read the Constitution differently, interpreting it in a way that suits our needs. We focus on each other’s differences rather than seek common ground where everyone’s voice is heard.

The double-barreled cannons, the Gatling guns and the Bowie knives of the Civil War era have long been put away, but the polarization over the direction of our country has locked us in a bitter cold war for which there is no obvious resolution.

Though we would not settle for a country that does not offer the freedom to disagree, we must consider that, perhaps, the price of democracy has always been war, in some form or another.

What can we learn from the Civil War? In an interview that aired Monday on Sirius XM, Trump asked, “Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Trump likely was suggesting that he and his role model, President Andrew Jackson — a man who celebrated white supremacy and subjugating Native Americans — could have done a better job than President Abraham Lincoln in staving off the war through negotiations.

In the Civil War, one side had to step aside before America could move forward. There was no room for compromise. The ideals of the two sides were so mismatched, their views of right and wrong too diabolically opposed and their visions for America too different. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

In 1861, Southerners were ready to secede from the Union because they felt the federal government was interfering too much in the sovereignty of the individual states. Northerners, on the other hand, saw the issue as a fight over slaves.

Near the end of the war, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman led Union soldiers into the heart of the South, destroying economic hubs in Georgia and South Carolina. The opposition collapsed, and the Confederacy gave up.

Everyone knew that the road to recovery would be a long, hard journey. After one-and-a-half centuries, the United States is still struggling to rebuild a unified coalition. There is no argument that we are a much better nation without the burden of slavery. But what are the lessons from the war?

I would argue that the Civil War itself teaches us nothing about ourselves that we don’t already know. The real lessons came from Lincoln, as he moved closer to victory.

In his famous Gettysburg Address, given on the battlefield where tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers died, Lincoln did not talk about winning or losing. He talked about the thing that the soldiers had most in common — their dedication to standing up for what they believed in.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” Lincoln said.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Perhaps this is why there was the Civil War, Mr. Trump. It serves to remind us that a nation so divided destroys itself from within.

Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at dglanton@chicagotribune.com