“The War Between the States”: Homeschool Style

It’s true that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can judge it by the number of black Confederates that are claimed to have loyally served.  As a teacher I think it is important to stay up to date on new textbooks and other classroom resources, so with that in mind I decided to contact the good people at American Vision to see about getting a review copy of The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War, which is authored by John J. Dwyer.  The book was published in 2005 and is endorsed by the likes of Thomas DiLorenzo, Lew Rockwell, Clyde Wilson and Donald Livingston.  The book is marketed to Christian schools and families that homeschool their children.  It is illustrated throughout with the artwork of John Paul Strain and at 650 pages it is by far the longest textbook on the war that I’ve ever come across.

Not surprisingly, the endorsements claim that this book serves as an alternative to the standard interpretations that currently pervade public schools and colleges.  Of course, Dwyer never elaborates on what this interpretation includes or explores its supposed weaknesses, but than again this book was not written to raise questions and encourage curiosity.  Rather it was written to conform to a Christian outlook that uses the past to justify current political and moral beliefs.  Such an approach offers a convenient justification for parents and educators who believe that the secular world must be resisted in all its forms.  Dwyer believes that his text moves beyond the “politically correct” studies that are used in secondary schools and colleges and allows the reader to focus on “God’s almighty work of calling out a covenant people for Himself in space and time, throughout human history.”  Such an approach doesn’t leave much room for questions about how the author constructs his interpretation since any challenge must necessarily be construed as a challenge to God’s vision.  I will leave the epistemological concerns aside for now rather than get bogged down into something that, as a historian, I could care less about.

The book includes no references to outside studies other than a few choice titles that are floated throughout the text such as Charles Adams’s In The Course of Human Events and other books by the Ludwig Von Mises crowd and assorted libertarians.  The curious reader is left to wonder what kinds of primary and secondary sources were used.  Obviously, I cannot review the entire book; rather, I will proceed in short segments that focus on a representative sample that should give you a sense of why the book is so popular as a homeschool/Christian text.

Consider the author’s treatment of black Confederates as an entry point into the overall quality of this text.  The student is prepped for this “analysis” with multiple sections focused on the life of slaves and their relationships with their masters.  Dwyer relies heavily on the WPA Slave Narratives as well as Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross.  The author acknowledges that historians have pointed out problems with using the WPA sources, but suggests that they reveal a wide range of experiences of slave life.  Indeed they do, but the author simply makes assertions that are to be accepted by the reader rather than demonstrating with examples.  Dwyer also never mentions the controversy surrounding Time on the Cross, including important critiques by Herbert Gutman and others.  Ignoring such problems allows the author to pick and choose from the texts to draw conclusions that confirm the crucial point that God is an ever present force in the lives of slaves and slaveowners.  “They (Fogel and Engerman) produced perhaps the most thorough examination of plantation records and first-hand accounts ever done,” writes Dwyer.  Just as disturbing is the way in which facts are presented without any context whatsoever.  In fleshing out the reality of slave life in the South the reader learns that “thousands of free Southern blacks owned other blacks as slaves, including one hundred twenty-five in Charleston, South Carolina, and over 3,000 in New Orleans.  No mention of the complexity of race in a city like New Orleans compared with the rest of the region and no references at the end of the chapter to allow students to read further.  I guess it’s all about faith.  There is a constant reminder throughout that historians today cannot be trusted and that their research is a product of nefarious motives.  The student learns quickly that the author’s goal is to rescue them from such treachery.

The author’s assessment of slavery is difficult to make sense of given the goal of reconciling a Christian world-view and a slaveholding society.  There is a palpable tension between acknowledging the reality of slavery and wanting to correct the harshest critiques of slave life.  In the hands of a reputable historian such a goal is not only laudable, but essential if we are to continue to uncover the complexity of slave life and race relations in the United States at different times.  This is not meant to ignore the harsh reality of slavery, but to acknowledge that it does not constitute the beginning and end of what we need to know.  Here is a revealing passage:

Slavery, though not an evil institution when practiced Biblically, was attended with evils as practiced in the South.  It was not in any way perfect or utopian.  In fact, as a Southern social institution, generally considered, it was evil.  Christians should be quick to notice the discrepancies between Biblical slavery and that practiced in the South.  These differences between the Biblical standard and Southern slavery make impossible an unqualified defense of the institution as it existed and operated in the South.

One could read this as suggesting that the “evils [of slavery] as practice in the South” was a matter of degree given its sanctioning in the Bible.  An “unqualified defense” may not be appropriate, but it certainly leaves room for one that is qualified.  For someone who is not a Christian, but who holds to very strong moral/ethical principles it is impossible for me to come to terms with such a distinction.  Dwyer takes full advantage of the opening provided in the above passage to present the “Unexpected Blessings” of slavery.  No surprise that it is the fact that the slaves were introduced to Christianity.  Of course, it implies that the original Africans had no religious identity, but that doesn’t seem to bother Dwyer since the goal of his commentary is to present slaves and slaveowners as some kind of organic whole that at least approached the Biblically sanctioned institution of slavery.   As far as I am concerned such a view reflects moral bankruptcy and deserves outright condemnation.  But if that wasn’t enough of a reason to question our “politically correct” narrative of slavery how about this one?:

No one needs lament the passing of slavery, and the editors of this volume emphatically do not.  But who cannot but lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way it was abolished?  In many respects, the remedy applied has been far worse that the disease ever was.  Christians who doubt this should consider whether it was safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2004.

Well, you can probably surmise that I will not be using this particular book in my Civil War survey course, but you can bet that I will break this out for my course on Civil War memory.  I was hoping to get to this book’s interpretation of black Confederates, but given the length of this post I will hold it for the next one.  It’s a doozy.  They even offer up a number of 40,000.

40 responses... add one

There is an odd confluence here. The libertarian crowd is usually not enthusiastic about religion. I guess they will make an exception when it serves their ideological ends ;-)

They do indeed make strange bedfellows. They compliment one another in their interpretation of northern society/Lincoln as a means to reinforce their own agenda. For the Dwyer crowd it’s to highlight white southerners as God’s chosen people [they took care of their slaves and introduced them to Christianity] and for the libertarians it reinforces their belief that the Civil War ushered in oppressive government. What is so funny about the latter is their emphasis on Lincoln given that whatever centralizing tendencies can be found the U.S. government they can also be found in the Confederacy.

Disturbing if not outright scary. It’s also interesting to consider the meaning in the cover art that was selected. Granted, it could have been worse, but the manner in which the Union is portrayed is rather imposing, while the South gets a woman in the artwork to help illustrate “all that was being threatened by the imposing Yankees.” Do I even bother to ask… anything about Southern Unionists?

Robert @ Cenantua’s Blog

I’ll keep an eye out but don’t hold your breadth. I don’t think it fits into the broader view presented here. :)

On another note, it looks like the publication of the work couldn’t wait for new artwork… you know, portraying some of those 40,000 black Confederates on the front cover art, or even the grateful slaves and all. :)

If you’re going to slog through 650 pages of this, God bless you.
I recently read “The Uncivil War” by Mike Scruggs. It references some of the same sources and has very few if any primary sources. Photos are not credited and the whole thing has a kind of comic book quality about it. But at least it was only 64 pages.
One section was titled “The Unmatched Devotion of Black Confederates.”

Dan,

I assure you that I have no plans of reading every page of this. What I’ve read thus far is sufficient, but I do plan on using it in my memory class to get at certain themes. I can only imagine what Scruggs’s chapter on black Confederates look like.

To justify slavery when it is modeled after the narrative in the Bible (I assume the author of this book means ancient Rome) is exactly as unethical as a Muslim who kills “infidels” based on his interpretation of the Koran. It is one thing to be a devout Christian, it is another to teach your kids radical fundamentalism and turn the Christian faith into a a terrorist’s school. I am a Protestant and I went to Sunday school. Never did my pastor justify the crimes in the Bible.

This is pretty sick, Kevin, especially the gratuitous abortion reference. I suppose the authors of this filth overlook the appalling infant mortality among enslaved babies? I just looked this up in one of my lectures: 1/5 of enslaved children died before the age of five, and fewer than 2/3 lived to the age of 10. Yeah, let’s celebrate that! Enslaved people also stood a 50% chance of being sold away from their families. Walter Johnson estimates that 25% of the domestic slave trade resulted in the destruction of a marriage and 50% of the trade destroyed nuclear families. Yeah, family values! It makes me ill to think of children learning those “facts.”

Rebecca,

You are absolutely right. Dwyer would do well to read a book like Johnson’s _Soul By Soul_ which highlights the extent to which profit and trade shaped the lives of slaves.

As creepy as this book is, some of the bits on slavery fall along similar lines to those of Eugene and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s interpretation in “The Mind of the Master Class,” which essentially sees the slaveholders as the truly organic, conservative republicans, who unfortunately defended the lesser evil of slavery to stave off what the Genoveses saw as the greater evil (in the long run) of unchained, rampant individualist free-labor capitalism championed by the Republican Party. The Dwyer book could be used in the context of a Civil War memory course to highlight the persistence of the idealized, evangelical agrarian myth in American society, which still persists today in the form of politicians proclaiming that small towns are the “Real America.” This agrarian myth is deeply tied to the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War.

- Jarret

Jarret,

Yes, but as you well know the Genovese’s are incredibly talented historians and their scholarship is worth serious consideration. The problem in this case is that Dwyer picks and chooses what fits into his narrow interpretation. More than likely he probably hasn’t read much of what the Genovese’s have written.

I plan on using the book for my memory course for some of the very reasons you cite.

This is disturbing. I can understand how libertarians such as myself can find he cause of “states rights” or fighting an oppressive government appealing. Except that the Civil War was about slavery and the economics of slavery.

As a religious person, I recognize that slavery is not only historical in cultures and societies throughout time, but that it is talked about in the Bible; with St. Paul even writing letter to Philemon in which he seems to encourage a slave to return to his master. The letter itself can be interpreted several different ways, one of which in the vein of “Give unto God that which is God’s, and unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” Kind also saying that God’s kingdom is not on Earth, so obey the laws type of thing. I’m not a theologian so don’t take this as a theology, just a thought on one possible interpretation.

And there were Black Confederates. Not many, but some high profile Confederates did argue for emancipation and enlisting/drafting American-Africans into their ranks. These people were in the minority and by the time the CSA did try to act on these notions it was too little too late. It should be addressed, but more as a historical curiosity or as something to say, “What if this had happened earlier with greater efficacy?” But not as something serious.

Kevin:

Please, do not judge either Christians or Christian education by this propaganda piece. I am a Christian and graduated from a Christian high school, but I believe I have a much more critical eye toward these types of publication for those reasons. Not only does it appear, from your review, that this material lacks substantial corroboration from primary and even moderate secondary sources, but they appear to be using the very same arguments many Confederates of the 1850′s and 1860′s did to justify slavery. (It’s in the Bible, so it must be OK.) Could Pat Buchannan be an unnamed contributor to this work?

Were people in our history influenced by Christianity? Yes, but I argue more along the lines of historian David Barton (Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black and White, at least on this topic, even though I disagree with him on other topics related to history) than John J. Dwyer. It was the influence of Northern (and some Southern) Christians that eventually led to the downfall of slavery in spite of attempts by slaveowning Southerners and other Confederates to justify it with the Bible.

David,

Although I am not a libertarian there is nothing necessarily wrong with making the argument for a minimalist government. The problem is when history is used (or in this case abused) to make a political point.

Greg,

I am in no way making a comment about all Christians. In fact, I suspect that most good Christians will find this kind of argument to be absurd and will relegate it to its rightful place on the lunatic fringe of the religion. I think it is important for people like you to speak out in opposition to this kind of nonsense.

Kevin: Three of of the contributing editors (Grant, Wilkins, Wilson) are ministers, two in the small Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches. Wilkins is a major player in the League of the South and the best known, but in theological circles Wilson has been just as controversial. Together, among other things, they notably wrote a book called Southern Slavery As It Was that was attacked by historians, the NAACP, and SPLC (see below) for similar statements before it was disowned by the publisher. Sounds like a rehash of arguments from that book.–Ken

http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?pid=645

Kevin if you want to see Biblical Slavery read the first 5 books of the OT and use the glossary to see Paul’s treatment of the subject in the NT.

Ken,

Thanks for the reference. I did a quick Online search for these guys and found some of the same sources.

Mike,

Although I am no expert on OT and NT slavery I am familiar with certain passages from both. To be honest, I am not that interested in reading about sanctioned slavery. Regardless of the source and as far as I am concerned it is immoral in all its forms. Anyone who claims that it is has discarded any claim to moral authority.

In my opinion, any religious text can be used in any number of ways to justify any number of things, for better or for worse. One set of people will read the Bible (for example) one way and interpret things in one way, while any number of other groups will read the same text and come up with an entirely different interpretation. I know it’s not the point of Kevin’s post to lay it all out, but I don’t think that I or anyone else needs to state the obvious and start citing different times in history where things were done in the name of religion and interpreted as justified by written scripture… and then become subject to criticism years later… and even a source of embarrasment for some religious groups.

The thing that surprises me most, however, is that nearly 150 years after the end of slavery as an institution in the U.S. that some can still cling to (or revisit anew) the arguments of 150 years ago. What’s the point… to lend merit to the Confederate Cause? To say that the “South was Right?” That’s a real hoot. If so, it’s a narrow-minded path to charge down when considering the facts that there was a diverse range of feelings about the institution in the Civil War era South. Every Southerner was not of a like mind and some clearly recognized the institution as an abomination. Others, such as Joseph Ruggles Wilson thought the institution justified through the Bible and, quite honestly, I believe that the text of his sermon of Jan. 6, 1861 was encouraged for publication because it made people, especially slave owners, feel better about what they were doing… holding people in bondage. It’s interesting that people may have needed that feeling of justification. Was conscious telling some of them differently? I think so.

Again, at this point in time, why does anyone find it necessary to justify slavery through the Bible? I am by no means a conspiracy theorist, but I have to wonder if such efforts (in modern times) to continue justifying the institution (especially nearly 150 years after its end) through the Bible aren’t at the core of some warped underlying sense of mission in some to return people to another form of bondage. That’s one of the reasons why this book is so incredibly disturbing.

Robert @ Cenantua’s Blog

Robert,

The real tragedy is to see the children who are the product of homeschooling. Yes, there is evidence to suggest that some homeschooled kids out perform their public school peers, but I’ve taught a number of these kids over the past eight years and it isn’t pretty. Most of the kids I’ve taught with this background find it very difficult to adjust to a school community. Many haven’t spent enough time learning how to interact with their peers, but the biggest disappointment is to watch them in the classroom. The kids I’ve taught are very obedient and well-behaved, but try to get them to question what they read or what the teacher says and you will end up pulling your hair out. They were never taught to formulate their own ideas or to see school as an opportunity to develop their own views about things. It’s very sad. I’ve seen up close what happens to kids who are taught to see US History as “God’s plan”. In a previous comment someone said that it reminds them of child abuse and I couldn’t agree more.

If you think about it, Kevin, what you saw in these kids is inevitable. Many parents who insist on home-schooling their kids have a set of beliefs which they don’t *want* their kids to question or dispute, and that is what they see school as being for: The simple transmission of information. So the kids get a double-whammy: Not only are they taught ridiculous junk, but they are taught that none of it should be questioned.

Kevin,

The problem is compounded for kids who are homeschooled early on and than have to adjust to a classroom like mine. Much of what I do is organized around discussion and debate. I want my students to question one another and me as part of a process that will lead them to their own conclusions about what they read. But look at this from the perspective of a homeschooled child. They’ve little exposure to debate and/or the questioning of authority figures. So, they come to my class not having questioned their parents and are not inclined to challenge me and they are surrounded by students who take such a stance for granted even if not all of them exercise it.

I can’t tell which of my students now were homeschooled (though I sometimes have my suspicions) but a few years ago I worked in a museum and we had students on tours from public schools, private schools, and homeschooled. One of our docents described the homeschooled kids as “little robots.” The public school kids were the least well behaved but they tended to ask the best questions. An unscientific survey certainly, but I much preferred the more rambunctious public school kids. (As for private schools, it depended on the school).

At least they didn’t title the book “The War of Northern Aggression.”

I don’t know Woodrow… I think they may have given serious thought to the title “The Heathen’s War for Southern Extermination,” but even they recognized they needed to reach within mainstream to brainwash… I mean… gain more followers :)

Robert:

You are correct that “any religious text can be used in any number of ways to justify any number of things, for better or for worse.” What I see as the problem is that many Christians (and other religious people) believe there is little need to question the perspective presented by their pastor or priest (or other religious officiant) and to do so somehow diminishes the faith required to be a believer. What I have a difficult time with in this regard is most of the founders of the world’s major religions questioned the established practices and ideologies of society, but most modern adherents fail to recognize this. My opinion is just because one accepts a religion and a religious text as a foundation to one’s thought process does not negate the need to actually put one’s mind to work. Far too many religious adherents take this approach, no matter the religion being discussed.

Wow. Books like this don’t belong in any classroom. You mention that the authors make a practice of picking and choosing their “facts”. Doesn’t this sound like the modern day Republican Party as a whole?
What really gets me is the amount of “slaves who fought for the south” stuff I’ve been stumbling upon lately. When you enlist in the military, then and now, you take an oath and sign a contract. Has anyone come up with a valid military contract signed by a slave during the Civil War? For one thing, Jefferson Davis wouldn’t allow such a thing to happen until he was desperate for manpower at the very end…. it would have negated everything that he believed and stood for; what the South fought for.
Crapola hogwash like this book, written to conform to religious and regional numbnuts in Dixieland, only enable what I believe to be the continuing war between the South and the rest of the country. For that reason alone, these ridiculous efforts at manipulation of facts should be exposed for what they are….. contrived rubbish.
I thank you for blog posts like this one. At least it exposes this garbage to many Civil War students like myself. Having lived in both parts of our country, I can state with absolute certainty that the War Between the States has not ended… not by a long shot.

Thanks for the comment, though I don’t think that this post has much of anything to do with the Republican Party. It seems to me the Democrats do just as good a job picking and choosing the facts that suite their political agenda. If you are new to this blog I highly recommend going to the categories and searching under “Confederate Slaves” which will take you to numerous posts on this subject. Thanks again for stopping by.

Kevin and others:

While certainly there are homeschooled children who are “little robots” who are taught “ridiculous junk,” these misperceptions of homeschooling are dated. Many homeschoolers today are motivated by a combination of factors, which may include religious beliefs, but also encompass the desire for their children to avoid the many problems present in many public (and even private) schools, as well as for their children to be able to think for themselves. Our previous and current homeschooling communities have a diverse membership of those motivated by religion, libertarianism, “unschooling,” classical education, etc., etc.

In fact, many of our Christian homeschooling friends use a literature-based, classical curriculum that incorporates historical and literary texts from the ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews, through Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and others. Those children, some of whom I have taught, display a remarkable ability and willingness to consider and analyze arguments to which they do not subscribe and to articulate and analyze intelligently their own arguments.

(According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 30% of homeschoolers choose that form of education primarily for moral or religious instruction, which does not, of course, automatically mean that the parents are indoctrinating religious prejudice, as some might argue. Another 47% choose homeschooling primarily because of dissatisfaction with academic instruction or the environment of other schools. The study is available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/homeschool/.)

Sorry to sidetrack your thread, Kevin, but homeschoolers tend to be much more willing to analyze and debate than I think you and others give them credit for.

Mark,

Thanks so much for chiming in on this one. I have no doubt that my experience and commentary covers only a small niche in the world of homeschooling. The post was not meant as a reflection on homeschooling, but only on one text that has been marketed to homeschooled children. The book is problematic to say the least. My own experience with homeschooled kids is no doubt directly related to the places where I’ve taught. Thanks again for the comment.

Kevin,

This is a very disturbing post. First let me point out that I am a Christian. On the other hand, I’ve always been taught, including by my parents, to question authority. That may seem like a contradiction, but it’s really not. My faith teaches me that Christianity is a personal journey, and that my pastors are guides on that road. I am free to disagree with them and find my own path. The idea that Christianity is easy is a fallacy. It is a constant struggle.

More to the point, I saw no mention of the fact that most of the abolitionists were Christians. They, and I, saw slavery as an unmitigated evil. Sorry for the rant but I felt it needed to be said.

John

Allow me to chime in on this. A couple of months ago, I performed in a musical play that my son’s school did as a fundraiser. A young man (7th grade?) was my “apprentice.” He was being home schooled. I have no idea why, or what the motive was. But based on several weeks work with this young man, I doubt his home-schooling included this book.

John,

I haven’t read the entire book. Dwyer does mention that the abolitionists were also Christians, but what is so interesting is that he obviously gives much more weight and even strives to place the Confederacy/white southerners on the moral high ground.

James,

I’m glad to hear that at least one homeschooled kid has not been subjected to this book. I do want to clarify once again that this post is not meant as a commentary on the overall quality of homeschooling. The comment thread was obviously steered in a certain direction and I responded based on my own experiences.

This book is a travesty if it conflates defence of States Rights with the defence of slavery.

The South left the Union because they failed to make slavery a national institution, protected by the Federal government under the Fugitive Slave Act..

What do libertarians think of the escaped slave Anthony Burns, dragged out of Boston by US Marines with loaded muskets and cannon, to be returned to his master? After that, one of the “Cotton Whig” Lawrences wrote: “We went to bed moderates, we awoke stark, raving Abolitionists”. How could anyone who calls himself a “libertarian” not feel otherwise?

While the Text book is junk. Your dismissal of the Biblical Text as it regulates Slavery historically is distrubing since the Bible is considered by many as a Book of History as well as a guide for the Christian Faith.
The Bible plays a important Role in Civil War History weather we agree with it or not.

Mike,

The link to the publisher is in the post.

I hope you understand that I am not about to get into a theological debate about the Bible. Of course, the Bible is important to understand as it relates to American history. As for the Bible as spiritual/ethical/moral guide let’s just say that I do not subscribe to any text that advocates slavery in any shape or form and leave it at that.

Rebecca July 4, 2009 at 7:36 am
This is pretty sick, Kevin, especially the gratuitous abortion reference. I suppose the authors of this filth overlook the appalling infant mortality among enslaved babies? I just looked this up in one of my lectures: 1/5 of enslaved children died before the age of five, and fewer than 2/3 lived to the age of 10. Yeah, let’s celebrate that! Enslaved people also stood a 50% chance of being sold away from their families. Walter Johnson estimates that 25% of the domestic slave trade resulted in the destruction of a marriage and 50% of the trade destroyed nuclear families. Yeah, family values! It makes me ill to think of children learning those “facts.”

Rebecca I have been looking for that type of information for awhile. What source did you get your info from ?
Thanks,
William

REF: Homeschooled and Christian academy students

I get an interesting confluence between the referenced group and my work as a Scout leader. Not only am I a Scoutmaster but i am also a merit badge counselro for the citizebship merit badges as well as American Heritage. Since I live right off of the Petersburg NBP our local history tends to be Civil War centric. And in many of these sessions I run into Scouts who have a very different interpretation of history….an interrpetation that often goes against the tenets of Scouting and the importance of citizenship. In most instances I can tie the Scouts response to “that is what I was taught at XXXX academy.” or “…that is what my Mom taught me in home school.” In those cases I ask to speak to the parent. If we can not come to a meeting of the minds on the requirements being fulfilled IAW what the Scouts have established as correct, then I advise the parent and Scout to find a new merit badge counselor. I usually then hand a Scout leader application form to the parent and that usually scares them off!!!

Oh, and as for my religious affiliation? As a result of 12 years of Catholic school I am now a devout lapsed Catholic.

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