Do the racist Trumpists in your family claim the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but instead about states’ rights?
“Civil War lessons often depend on where the classroom is.” In the classroom of our family, we teach our kids to consult primary sources, in this case the declarations of secession of South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and our home state of Texas as well as the ordinances of secession.
Historian Kevin Kruse offered a helpful breakdown of these declarations on Twitter.
Here’s an embed of the video mentioned in the thread.
If that institution was discredited in the eyes of the world, then the Confederacy itself would be discredited in the eyes of history. So, it became a psychological necessity, I think, to deny that the Civil War was about slavery.
What about non-slaveholding southerners fighting in the Civil War? Historian Keri Leigh Merritt explains how oligarchy, then as now, brutalized and divided us all.
One of my favorite resources for teaching American history and social studies is “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong”. Here it is on the states’ rights argument and how textbooks have misrepresented the Civil War.
Slavery was the underlying reason that South Carolina, followed by ten other states, left the Union. In 1860, leaders of the state were perfectly clear about why they were seceding. On Christmas Eve, they signed a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Their first grievance was “that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations,” specifically this clause, which they quote: “No person held to service or labour in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up . . .” This is of course the Fugitive Slave Clause, under whose authority Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which South Carolina of course approved. This measure required officers of the law and even private citizens in free states to participate in capturing and returning African Americans when whites claimed them to be their slaves. This made the free states complicit with slavery. They wriggled around, trying to avoid full compliance. Pennsylvania, for example, passed a law recognizing the supremacy of the federal act but pointing out that Pennsylvanians still had the right to determine pay for their officers of the law, and they refused to pay for time spent capturing and returning alleged slaves. South Carolina attacked such displays of states’ rights:
But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations. . . . The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them.
Thus South Carolina opposed states’ rights when claimed by free states. This is understandable. Historically, whatever faction has been out of power in America has pushed for states’ rights. White Southerners dominated the executive and judicial branches of the federal government throughout the 1850s—and through the Democratic Party, the legislative branch as well—so of course they opposed states’ rights. Slave owners were delighted when Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney decided in 1857 that throughout the nation, irrespective of the wishes of state or territorial governments, blacks had no rights that whites must respect. Slave owners pushed President Buchanan to use federal power to legitimize slaveholding in Kansas the next year. Only after they lost control of the executive branch in the 1860 election did slave owners begin to suggest limiting federal power.
South Carolina’s leaders went on to condemn New York for denying “even the right of transit for a slave” and other Northern states for letting African Americans vote. Before the Civil War, these matters were states’ rights. Nevertheless, South Carolina claimed the right to determine whether New York could prohibit slavery within New York or Vermont could define citizenship in Vermont. Carolinians also contested the rights of residents of other states even to think differently about their peculiar institution, giving as another reason for secession that Northerners “have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.” In short, slavery permeates the document from start to finish. Of course, the election of Lincoln provided the trigger, but the abiding purpose of secession was to protect, maintain, and enhance slavery. Nor was South Carolina unusual; other states used similar language when they seceded.
Despite this clear evidence, before 1970 many textbooks held that almost anything but slavery—differences over tariffs and internal improvements, the conflict between agrarian South and industrial North, and especially “states’ rights”—led to secession. This was a form of Southern apologetics. Never was there any excuse for such bad scholarship, and in the aftermath of the civil rights movement most textbook authors came to agree with Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural “that slavery was somehow the cause of the war.” As The United States—A History of the Republic put it in 1981, “At the center of the conflict was slavery, the issue that would not go away.”
This is hard history, but as the states’ rights racists in our families reveal, we have to teach it and do a much better job than we have done so far.
It is often said that slavery was our country’s original sin, but it is much more than that. Slavery is our country’s origin. It was responsible for the growth of the American colonies, transforming them from far-flung, forgotten outposts of the British Empire to glimmering jewels in the crown of England. And slavery was a driving power behind the new nation’s territorial expansion and industrial maturation, making the United States a powerful force in the Americas and beyond.
Slavery was also our country’s Achilles heel, responsible for its near undoing. When the southern states seceded, they did so expressly to preserve slavery. So wholly dependent were white Southerners on the institution that they took up arms against their own to keep African Americans in bondage. They simply could not allow a world in which they did not have absolute authority to control black labor—and to regulate black behavior.
The central role that slavery played in the development of the United States is beyond dispute. And yet, we the people do not like to talk about slavery, or even think about it, much less teach it or learn it. The implications of doing so unnerve us. If the cornerstone of the Confederacy was slavery, then what does that say about those who revere the people who took up arms to keep African Americans in chains? If James Madison, the principal architect of the Constitution, could hold people in bondage his entire life, refusing to free a single soul even upon his death, then what does that say about our nation’s founders? About our nation itself?
Slavery is hard history. It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it.
We the people have a deep-seated aversion to hard history because we are uncomfortable with the implications it raises about the past as well as the present.
We the people would much rather have the Disney version of history, in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better. We prefer to pick and choose what aspects of the past to hold on to, gladly jettisoning that which makes us uneasy. We enjoy thinking about Thomas Jefferson proclaiming, “All men are created equal.” But we are deeply troubled by the prospect of the enslaved woman Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, declaring, “Me too.”
Literary performer and educator Regie Gibson had the truth of it when he said, “Our problem as Americans is we actually hate history. What we love is nostalgia.”
Slavery isn’t in the past. It’s in the headlines.
These recent events reveal, at least in part, how American schools are failing to teach a critical and essential portion of the nation’s legacy-the history and continuing impact of chattel slavery. Research for this report reveals that high school students don’t know much about the history of slavery in the United States, with only 8 percent able to identify it as the central cause of the Civil War. This should not be surprising, given that most adults wrongly identify “states’ rights” as the cause. Widespread ignorance about slavery, the antebellum South and the Confederacy persists to the present day, and is on display in controversies over monument removal in places like New Orleans, Louisiana, and Charlottesville, Virginia, where protests turned deadly in the summer of 2017. Students and adults alike may even hold fringe beliefs, including notions propagated by white nationalists, such as the idea that slavery wasn’t “so bad,” or that the Irish were enslaved.9 Few Americans acknowledge the role slavery played in states outside the South.
Teachers struggle to do justice to the nation’s legacy of racial injustice. They are poorly served by state standards and frameworks, popular textbooks and even their own academic preparation. For this report, we surveyed more than 1,700 social studies teachers across the country. A bare majority say they feel competent to teach about slavery. Most say that the available resources and preparation programs have failed them. Almost all regret this deficiency, recognizing that teaching the history of slavery is essential. When we reviewed a set of popular history textbooks, we saw why teachers felt a lack of support: Texts fail in key areas, including connecting slavery to the present and portraying the diversity of the experiences of the enslaved. State content standards, which are meant to set clear expectations for instruction, are scattershot at best, often making puzzling choices such as teaching about Harriet Tubman long before slavery, or equivocating on the cause of the Civil War. When we consider the available landscape of materials and expectations, it is no wonder that teachers struggle.