Many school children have had to memorize Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but few adults know much about the events that inspired it, or the wellspring of emotion it provoked.
That's because few -- other than historians -- have really examined the causes of the Civil War or thought deeply about its power in the making of the American character.
"The Civil War," an 11-hour PBS documentary aired last week, probably changed that. The producer, Ken Burns, calls it an American "Illiad." It's a good analogy, for sons and daughters of Hellene have long used that ancient epic to explain the essence of their hopes and dreams to others.
"The Civil War," five-and-a-half years in the making, couldn't come at a better time. Periodically, Americans need to be reminded what this country is all about. Mr. Burns' recounting of America's bloodiest conflict is a perfect vehicle. That war both revealed and cemented the enduring seams of the young United States.
The idea of America still inspires men and women all over the world, swelling our population and reverberating in a flowering of democracy elsewhere. But here at home, the spirit which so inspires others often is missing.
Too many other stimuli interpose: the constant "future shock" of technological America; the economic shock of competition against very different societies; the demographic shifts inevitable in a nation of immigrants. These sometimes produce a clash of rights and interests that can confuse many Americans about the values enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights and what they require of citizens in a pluralistic society.
"The Civil War," told with pictures and song, analysis by modern-day scholars and pithy observations from the writings of ordinary men and women, laid bare the bones, muscle and blood of this nation. No such tale can be told without reference to the carnage and privation visited on so many. But there is redemption here as well. Against that stark background, the beauty of the human spirit shines bright.