There are ten cent words and fifty cent words.  Sesquicentennial is a 150 cent word. Among the currency of language, that’s a pretty big denomination.  Combine that with over one half million American deaths and you’d think it would buy a lot of credibility. 

This year marks the American Civil War Sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary since the war positioned Union against Confederacy, neighbor against neighbor, and state against state.  Much of present day United States of America, its distribution of power and definition of personal freedom have resulted from that War and the subsequent 150 years.  Those 150 years represent a marked change from the preceding 100 years.  But despite a bloody war and endless social, political and economic costs associated with it, the lessons learned remain debatable.

The Revolution of 1776 brought the United States into being.  The American Civil War decided what kind of nation the United States would be. The American Civil War answered two questions that the Revolution almost 100 years earlier had not determined.  One concerned whether the United States would simply evolve as a loose conglomeration of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government. The other question would address the issue of equal rights. 

How would we define those unalienable truths mentioned in the Declaration of Independence?  What did we mean “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?   

It would take America’s costliest war in terms of lives lost to answer those questions.  Our country lost 625,000 Americans, or 599 per day in that war between the states.  In our second costliest war in terms of lives lost, World War II, we lost 405,399 lives. This should lead a reasonable nation to conclude that such a high toll would burn those hard won answers into our collective conscious permanently. 

Until 1865, the limits of power the states could assume were not well defined. The supremacy of federal law over state, as laid out in the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution was affirmed by the Civil War and has since been refined through case law.  Until 1865 legally sanctioned slavery had evaded those unalienable rights.  The Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order during the Civil War, proclaimed the freedom of over 3 million slaves and prepared the way for the freedom of the remaining I million.  Complete abolition of slavery was achieved by the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865.

The so-called “Three-Fifths Compromise was an agreement struck between Southern and Northern states during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.  It specified that three-fifths of the population of slaves would be counted for both the distribution of taxes and the apportionment of the members of the United States House of Representatives.

Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment, the three-fifths clause was struck down. Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution  now states that Representatives shall be apportioned …counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed…”

In 1857, Dred Scott, in Dred Scott v. Sandford , was an African-American slave in the United States who sued for his freedom and that of his wife and two daughters.  The United States Supreme Court ruled seven to two against Scott, finding that neither he, nor any person of African ancestry, could claim citizenship in the United States.  President Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the post-Civil war Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments have since invalidated that decision. 

In 21st Century United States, “birther” conspiracy theories about the citizenship of Barack Obama continue, claiming  that the popularly elected 44th President of the United States is not a natural-born citizen and is therefore not eligible to be President under Article Two of the U.S. Constitution.

We have continued to retest and revalidate these principles several times since the War ended in 1865. Dr. Martin Luther King rose to prominence and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, a century after the Civil War.   During the 1960s widespread claims of discrimination remained, in part resulting in The Civil Rights Act of 1964 which attempted to address those abuses. 

Gay rights, women’s health rights, and hate crimes continue to be variously claimed and debated.  

Although civil rights have been officially guaranteed, claims of workplace and other “private” discrimination remain.    In 1992 Los Angeles Riots were sparked on April 29, 1992, when a jury acquitted four white Los Angeles Police Department officers accused in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King following a high-speed pursuit.

In the second half of the 20th Century further legislation was required to reinforce the 15th Amendment which prohibits denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices that had been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans in the U.S.

Yet, as E.J. Dionne points out, “An attack on the right to vote is underway across the country through laws designed to make it more difficult to cast a ballot.”   A recent study by the Brennan Center has found that “In this legislative session, at least 37 states are considering or have considered some type of voter ID and/or proof of citizenship legislation.  Voter ID and proof of citizenship bills are frequently presented as non-partisan measures to improve the integrity of the statewide election systems across the country.  Support for voter ID legislation, however, has tended to split along party lines. Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures are typically much more likely to pass proposed voter ID legislation.”  Dionne points out that these tactics will have a disproportionate effect on minority and young voters.

Seven years after Jason West, mayor of the village of New Paltz, New York,  announced that the village would start performing same-sex civil weddings on February 26, 2004, and subsequent litigation, the State of New York legalized in the U.S. state of New York on June 24, 2011. The law will take effect on July 24, 2011.

 Broad public consensus on federal supremacy v. states rights has still not been reached.

A clear understanding of federal supremacy v. states rights apparently escapes GOP Presidential Candidate Michele Bachmann.  In last week’s GOP presidential debate, Bachmann supported states’ rights when it comes to gay marriage, but also supports a constitutional amendment banning it.

Ron Paul, Congressman from Texas, has blamed Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War for too much “unconstitutional” federal power.  “Tenthers”, proponents of elevating the current status of the Tenth Amendment over federal supremacy have emerged with new force since 2008.  These groups include the Tea Party, libertarians and other conservatives who oppose recently enacted and proposed federal legislation such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.   

The Tenth Amendment provides that powers not granted to the federal government nor prohibited to the states by the Constitution are reserved, respectively, to the states or the people. Apparently not satisfied with the Tenth Amendment , Governor Rick Perry of Texas has even discussed the possibility of Texas seceding from the Union.   Speculation continues about whether Perry will run for the GOP Presidential nomination. 

In New Jersey a response to the federal health care reform act has recently been introduced.  State Senator Michael Doherty and Assemblywoman Alison McHose have proposed legislation would change Article I of the State Constitution to specify: “No state or federal law or regulation shall compel, directly or indirectly, any person to obtain health care coverage, any employer to provide health care coverage to its employees, or any health care provider to participate in any health care coverage plan or program.”

So it seems that in the 150 years that we have progressed since our deadliest war, the issues of unalienable human rights and states’ rights remain less than completely resolved.  To some, these challenges are a fruitless waste of time and taxpayer money.   In response to this legislative proposal in New Jersey, Assemblyman John Wisniewski has said that this is just rehashing an issue settled by the Civil War.  “This is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and one issue that ultimately led to the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was the belief that states could nullify federal law,” he said. “Apparently Assemblywoman McHose has either forgotten that part of history or was absent from school that day.”

Despite a few setbacks, one hundred fifty years of progressive change since the Civil War have made this a great nation.   In the year 2011 we are witnessing a broad assault on the body of law that has created a strong Union and laid the foundations for civil rights and therefore our freedom as Americans. Only public awareness and an organized defense against continued regression into disenfranchisement will give 150 years of progress its proper currency.

Thomas P. Davis

Thomas P. Davis

I'm a freelance writer based in New Jersey. I've been writing about public issues for 10 years.