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Sat, Dec. 07

Commentary: The Civil War and Arizona: Finding a balance

A century and a half ago, Arizona was not a state. It was not even a territory. It was little more than an annex 2,000 miles from the dyspeptic politics and human-rights disaster that led to four years of brotherly bloodshed. Yet Arizona’s story is as tangled in the American Civil War as every southern drawl you’ve ever heard.

April 12 marks the sesquicentennial of the start of the War of the Rebellion, the War of Northern Aggression, call it what you will. During the next four years, we will hear of sequential events marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and so on.

For Arizona, seemingly disconnected from all that, the Civil War had a major impact - and not just in military skirmishes. The everlasting effect was political, geographical and theoretical. It was about finding a balance.

Our current government atmosphere is not a recent development, and newcomers need to know that if they are ever going to understand our politics. Even if Arizonans themselves don’t know the history, that stubbornly independent streak goes way back - like 150 years - and still struggles to balance with the concept of union.

At the time, Arizona was more concerned about Native American conflicts than with slavery. What Arizona did have in common with the Confederate States is a strong sense of states’ rights - an attitude that breathes through almost every modern political debate, sometimes to point of the ridiculous.

But Arizona did get a sense of belonging, no matter what. The war created of it an actual territory. Yes, at first, it was only the southern half slapped together with southern New Mexico in 1861, and it was officially a Confederate Territory in origin. But the Union re-took the land, and the designation of a territory of the USA - a huge step toward statehood - continued, thanks to Abraham Lincoln signing the Organic Act.

Arizona had a very long wait for statehood. That was plenty of time to absorb the new world created by the Civil War and the new understanding of what it meant to be an American. Philosophies and ideals, stripped of naïveté, had been brought back to a human level that knew brotherhood and enmity could abide in the same person. Real union, it turns out, takes a lot of work.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation contained such celestial phrases as “forever free”; His Gettysburg Address “a new birth of freedom.” The journey to understanding what such things meant came at great cost across the country.

After 150 years, the Civil War is part of our collective consciousness as Americans of whatever province. We know something about the balance of independence and union that too few countries have even scratched the surface of. And after 150 years, Arizona is still fighting for that balance in ways all its own.

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