“Any basic interpretation of American history,” one prominent historian contends, “will have to account for … the coming of the Civil War.” 1 Yet the two basic interpretations that have dominated the study of American politics, the progressive and consensus paradigms, 2 have spawned partial and unsatisfactory explanations for what is arguably the most central event in the American past. After briefly analyzing the insights and limitations of these approaches to the Civil War, we propose an alternative perspective: cultural theory.