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The Civil War never ended - it just gave way to an uncivil one

NAACP protesters march against the Secession Ball on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina?s secession from the Union on December 20, 2010 in Charleston, SC. South Carolina was the first state to secede in a process that led to the U.S. Civil War.

Richard Ellis/Getty Images

On the 150th anniversary of the beginning of a disobliging South's entry into the modern era, hundreds of Civil War buffs squeeze into a local museum for a talk by perhaps the conflict's pre-eminent historian. One person in the crowd of about 500 - I count no more than half a dozen African-American faces - wonders why South Carolina was so ornery.

The Palmetto State had a long history of defiance toward central authority. But nothing provoked its antagonism like Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860. A few weeks later, it became the first state to secede from the Union.

"The slave population was higher here, and the percentage of white households who owned slaves was the highest in the South," Princeton University history professor James McPherson explains. "Slavery really was more salient and more important to the South Carolina economy."

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The prosperity white South Carolinians enjoyed on the backs of those black slaves is recalled by the four-storey mansions of Charleston's East Battery, monuments to those antebellum glory days. The city, it seems, is purposely stuck in time.

If the Civil War settled a lot - namely by freeing four million slaves and establishing the indivisibility of the Union - it also left a lot unsettled. Indeed, the main cleavages in American society today are still largely the same as a century and a half ago.

The war's sesquicentennial, with all the debate it has rekindled, has only brought them into sharper relief.

Down-home economics

Those East Battery mansions, built by Charleston's shipping merchants, are a testimony to the riches of the cotton trade, which, by 1860, had made the average white Southern man twice as wealthy as his Northern counterpart.

As Prof. McPherson recounts in Battle Cry of Freedom, his Pulitzer Prize-winning tome on the Civil War, cotton yields doubled every decade after 1800. By midcentury, the South accounted for 60 per cent of U.S. exports, earning the foreign exchange that drove the country's economic growth and propelled Wall Street.

Southerners considered their economic model morally superior to the "wage slavery" of the North. In truth, the basis of the Southern economy was not only immoral - it was highly inefficient.

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A slave, wrote Adam Smith, "can have no interest but to eat as much and labour as little as possible." The promise of upward mobility fuelled hard work and entrepreneurship in the North.

"The man who laboured for another last year, this year labours for himself," Abraham Lincoln noted, "and next year he will hire others to labour for him."

The Southern economy was bound to collapse on its own contradictions. The Civil War merely accelerated the process. The South's tragedy afterward was that it found no model to replace its slave-based economy.

The region (along with Appalachia) remains the country's poorest. It is also the part of the country that is most hostile to government, helping to explain why Southern investments in public education, along with high-school and college-graduation rates, have lagged badly.

The South's sole comparative advantage - with the exception of North Carolina, a state transformed by immigration and high technology - now lies in cheap, non-union labour, which has drawn auto jobs, for example, away from rust-belt states. And South Carolina's right-to-work law induced Boeing to choose Charleston for its second 787 Dreamliner assembly line.

But low wages have not made the South rich. While it now depends most on the wage slavery for which it once ridiculed the North, that shift has not been accompanied by a concomitant one in cultural attitudes: As in the antebellum age, the South today remains America's least entrepreneurial region.

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Black and white worlds

The election of an African-American President has given people hope: It was, as even John McCain's campaign manager once said, the moment "America's original sin was finally expunged." But the equality train, which chugged into motion with the emancipation of the slaves in 1865, is still far from the station. Denial, discrimination and disingenuousness prevent America from confronting race in an honest fashion.

The National Urban League, a century-old civil-rights organization, this month released its annual "State of Black America" report. It noted progress among African Americans in only one area - civic engagement, reflecting increased voting rates in the 2008 election. On every other indicator - employment, income, incarceration, health and education - black Americans are as much an underclass as ever.

Yet race rarely gets talked about outside the African-American community. Mayors, governors and President Barack Obama all promote standardized testing, charter schools and teacher firings to shake up the country's underperforming education system. No one mentions race, even though white American students are near the top of the class globally. America doesn't have an education crisis: It has an inequality crisis.

"For blacks, emancipation was not a jubilee, but rather the beginning of a long season of bitter disappointment," author Edward Ball wrote this week in The New York Times. "Black national memory in some ways is still commensurate with despair."

The insecurity of many white Americans, whose demographic weight declines with each decade's census, has not helped matters. Public figures are keenly attuned to this anxiety. If there is any collective shame for having oppressed blacks for centuries, few white politicians will bear witness to it.

"I just don't remember it as being that bad," Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour quipped in December. He was referring to growing up in Yazoo City when the White Citizens Council thwarted desegregation.

Last year, Mr. Barbour also defended his counterpart in Virginia, who had made no mention of slavery in designating April as Confederate History Month - an omission Mr. Barbour insisted did not "amount to diddly."

Disunited states

Since 1892, generations of Americans have pledged allegiance to their "indivisible" nation. Yet, if the Union victory in the Civil War settled the issue of secession, it has not stopped states from asserting their sovereignty and independence from the federal government when it suits them.

The latest to raise the secession threat was Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, in 2009. "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it," he began. "But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what might come of that?" He sounded like Confederate leader Jefferson Davis circa 1861.

The rise of the Tea Party, with its visceral distrust of central government, has given renewed impetus to the states'-rights movement - a constant current in American politics, whose saliency ebbs and flows with the (dis)temper of the times.

While true secessionists remain on the fringes, outright defiance of federal authority is more common than ever. You see it in the attempt by more than two dozen states to get the Supreme Court to strike down Mr. Obama's health-care reform law. And you see it in Tea Party calls for "nullification" of federal laws by state legislatures, directly recalling South Carolina's 1832 move to void federal tariffs, a crisis that foreshadowed the Civil War.

The 10th Amendment, a rarely invoked article of the Constitution, is suddenly all the rage. It reserves for the states all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government. Tea Partiers and Republican governors now wave it practically every time Mr. Obama takes the podium.

Principle or pragmatism

Principled leadership is one of the reasons Abraham Lincoln is often lionized as the "greatest" American president. "In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God," the 16th president said in his second inaugural address. "Both may be and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time."

Lincoln was on the side of God in the Civil War. But, like any politician, he was often torn between doing what was right and doing what was most expedient. The Emancipation Proclamation, which he issued in late 1862, freed more than three million slaves in the Confederate states, over which Lincoln then had no control, but not the half-million slaves in the Union states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, whose affairs he could still influence. Politics won out over principle.

When Mr. Obama won the White House in 2008, he was held up by many enthusiastic historians as a Lincolnesque figure. Little did we know then that the analogy would prove so appropriate. Like Lincoln, Mr. Obama often speaks in poetry and governs in prose.

In this, he is no different than Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, all giants of the Oval Office whose oratorical prowess obscured the unsightliness of their sausage-making. Mr. Obama's record on Guantanamo Bay, financial regulation and health-care reform shows that he, too, has not been willing or able to live up to the hype of his early speeches.

His opponents, however, continue to slap a "radical" label on him. That, Princeton's Prof. McPherson explains, makes "comparisons to Lincoln more appropriate than ever.

"Lincoln, too, was accused by one side of extremism and, by the left wing of his own party, of a lack of conviction and principle. Yet he continued to hold his party together, to recruit support from the other party and he moved steadily toward the goal of preserving the Union."

Polarized media

A polemical press was one of the characteristics of the Civil War era, stoking animosities on both sides. That tradition is also on the upsurge in the Internet era as ideologically driven media sources increasingly crowd out mainstream news outlets.

Had Fox News and MSNBC existed in Lincoln's time, he would surely have been maligned by one for pursuing a radical left-wing agenda and by the other for lacking the backbone to stand up to radical conservatives, just as Mr. Obama is today.

Indeed, if you think U.S. political debate is over the top now, you should read the newspapers of the Civil War era. In recounting the Confederate Army's capture of Fort Sumter in Charleston, the attack that launched the war, The Richmond Dispatch hailed "the great triumph … in obliterating one of the Illinois ape's standing menaces against the assertion of Southern rights and equality."

Seeking to heal his divided country, Lincoln called on Americans at war's end to "bind up the nation's wounds." Almost 150 years on, they seem to keep on reopening them.

Konrad Yakabuski is a Washington correspondent for The Globe and Mail.

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