Ken Burns's 1990 Civil War documentary makes a strong case for preserving public humanities funding (2023)

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for March 18 through 24 is The Civil War (1990), which is available for digital purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and iTunes.

Ken Burns is probably America’s most well-known documentarian, making traditional, history-rich multi-part films about important periods in American history and facets of American culture. Anyone who’s watched PBS has probably watched one of Burns’s documentaries, which span topics ranging from jazz, baseball, and the national parks to Prohibition and the Roosevelts. At this point, “PBS documentary” is basically synonymous with Burns’s name.

Burns’s films have also received a lot of funding from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, both of which were targeted for elimination (along with the National Endowment for the Arts) in President Trump’s budget proposal. The Jazz series received funds from the CPB, NEH, and NEA, in addition to private, corporate, and foundation funding. Jackie Robinson received a grant from the CPB alongside other sources of private funding. Prohibition received funds from the CPB and NEH.

Ken Burns's 1990 Civil War documentary makes a strong case for preserving public humanities funding (1) Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

In 2016, Burns was selected to deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He used the platform to deliver a rousing defense of the humanities, which in the NEH’s definition include history, philosophy, religion, and more:

(Video) Ultimate Civil War Series | Episode 1 | Sins of our Fathers

Somehow, in recent times, the humanities have been needlessly scapegoated in our country by those who continually benefit from division and obfuscation. Let me make it perfectly clear: the United States of America is an enduring humanistic experiment. That fact does not preclude or exclude--indeed it is the exact opposite of those limiting words--the full expression of religious freedom. In fact, it strengthens an understanding, promoted by our founders, of tolerance and inclusion. What could be more faith-based than that? Where we get into trouble is when our arrogant certainty suggests that only one point of view, perhaps only one religion, is “right.” “Liberty,” Judge Learned Hand once said--and can there be a better name for a jurist than Learned Hand--“Liberty,” he said, “is never being too sure you’re right.” Doubt—healthy, questioning, experimenting, perfecting doubt—is critical to the humanities and the health of our still fragile Republic.

But in our media and political culture, we don’t disagree, we demonize, condemning us to a kind of partisan purgatory. Our trade is now tirade, but that righteous indignation only lasts until the next drug commercial for diseases we didn’t know we could have or even get—restless leg syndrome? Dry eyes? The humanities provide us high ground and perspective to see with clear eyes these fads and trends and unnecessary conflicts for what they are. Yet we still seem allergic to civil discourse—and just plain civility—which could lift us out of our dyspeptic tantrums.

. . . Our religious traditions suggest that we human beings are made in God’s image. There is almost nothing, ladies and gentlemen, in our collective behavior that suggests that that is true. But every once in a while, we are permitted a glimpse into possibility, into circumstances where human nature changes just a bit, where the hellhounds at our heels seem at least tired, if not tamed, where we live in Bedford Falls, not Pottersville. That’s the humanities.

Thanks to funding from the CPB, NEH, and NEA, Burns’s documentaries are widely available to watch. A good place to start is with his seminal 1990 nine-episode documentary series The Civil War, which was restored and rebroadcast in high definition in September 2015.

(Video) 144 The Civil War Part 1

The film took five years to complete, and 40 million people watched it when it was first broadcast in 1990 — that’s roughly equivalent to the number of people who watched Game 7 of the World Series in 2016. It won 40 major film and TV awards, including two Emmys and two Grammys. Both the CPB and NEH contributed funding for the project.

The film is credited with an uptick in public interest in the Civil War — though some historians have found the account of the war presented in the film by historian Shelby Foote to be romanticized and reductive. Commemorating the restored edition in Time, Jeffrey Kluger wrote that it “explained an incalculably important chapter in American history to a generation that needed the tutorial.”

Ken Burns's 1990 Civil War documentary makes a strong case for preserving public humanities funding (2)

It’s also considered a strong influence on the traditional documentary form — for instance, Burns perfected his now-signature technique of zooming and panning across archival photographs to add visual interest to the documentary, an especially necessary technique for a documentary about a time in which archival video footage is not readily available. (It’s now called the “Ken Burns effect.”)

But it’s also the subject of the film, not just its funding sources, that makes it so timely. As Burns himself said in his lecture, the Republic is fragile and divided — and his film documents another time when that was strikingly, searingly true.

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But, as he says, “the humanities provide us high ground and perspective to see with clear eyes these fads and trends and unnecessary conflicts for what they are.” With the NEH, CPB, NEA, and other humanities-focused agencies on the budgetary chopping block, The Civil War is a good reminder of why a little bit of America’s public dollars have been invested in its culture for the past half-century.

Watch the trailer for The Civil War:

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(Video) Discovering The Civil War with Ken Burns


Did Ken Burns write The Civil War? ›

The Civil War, an epic nine-episode series by the award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and produced in conjunction with WETA, Washington, D.C., first aired in September of 1990 to an audience of 40 million viewers.

Who made The Civil War documentary? ›

Airing over a span of five nights during late September in 1990, Ken Burns' “The Civil War” remains, to this day, the only documentary that claims to explain the entirety of the war that engulfed the United States in the mid-19th century.

What documentaries did Ken Burns do? ›

His widely known documentary series include The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Roosevelts (2014), The Vietnam War (2017), and Country Music (2019).

Is Ken Burns the Civil War accurate? ›

For all its appeal, however, The Civil War is a deeply misleading and reductive film that often loses historical reality in the mists of Burns' sentimental vision and the romance of Foote's anecdotes.

How did the Civil War change the United States? ›

The Civil War confirmed the single political entity of the United States, led to freedom for more than four million enslaved Americans, established a more powerful and centralized federal government, and laid the foundation for America's emergence as a world power in the 20th century.

What are the 3 main causes of the Civil War? ›

There were three main causes of the civil war including slavery, sectionalism and secession.

Did the Civil War end slavery? ›

The Civil War was a brutal war that lasted from 1861 to 1865. It left the south economically devastated, and resulted in the criminalization of slavery in the United States. Confederate General Lee surrendered to Union General Grant in the spring of 1865 officially ending the war.

What's the best Civil War documentary? ›

Best videos on the Civil War
  1. America: The Story of Us (Season 1, Episodes 4 and 5) ...
  2. Dear America: A Picture of Freedom. ...
  3. Dear America: When Will This Cruel War Be Over? ...
  4. Tennessee Civil War: Songs and Stories. ...
  5. Tennessee Civil War: The Women and the War. ...
  6. Horrible Histories: American Civil War.

Is Peter Coyote his real name? ›

Is Peter Coyote married now? ›

Peter Coyote

How old is Peter Coyote? ›

What would happen if the South had won documentary? ›

"CSA: The Confederate States of America" tells the story of what might have happened had the South won the Civil War. Written and directed by Kevin Willmott, it takes the form of a mock documentary made by the "British Broadcasting Service," one that is being aired for the first time on American television.

How watch Ken Burns Civil War? ›

Watch the Entire Ken Burns Collection, Available Now With PBS Passport.

What would happen if the South had won the Civil War? ›

A successful Confederacy would be a zero-sum economy. In the world of Confederate, the economy would be a hierarchy, with no social mobility, since mobility among economic classes would open the door to economic mobility across racial lines.

How many slaves lived to 60? ›

Conditions were dire for slaves on the plantation. Slave quarters bred diseases and only four out of 100 lived to be 60.

How did slavery cause the Civil War? ›

The war began because a compromise did not exist that could solve the difference between the free and slave states regarding the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in territories that had not yet become states.

What was the main cause of the Civil War? ›

A common explanation is that the Civil War was fought over the moral issue of slavery. In fact, it was the economics of slavery and political control of that system that was central to the conflict. A key issue was states' rights.

What impact does the Civil War have on us today? ›

We prize America as a land of opportunity.

The Civil War paved the way for Americans to live, learn and move about in ways that had seemed all but inconceivable just a few years earlier. With these doors of opportunity open, the United States experienced rapid economic growth.

What legacy from the Civil War was most affected American society today? ›

Racial divisions in the United States are the Civil War's most enduring legacy. Although the nation was already divided along racial lines long before 1861, the conflict exacerbated this discord.

How did the Civil War strengthened the federal government? ›

Three key amendments to the Constitution adopted shortly after the war — abolishing slavery, guaranteeing equal protection and giving African Americans the right to vote — further cemented federal power.

What is one way the Civil War was financed? ›

Financing the Civil War was achieved through a combination of new revenue from higher tariffs, proceeds from loans and bond sales, taxes on incomes, and issuance of paper money not backed by silver or gold (“greenbacks”).

What are the 3 main causes of the Civil War quizlet? ›

Causes Of The Civil War
  • Slavery.
  • One Union vs state's rights.
  • The growing differences between the North and the South.
  • The election of President Lincoln.

Was the Civil War Necessary? ›

History Term PaperThe Civil War, also known as, "The War Between the States" , was necessary, made many positive steps for the great nation to unify again and to incorporate slaves as citizens of that nation.

How many slaves are in the U.S. today? ›

The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimates that on any given day in 2016 there were 403,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States, a prevalence of 1.3 victims of modern slavery for every thousand in the country.

Who ended slavery first? ›

It was the first country to do so. The next year, Haiti published its first constitution. Article 2 stated: “Slavery is forever abolished.” By abolishing slavery in its entirety, Haiti also abolished the slave trade, unlike the two-step approach of the European nations and the United States.

Who ended slavery? ›

On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the proposed amendment to the state legislatures. The necessary number of states (three-fourths) ratified it by December 6, 1865.

What is the most realistic Civil War movie? ›

Gettysburg. Originally planned as a TV miniseries for Ted Turner's TNT network, director Ronald Maxwell's painstaking adaptation of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the 1863 battle of Gettysburg eventually became a forensically detailed cinematic epic spanning more than four hours.

What movie explains the Civil War? ›

Gone with the Wind (1939)

The most famous film about the Civil War, Gone with the Wind also represents why there are so few quality ones being made.

What did the Civil War accomplish? ›

After four bloody years of conflict, the United States defeated the Confederate States. In the end, the states that were in rebellion were readmitted to the United States, and the institution of slavery was abolished nation-wide.

Where does Peter Coyote live now? ›

Peter Coyote

How tall is Peter Coyote? ›

Who is the guy who narrates National Geographic? ›

Sir David Frederick Attenborough (/ˈætənbərə/; born 8 May 1926) is an English broadcaster, biologist, natural historian and author.

How rich is Henry Thomas? ›

Henry Thomas Net Worth: Henry Thomas is an American actor and musician who has a net worth of $1.5 million. Having risen to prominence presumably as an actor, he has appeared in more than 40 movies. Born Henry Jackson Thomas Jr.

What is Peter Coyotes net worth? ›

Peter Coyote Net Worth
Net Worth:$10 Million
Date of Birth:Oct 10, 1941 (80 years old)
Height:6 ft 2 in (1.905 m)
Profession:Actor, Author, Voice Actor, Writer, Film Director, Screenwriter
1 more row

Who narrates PBS Ben Franklin? ›

Peter Coyote

Where did Peter Coyote go to college? ›

Peter Coyote

Who narrates frontline? ›

William Lyman (born May 20, 1948) is an American voice-over artist, actor, and musician. Being known for his polished, resonant voice, Lyman has narrated the PBS series Frontline since its second season in 1984 and played William Tell in the action/adventure television series Crossbow.


1. Ken Burns speaks about The Roosevelts at the National Press Club - Sept. 15, 2014
(The National Press Club)
2. Benjamin Franklin (2002) - PBS Documentary
3. Confederate Monuments and Contested Civic Space in the United States, 1865 to the 21st Century
(NHC Education Programs)
4. The Antislavery Bulwark: The Antislavery Origins of the Civil War – Intro & Keynote
(The Graduate Center, CUNY)
5. Stanford Commencement Ceremony 2016
6. Jazz & Justice: A Performance and Panel on Artists and Activism
(New Jersey Performing Arts Center)
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