My abbreviated course on the Civil War has hit the ground running in the last two weeks. This time around I am using Louis Masur’s brief history of the war and Reconstruction and so far it is working out well. I tend to look for a concise narrative that I can supplement in various ways. For their first supplemental reading I had students read an essay by Charles Dew based on his book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.
It’s an ideal reading for high school students. The argument is concise, easy to follow, and the subject matter couldn’t be more conducive to a seminar discussion. And we did, indeed, have a dynamite discussion earlier today. Students thought that Dew’s commissioners helped to answer an important question regarding why the Deep South states interpreted Lincoln’s election as an immediate threat. At the same time they struggled with the content of their speeches and editorials. As they discussed the article further I realized that the difficulty has to do with how history students tend to think about the institution of slavery. They think about it primarily in abstract terms with an understanding that life could be incredibly violent and sad. Few survey classes have the time to dig into the complexity of the master-slave relationship or examine the day-to-day lives of slaves. What they miss, unfortunately, is the extent to which slavery was intertwined with assumptions concerning race.
My students were completely unprepared for the language of miscegenation, concern about the raping of white women by free black men, and interracial marriage – all as part of a broader fear of the collapse of civilization into a violent race war. A few students pointed out that the language must have been calculated, in part, to appeal to the widest demographic in the Upper South among slaveowners and nonslaveowners alike.
At the end of the day, however, students still view this language from a distance in both time and especially in place. This is problematic. Toward the end of the class I tried to give them a broader interpretation of where these men fit into our historical narrative. Rather than see the language expressed and the men who voiced it as time and place specific I asked them to think about certain connections.
First, the ideas expressed by these men likely represented the racial assumptions of most Americans North and South. The fears associated with the free interaction of large numbers of white and black Americans animated the members of the American Colonization Society in the early nineteenth century. These were the same concerns and fears that shaped the responses of many white Northerners following the end of slavery in 1865 and through the early twentieth century during the Great Migration. They are the same fears that shaped Chicago’s housing policies through the mid-twentieth century. Finally, closer to home they are the same fears that led to the violence here in Boston in the 1970s surrounding school busing. Need more, check out anything by Thomas Sugrue or even Jason Sokol’s new book on the civil rights struggle in the North.
I suggested that the ideas of the secessionist commissioners have reflected mainstream America’s racial views for well into the twentieth century. They are certainly not the stuff of the distant past.
There is a temptation (perhaps even more so here in New England) to teach the history of the Confederacy apart from the rest of American history. In doing so, however, we miss the opportunity to consider how those very ideas shaped our own backyards.