The greatest single event of our history?

Writing on the occasion of the 1961 centennial, the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren argued persuasively in The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial that the nation was not a nation until the Civil War:

“The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the greatest single event of our history. Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history. Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense. There was, of course, the noble vision of the Founding Fathers articulated in the Declaration and the Constitution – the dream of freedom incarcerated in a more perfect unioin. But the Revolution did not create a nation except on paper . . . The vision had not been finally submitted to the test of history. There was little awareness of the cost of having a history. The anguished scrutiny of the meaning of the vision in experience had not become a national reality. It became a reality, and we became a nation, only with the Civil War.

The Civil War is our only felt history – history lived in the national imagination. This is not to say that the War is always, and by all men, felt in the same way. Quite the contrary. But this fact is an index of the very complex, depth, and fundamental significance of the event. It is an overwhelming and vital image of human and national experience.”

Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial, p. 3-4.

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