What Caused the War? [ad nauseum]

Over on you will find a link to the recent debate in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star on the cause of the war. You will find on both sides of the debate the most absurd and uninformed arguments ever collected. I am not for a minute going to try to answer the question of what caused the war, in part because it is a waste of time. Instead I want to comment on what I take to be the misguided way in which these casual debates tend to unfold.

Problem #1: Why is it that these debates unfold with almost no awareness of what some of the best historians have written regarding this question in recent years? Everyone seems to be an expert. If you are going to talk about complex questions in history it seems reasonable to expect that one have some grasp of what the professionals have written. I am not suggesting that this means relying only on academic and non-academic publications, but simply that you demonstrate some grasp of the literature. Why, because they are the experts. This is not to diminish what someone can accomplish once they arrive home from a hard days work, but to acknowledge to some degree that there are people out there who study these events for a living. I was struck by the complete failure to distinguish between the cause of secession and the cause of the war. How many times do we have to hear that Abraham Lincoln was a racist because his Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves or that he failed to act against slavery until the middle of the war? The question of Lincoln’s racial outlook is an interesting one; however, these stock responses get us nowhere.
Solution to Problem #1: Subscribe to North and South Magazine. This magazine attracts some of the best writers in the field. The magazine includes studies of the battlefield, politics, and the home front. Articles are often included that present short overviews of recently released or soon-to-be-released studies. Articles by Charles Dew, James McPherson, Allen Guelzo, and William Freehling provide fairly sophisticated interpretations of questions surrounding the cause of secession and the war.

Since I find it hard to believe that any of the people currently taking part in this debate in the Fredericksburg paper have any real training as a historian or spent any significant time researching in an archive, they should discontinue the debate. If they want to debate, at least learn to ask the right questions and demonstrate some competence with the secondary literature.

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