Today, as you're eating apple pie and watching Fourth of July fireworks, take a minute to reflect, as these books do, on the constitutional and social crises America has weathered since 1776, and what's left to do. Happy Independence Day.

Brother Against Brother

Veterans of more recent conflicts are still with us, but no living soul recalls the Civil War. That hasn't weakened its hold on the national memory. No other series of events, internal or external, has come so close to destroying the Republic. We should remember.

As most Americans know (or ought to), the roots of the Civil War go back years and decades before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. We think we understand the essential contest: over slavery, states' rights. But what flipped the switch, pulled the trigger? In Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War (Vintage, $16), Maury Klein puts the question elegantly: "How could the oldest, deadliest, most divisive conflict of a proud nation come down, after decades of bitter strife, to a dispute over an insignificant fort squatting on a hunk of rock in the harbor of the South's oldest and most defiant city?"

Days of Defiance recreates America's slide into hostilities, keeping a tight focus on the crucial five months between Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency in November 1860 and the attack on Sumter in April 1861. Those months represent "a time unlike any other in American history. . . . In that fateful transition the world going under was not just that of the Old South but, more important, that of the old American Republic as conceived by the Founding Fathers."

No dry cataloguer, Klein demonstrates a rare and refreshing ability to breathe life into historical events and players. Early on in the story -- and this book is very much a story -- he describes Abraham Lincoln waiting for election results: "The long legs crossed and uncrossed to keep from cramping, a lone sign of restlessness in the lanky frame folded into the shabby sofa in the telegraph office. The sallow face, tempered by years of disappointment, gazed impassively at the operators bent over their clicking instruments. Their tale had yet to be told in full, but nearly every sign was favorable."

Don't let Klein's storytelling abilities fool you. He has his eye on the larger constitutional questions too: "It has long been the conventional wisdom that the great achievements of the Civil War were the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. For most of American history the latter result has, for good reason, been the most heavily stressed and studied. Nevertheless, the case can be made that no result of the war was more important than the destruction, once and for all . . . of the idea of secession. One nation, indivisible, with the hope of liberty and justice for all. Even the promise of those goals required the death of secession no less than of slavery."

Two other intriguing Civil War titles are also newly out in paperback. John C. Waugh's The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox: Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan and Their Brothers (Ballantine, $14.95) traces the fortunes of a distinguished group of cadets who wound up facing each other on their country's battlefields: The class of '46 produced 10 Confederate generals and 12 Union ones. Stephen B. Oates's The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865 (HarperPerennial, $18.95), picking up where Oates's The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 left off, tells the story of the war in the first-person voices of Lincoln and Confederate president Jefferson Davis, generals William Sherman, U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, John Wilkes Booth and a handful of more peripheral players, with a coda by Walt Whitman, eulogizer of Lincoln ("When lilacs last in the doorway bloom'd . . . ").

Bearing Arms

One wonders what President Lincoln, the victim of a handgun-wielding assassin, would make of the current hot-tempered debate over gun control. The essays in Guns in America: A Reader, edited by Jan E. Dizard, Robert Merrill Muth and Stephen P. Andrews Jr. (New York Univ. Press, $24.95), run the length of the political spectrum, from NRA president Charlton Heston on one extreme to anti-gun advocate Sarah Brady on the other. The editors begin with a look at "The Rise of Gun Culture in America," which traces our fondness for firearms back to the Pilgrims and their need to arm themselves for defense and for hunting (and before that back to England, which ultimately took a very different stance on the issue). Other contributors look at "The Cowboy Subculture," our love-hate relationship with guns, our fear of armed crime. But how serious a risk is it? In his article "Should You Own a Gun?", U.S. News & World Report writer Gordon Witkin quotes one source, a sociologist who "contends that people who defend themselves with a gun are more likely to successfully resist the crime" but who also believes this: "There's little or no need for a gun for self-protection because there's so little risk of crime. People don't believe it, but it's true. You just can't convince most Americans they're not at serious risk."

Much space is given over to the Second Amendment, the full text of which it may be useful to quote here, just so we're clear on what the Constitution does (and doesn't) say on the point: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Pithy, but it leaves a lot of wiggle room. Why? The editors discuss the Framers' ambivalence on the point. "Fears of an armed citizenry were . . . trumped by the recognition of the need for a citizenry capable of defending the nation at a moment's notice. This dilemma is no doubt one of the reasons why the Second Amendment, over which we still argue, was framed so vaguely. It was not sloppiness or inadvertence in an otherwise tightly drawn document; it was the same sort of ambivalence with which we, over two hundred years later, still contend."

However we interpret the Second Amendment (see political scientist Wilbur Edel's essay "What Are the Alternatives?" for a cogent analysis of the holes in the gun lobby's reading), firearms aren't likely to vanish anytime soon. "With 200 million or more guns in private hands," the editors note, "doing away with guns is a flat impossibility." However, they don't shoot down the idea that we can enact useful gun control measures, particularly if Americans can get over our tendency to demonize those who disagree with us. A return to civility and compromise is in order. And, they note, "it would pay for everyone concerned about gun violence to seriously explore ways of making gun owners more responsible and a good deal less impulsive" -- a recommendation echoed in conservative David B. Koppel's essay on "Promoting Responsible Gun Ownership."

Bright Ideas, Bright Future

Americans have been arguing a lot about gun control lately, but we have other things on our minds as well. We're a nation of home improvers, and we have just as many fix-it ideas for the country as we do for our houses. In 250 Ways to Make America Better (Villard, $12.95), brought to you by the editors of George magazine, 250 contributors -- business people, rap artists, professors, comedians, politicians, you name it -- share their wish lists for a better nation.

Author E. Lynn Harris wants a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T: "Respect for the individual without regard to gender, race, religion, social status, or sexual orientation. And while we're at it, let's make Aretha Franklin's hit `Respect' our new national anthem." Martina Navratilova thinks that "the loser of a lawsuit should pay the legal fees . . . people would think a lot longer before automatically blaming someone else for their own mistakes." Designer Todd Oldham, a vegetarian who admits to wearing suede shoes, asks that we come "to terms with our mixed symbols of compassion. We're taught to be reverent toward other humans and to pet our dogs, yet we're also taught to eat cows and wear fur. . . . If Americans could take a slightly closer look at our responsibility and respect for all life-forms, we just may prove ourselves to be more integrated into society." Phyllis Schlafly urges you to instruct Junior in his ABCs yourself -- "before the schools teach your child the bad habit of guessing by looking at the pictures." And cartoonist Roz Chast (whose work often graces the pages of the New Yorker) draws these ideas: "Blow up three-fourths of the shopping malls," "Send Ralph Reed on a fact-finding trip to Pluto," and "Re-introduce `Choco-Mint' Lifesavers." A humorist and a patriot.

Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is jenhoward@compuserve.com.