The Pew Research Center recently released the results of a poll about American attitudes toward the Civil war. The poll results are here, in a piece titled Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive.
One poll question was about the causes of the Civil War. These are the results:
As noted by Pew, “There is no consensus among the public about the primary cause of the Civil War, but more (48%) say that the war was mainly about states’ rights than say it was mainly about slavery (38%). Another 9% volunteer that it was about both equally.”
I have a major problem with this question. As posed, it makes the two suggested reasons for the war – slavery and states’ rights – into separate, mutually exclusive propositions. That is, they’re saying the war was either about slavery or about states’ rights.
Which I think is wrong.
Why not ask if the war was caused by the desire to protect states’ right to maintain slavery?
States’ rights was not some mere or vague abstraction. The Confederates had a particular right in mind when they seceded: the right to protect, as the state of Mississippi put it, “the institution of slavery”… which in their minds, was “the greatest material interest of the world.”
If people are asked the wrong questions, we can’t help but get the wrong answers. If Pew does another poll, I’d like to see them ask this question:
Q: Assuming “states’ rights” was the cause of the war, what states rights were the Confederate States trying to protect?
(a) right to maintain slavery as they saw fit
(b) right to control tariff policy
I’d love to see how people respond to that.