O.K. So It Was Slavery…But Where Does That Get You?
This week I started the Civil War with my AP classes. I actually do not like teaching the Civil War to my AP classes because there is really no time to cover it thoroughly. This brings me to a rant about the AP curriculum which I will put off for a later time.
Today we looked at two primary sources that outline the respective goals of the United States and the Confederacy. In reference to the former we read Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greely written in 1862 which emphasizes the goal of preserving the Union with slavery serving as a possible means to achieving that end. I know there are other sources, but the letter is short and makes the point clearly. Some of the students have difficulty moving beyond the overly simplistic picture of Lincoln as the "Great Emancipator" who set out from the beginning to end slavery.
More interesting, however, is their reaction or should I say lack of reaction in coming to terms with what the Confederacy was fighting for. We read through Alexander Stephens’s "Cornerstone Speech" and I point out the changes made to the Confederate constitution that focus on slavery. What is interesting to me is that my students have little difficulty connecting the Confederacy with slavery. In fact, I had to point out the reasons why people continue to try to separate the Confederacy from slavery. One student rightly pointed out that all of the events that the class covered since the Mexican-American War somehow revolved around the issue of slavery. Once in awhile a student will note that most white Southerners did not own slaves or that their ancestor did not fight for slavery. The proper reaction is to point out that individuals go off to war – if they are not drafted – for any number of reasons that may not correspond to why a country goes to war. For example, I like to point out that plenty of Americans probably volunteered to go to Vietnam for reasons unrelated to the "Domino Theory." This, of course does not imply that the United States did not go to war in Vietnam for just this reason.
I sometimes have students who have picked up the traditional "Lost Cause" argument from a parent and I’ve learned to tread lightly here. Push too hard and you run the risk of alienating the student. On one occasion one of my students complained to his father that I was pushing a "Yankee" view of the war and the parent even called me to complain. It was a very uncomfortable situation to say the least. Those incidents are an exception to the rule. More often than not my students are entirely disinterested when it comes to this debate. They study the material and the events that led to secession and war and see clearly the role that slavery played in all of it.
That I don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing for the centrality of slavery at the beginning of the war makes it much easier to explain the war as a political and social revolution. I want my students to appreciate the fact that even as late as 1860-61 it was not inevitable that slavery would be abolished. The war did that and that it did raised important questions concerning the political and social order that emerged following its abolition and the end of the war. It also helps me point out that Americans on both sides of the Potomac River were unprepared to deal with the questions that emerged as a result of slavery’s demise. Revolutions rarely end without introducing new questions and challenges. The Civil War was no exception to this rule. This time around I am going to really challenge my students to see beyond that artificial distinction drawn between the chapter on the Civil War and Reconstruction. I hope to bring them to a point where they can acknowledge that the steps African Americans took to secure their freedom along with the violence of Reconstruction and the political debates among northern Republicans and southern Redeemers was an outgrowth of the consequences of emancipation.