What are children being taught about the causes of the Civil War? I ask because in a recent Pew Research Center poll, 48% of respondents said that the war “was mainly about states’ rights,” while 38% said it “was mainly about slavery.”
I have issues with the way the question concerning the causes of the war was worded, but even so, it is perplexing that almost 50% of those polled thought that states’ rights was the cause of the war.
That runs counter to the thinking of modern historians. Consider the comments of historian Elizabeth Varon, author of the book Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, in a lecture two years ago: “there’s emerged in recent years a strong consensus, which scholars call the fundamentalist school, that slavery was the root fundamental cause of the civil war and that the political antagonisms between the North and South flowed from the fact that the North was a free labor society while the South was a slave labor society which remained committed to slavery and indeed to extending its domain.”
That view – that slavery was the “root cause” of the war – is not shared by many folks today, and I wonder why there is a disconnect between what scholars understand and what non-scholars understand. It makes me wonder: what are children being taught about the war in school? And specifically, what are they being taught about the views of the Confederate Founding Fathers, such as Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Vice-President Alexander Stephens?
Just before Davis became President of the Confederate States, he was a United States senator for the state of Mississippi. When Mississippi seceded, it issued A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. This document was basically Mississippi’s declaration of independence from the United States government. This is how the document begins:
In the momentous step which our State [Mississippi] has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
Following that declaration, Davis made a farewell speech to the Senate on January 21, 1861, to announce that he was leaving the Congress to join with his disunionist state, and to give some reasons for the state’s actions:
..if I had not believed there was justifiable cause; if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still… because of my allegiance to the State… have been bound by her action. I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act.
I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when the convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted…
It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions [i.e., slavery]; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.
On March 21, 1861, Confederate States Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, gave what is now called the “Cornerstone Speech” which, among other things, talked about the reasons for secession:
But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.