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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Appomattox's bells are still ringing 150 years later

Appomattox: NPS
Today is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.  Over that time the country has seen many changes, the enfranchisement of African Americans and Women, the expansion of gay rights to name just a few.  Yet for many the change isn't fast enough for others its too quick.

This struggle over social progress often plays out behind arguments over federal or state power.  Should it be the states that take the lead in public policy or should it be the feds? Should America have 50 little government experiments or should a national standards be set?

In 1860, the fight over where America's ultimate power lay was at the heart of the country's debate over the pressing issue at the time: slavery.  And despite the passage of 15 decades, the debate over which level of government should set the course rages on. In my research for my latest thriller Lost Cause, one thing became clear, for many the Civil War isn't over. No, its still being fought. It may be in a cold phase, but the passions, animosities, and angers that fueled the Civil War, still burn today.

Many today see the Civil War as ancient history, or as something that happens in other countries. It couldn't happen here, many say. But it can. And in fact, many American's wish for it and even more shocking a few are working for it.

Roughly two years ago, on the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, I wrote about what touring the battleground revealed to me.  America isn't a noun, it's a verb.  Rather than being a place or even a people, America is an action. A state of becoming a more perfect Union.

In other words, America is in a continual process of becoming better. But this "process" comes at the cost of continual political battle between those who wish to maintain the status quo and those who strive for something better. It's out of this struggle however, that real and lasting social progress is forged.

Our ability to compromise, to find common ground broke down during the Civil War and more than 600,000 people paid the price. Many believe our political system today is similarly broken.  Let's hope not. Or we may once again see ourselves cast into civil war and chaos.  Sadly I do not believe our country would survive a second civil war.

Bells rang out throughout Appomattox at the signing of the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.  But they didn't mark the end of something, rather the beginning. The beginning of the hard work to forge Union without bloodshed and violence. It's fitting that they will ring again today, to remind us of the hard work necessary to preserve the gift given to us through the saving of the Union.

Perhaps we should ring them everyday.

Sean Smith is a former Yellowstone Ranger, and an award winning conservationist, TEDx speaker, and author. He writes national park thrillers from his home in the shadow of Mount Rainier National Park. To learn more about his conservation work and novels, follow him on twitter: @parkthrillers

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