Does someone you know–a family member, a co-worker, or your seventh-grade history teacher–suffer from profound ignorance about the Civil War?
Maybe you know That Guy. You know who he is. He’s the guy who, upon hearing “the Civil War was fought over slavery“, quickly ducks into a phone booth (good luck finding one) and transforms from Chad Splain (that annoying relative at the holiday dinner table who thinks Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group bc they don’t protest in the “proper” way and who doesn’t realize his white supremacy informed-advice to Blacks on how best to achieve racial justice is neither wanted nor needed) to his alter-ego, the confederate cape wearing, totally not racist White Savior Man:
- he who can change the course of mighty comment threads by crying “Reverse Racism” bc a Black person called him a cracker
- he who thinks neither POTUS45, the Muslim ban, or the border wall are racist. And he knows what racism is bc “It’s right there in the dictionary!”
- and he who engages in a never-ending battle to “educate” people about the true reason the Civil War was fought.
Heck, even if you don’t personally know a supporter/apologist for the Confederacy, you’ve likely bumped into them online (if you’ve not met one of these, be thankful bc the stench of white supremacy lingers) and marveled at how distraught they are about symbols of the Confederacy being removed from public property. These are the people who look at statues of Confederate soldiers and claim on the one hand that the soldiers were heroes fighting against a tyrannical federal government that sought to infringe upon states rights and on the other hand claim that removing the monuments is an attempt to rewrite history (with neither hand even realizing the irony).
If you know someone like those described above, don’t fret. There is hope for correcting the mountain of misconceptions about the Civil War. They can still be saved. The gaps in their knowledge, their misconceptions, and even the lies they believe need only be exposed to the light of truth:
Over at Civilwar.org, John Pierce writes:
The scholars immediately disagreed over the causes of the war and disagreement persists today. Many maintain that the primary cause of the war was the Southern states’ desire to preserve the institution of slavery. Others minimize slavery and point to other factors, such as taxation or the principle of States’ Rights.
In 2011, at the outset of the sesquicentennial, a Pew Research Center poll found that Americans were significantly divided on the issue, with 48% saying the war was “mainly about states’ rights,” 38% saying the war was “mainly about slavery,” with the remainder answering “both equally” or “neither/don’t know.”
The mind reels. Six years ago, nearly half the population of the United States (the US census counted roughly 311 million people in the US in 2011) believed one of the bloodiest wars the US was embroiled in was largely fought over “states’ rights” (in a way, they are right–the Confederacy fought to preserve their right to continue the institution of slavery). I have absolutely no confidence that number has decreased significantly in the intervening years (not least bc public school textbooks do a spectacular job of student miseducation through obfuscation). What makes this national ignorance so damn frustrating is that we have resources that shine a light on the motivations of the Confederate states.
The Cornerstone Speech, delivered in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861 by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens lays out the new Confederate Constitution and spells out in no uncertain terms exactly what the Civil War was fought over:
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, 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.
Nothing is left to the imagination. If however, additional confirmation is desired, it is easy as pie to hit up Google for ‘Articles of Secession‘:
Every state in the Confederacy issued an “Article of Secession” declaring their break from the Union. Four states went further. Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina all issued additional documents, usually referred to as the “Declarations of Causes,” which explain their decision to leave the Union. The documents can be found in their entirety here.
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. This hostile policy of our confederates has been pursued with every circumstance of aggravation which could arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people, and has placed the two sections of the Union for many years past in the condition of virtual civil war. Our people, still attached to the Union from habit and national traditions, and averse to change, hoped that time, reason, and argument would bring, if not redress, at least exemption from further insults, injuries, and dangers. Recent events have fully dissipated all such hopes and demonstrated the necessity of separation.
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. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.
(as side note, WTF is up with “only Black people can stand the sun”? A quick look at beaches around the country put the lie to that one)
These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the *forms* [emphasis in the original] of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
That in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.
Virginia (note: their Secession article does not directly refer to slavery as the cause; one has to delve a bit deeper to find that the injury and oppression they refer to are ambiguous references to slavery):
The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.
And if that’s not enough, South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, and Georgia all issued Declarations of Causes which elaborated at length on the factors that led them to begin their insurrection.
Debates over the causes of the Civil War are not likely to end in the near future. That’s due in large part to the historical revisionism at the heart of the Lost Cause Ideology, a post-war narrative by defeated Southerners who sought to paint the Confederacy as martyrs (heroes even) who fought not to preserve slavery, but to uphold grand ideals.
Grand ideals like “enslavement is the natural role of the African”.
I’m starting to wonder if the common refrain heard in discussions about Confederate monument removal “You can’t rewrite the past” is on some level guilty self-awareness.