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 declaration 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.
[Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this [slavery], as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day.
Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.
I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men.
The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
President Davis and Vice-President Stephens leave little doubt: the states of the Confederacy left the Union to protect slavery. We don’t have to make intellectual or scholarly interpretations of this; their words make the point clear. If people don’t know about comments such as these, then what exactly are they learning in school?