So far I am really enjoying my Civil War class. While this is only the fourth day of class we are now right in the middle of an interesting discussion about the causes of the war and secession. We are working our way through James McPherson’s North and South Magazine article titled, "What Caused the Civil War" [Vol. 4, No. 1: pp. 12-22]. The students must write a 2-page thesis summary of the article. After our next article by William Freehling each student will have to choose an article from a list and lead the class discussion on that particular day. The idea is to create something close to a college seminar.
The McPherson article is ideal as it is well written and the argument builds in a way that is easy to follow if read with a critical eye. Anyway, today we were trying to explain the apparent shift in the content of the speeches of both Davis and Stephens in reference to the role of slavery as a cause of secession. While Davis and Stephens elevate the role of slavery above all other conditions in their speeches in 1860-61 they retreat to the states’ rights position following the war. Between McPherson’s argument which places slavery historically at the center of the antebellum political debates and by asking the students to think of why white Southerners like Davis and Stephens would have an interest in ignoring the issue, they were able to begin to see the broader problem of why Americans have chosen to ignore the importance of slavery.
Towards the end of the class one of my new students pointed out that she had been taught U.S. and Virginia history at least four times in recent years. I should note that this is a new student who transferred from a local public school this year to finish her senior year. She is extremely bright and apparently had taken all of the AP course that were offered at her old school. At no point was slavery raised as a salient factor in explaining secession and Civil War in those previous classes. She said it with just a hint of confusion as if something important had been kept from her. It was nice to see a student step back and consider the history of what she had been taught about a specific subject. Hopefully this will translate into a healthy skepticism that will involve more questioning of the people who appear as authorities in the classroom — INCLUDING YOURS TRULY!