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.