States Rights v. Slavery: No Discernible Difference

Teaching the Civil War in central Virginia offers an interesting perspective on the continuing evolution of our collective memory of the war.  My current course on the Civil War and historical memory includes students from the surrounding counties of Fluvanna and Greene as well as students who grew up in Charlottesville.  Many of the students come from families that fit into this latter category come from other regions of the country.  I spend a great deal of time listening to my students talk about their own perceptions of the war because it gives me a unique perspective on how future commemorations are likely to take shape.

What I learned today is worth sharing.  As far as I can tell there is no discernible difference between the ways in which northern children are taught to understand the cause of secession and war from what can be found in southern schools.  My students who are born and raised in the counties outside of Charlottesville – which we might suspect as being more traditional in focus – shared that they remember learning that slavery was the central issue driving secession.  I had students who attended grade school in New England and Michigan, who remember learning that slavery was ancillary and that states rights was the central reason. The difference seems to be based on individual teachers rather than anything having to do with a sharp cultural divide between regions. That said, over the past few years I’ve noticed that more and more of my students begin their study of the Civil War on the high school level with an appreciation of the role that slavery played in the events leading up to and following Lincoln’s election.

I think this is important to keep in mind given the controversy surrounding the upcoming Secession Ball that has been planned for Charleston later this month as well as future events.  If we listen too closely to the voices that populate our mainstream media we are likely to be bombarded by a language that divides rather than one that is more likely to reflect where we are in our understanding of these important historical issues.  Tonight (5pm) Chris Matthews will interview the SCV’s commander-in-chief on the Secession Ball.  I have no idea who he will be paired up with, but I can guarantee you that we will learn next to nothing about popular perception.  Rather, we will be entertained by watching one side duke it out with another and we will be left with a facile reminder that Americans are still fighting this war.  Well, that may be accurate to a certain extent, but I would suggest that it is less true than it was just a few decades ago. [Update: Looks like the interview was canceled.]

In the end I am not sure how much longer we can continue to manufacture these debates.

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15 comments… add one
  • John Mosby Dec 29, 2010 @ 16:03

    It’s interesting that Slavery did not become the “reason” for the War until the 1960s. Before that it was largely “to preserve the Union.” I suspect much of the preoccupation with Slavery has more to do with the PC groupthink that rules academia today, rather than true scholarship. It fits in well with their traditional hatred of the South, their need for moral superiority, and their current political affiliations.

    Though somewhat cliched by now, the statistic that so few Southerners owned slaves is one that bears remembering, especially as one walks a place likes Gettysburg. Look at that field where Pickett’s men charged, and read the firsthand accounts of what took place there. Then ask yourself if so many would die to preserve someone else’s slaves. I’ve read thousands of letters home from Confederate footsoldiers; not one soldier mentions that he was fighting for slavery. I can only imagine what their responses would be to the current crop of “historians” and their analysis of the War.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2010 @ 3:10

      Thanks for the comment. I would suggest that the historiography of the war is a bit more complex than you indicate in this comment. I have no idea what you mean by “PC groupthink” or “true scholarship.” Perhaps you can clarify with specific references to the historiography. Finally, in reference to your point about nonslaveowners I highly recommend that you read Joseph Glatthaar’s new study, _Robert E. Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse_ (Free Press).

    • Andy Hall Dec 30, 2010 @ 7:03

      John, nearly half of free households in South Carolina owned slaves; a similar figure is true for Mississippi and several other states. The notion that “so few Southerners owned slaves” is based on narrow, legal title (usually) the head of the household; it’s extremely (and, I think, intentionally) misleading to claim the very narrow statistic you cite as actually representing the prevalence of slavery, or the impact it had on the daily lives of white Southerners. When you factor in those things we know about anecdotally but cannot easily quantify — those who hired out others’ slaves, those who conducted business based on goods or materials generated by slave labor, those who used infrastructure (roads, levees) built by slave labor — it becomes immediately clear that, whether an individual Southerner owned slaves or not, he or she came in contact with it, and benefited from it, frequently. The institution of slavery wasn’t some quirky arrangement practiced by the few; the South was a society that was economically and socially built upon it.

      More generally, your comment conflates multiple issues concerning “the ‘reason’ for the War.” South Carolina and other states, including my own, seceded from the Union because they saw the North (and Lincoln and the “black Republicans” specifically) as a threat to the institution of slavery. We know this because they said so at the time. The Lincoln administration, backed by Congress, initially went to war to put down what it viewed as an insurrection and preserve the Union. Individual soldiers volunteered and fought for all manner of reasons, just as soldiers do today; James MacPherson has written on this extensively.

      It amazes me the degree to which folks such as yourself seems to believe that, because professional historians largely agree on major questions — such as the primacy of slavery as the underlying cause of secession and the conflict that followed – that that is somehow a cartoonish caricature of reality that lacks any real depth and understanding, that historians haven’t actually read the most of same documents you have, haven’t thought about alternative interpretations, and just generally haven’t done due diligence in looking at the evidence.

      • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2010 @ 8:18

        Although I have some problems with her interpretation I recommend Chandra Manning’s book, _When This Cruel War Was Over_ on Union soldiers and slavery.

      • Richard Dec 30, 2010 @ 9:34

        “whether an individual Southerner owned slaves or not, he or she came in contact with it, and benefited from it, frequently”

        Your comment strikes a cord with me because I look at it from a different perspective. How does a non slaveholder compete against the slave owner in business. For example, suppose I harvest turpentine in Onslow County, NC. My neighbor, the slave owner also has the same business, who will win out in the end in business? The non slave owner will eventually end up working for the slaveowner, he will never accumulate wealth or power.

    • Mike Musick Dec 30, 2010 @ 15:26

      John Singleton Mosby, the former Confederate partisan ranger, wrote to Sam Chapman on June 4, 1907, “The South went to war on account of slavery.” (Gilder-Lehrman Collection 03921.21) He wrote much the same thing to others, stating that if there was any other reason for the war, he never heard of it.

      • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2010 @ 15:33

        LOL…Thanks Mike. I’m not sure that this is what our reincarnated Mosby wanted to here. Happy Holidays to you and your wife.

    • Mark Jan 3, 2011 @ 8:10

      From CWM:


      You’ve been warned repeatedly re: the way you address fellow readers of this blog. You will no longer be allowed to comment on this site. I welcome readers who are interested in your views to visit your blog.


  • Ole Roy Dec 9, 2010 @ 10:22

    You made a good over all setting of this issue Kevin. I have noticed the regional differances on this issue have become lessened or blurred over the past 30 years which I see as a result of our more mobile society.

  • Mark Dec 8, 2010 @ 17:29

    Oh really? Can you show me a text book — ANY text book — that mentions the violent efforts to SPREAD of slavery as being the basic history of the US from 1800-1860?

    If there is ONE text book in the USA that even mentions the Southern Ultimatums to spread slavery, which were proudly and loudly bragged about in the South, and called “THE TRUE ISSUE” in Southern newspapers, I will eat it.

    I have watched my kid’s history books over the years (four kids, years apart) and noticed how pathetically poliltically correct they all are. Some even claim the South was trying to free the slaves, in time. None, not one, tell the basic truth that the war camem about because the South’s insane demands for the spread of slavery AGAINST the will of the people.

    Its not only not mentioned in your text books, various bits of BS are there instead.

    If you can’t teach the truth — because it’s too awful — don’t teach anything. Don’t teach utter nonsense.

    I don’t expect grade school children, many who are students at schools named after Robert E Lee, to learn that Lee tortured 13 year old children, and sold their infants, and kept a Hunting List of slave girls, in his own handwriting. I don’t expect them to learn in grade school that Lee was obsessed with the capture of one young girl, and paid six times the normal bounty for her, and then had her tortured, and then sold her baby.

    You could wait till high school to teach them these awful truths. But at some point, they should learn. Learn that the Southern leaders insisted God ordained not only slavery, but the torture to DEATH of slave women, and that God ordained even the sexual obedience of slave women to their master.

    At some point, we should teach the awful truth. And we should not parade these vile men as some god-like heroes, when they were anything but.

    You don’t have to wash the dirty laundry, but the real clothes should be shown, somewhere.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 8, 2010 @ 17:34

      Once again I ask what this has to do with the subject of this post? I was simply commenting on our tendency to distinguish between different ways of interpreting secession based on regional identification. Discussions with my students suggest that this is no longer the case. Again, did you bother to read the post? I am a high school history teacher so I can’t comment on what kids use at the lower levels, but everything I’ve seen reflects the latest scholarship in the field. I’m not sure what else I can say given the content of the post.

  • Mark Dec 8, 2010 @ 16:05

    Did someone here say slavery had little or nothing to do with the Civil War?

    Are you afraid to look at, and acknowledge, the South’s own Ultimatums, the South’s own documents, the South’s own speeches, the South’s own books, the South’s own Declarations, from that period?

    Because the South’s own Ultimatums, the South’s own document’s the South’s own speeches, books, laws, and declarations said it was about slavery. Over, and over. And over.

    Loudly and proudly. Until, that is, the South lost. Then there was a completely different tone. As Confederate John Mosbey said, in effect “Of COURSE it was about slavery — after we lost, everyone made up lofty excuses why we fought, but at the time, I never heard any reason other than slavery.”

    Mosbey pretty well captures the entire phoniness of Southern “scholarship” about the Civil War.

    How do we know the violent spread of slavery was the sole reason for the Civil War?

    Well, the Southern leaders said so. Loudly, proudly, at the time, collectively, repeatedly, by deed and by word, by their own documents, their own Ultimatums, their own promises and threats, their own undeniable assertions, their own books, their own speeches. Their own leaders, speaking on the record, and collectively, said it.

    By their own declarations before during and after the war.

    Deeds speak louder than words, and in their deeds, they said it was about the spread of slavery as well.

    You do have a point, however pathetically twisted it is. The North did not fight to end slavery, any more than the FDR and the Allies fought to end the Nazi death camps. FDR and the allies never fought back against Japan and Germany to end the death camps. They fought back because Japan and Germany had attacked the USA – and threatened more attacks.

    The South attacked the US — and promised more attacks. Before they attacked, however, they issued their threats, and their ultimatums. When Lincoln refused to comply– they attacked.

    Lincoln would not obey their ultimatums, any more than FDR would obey Hitler. By necessity, Lincoln fought back, and by the grace of God, he kicked royal butt, and ended slavery in the process, just as FDR ended the death camps in the process. But FDR’s goal at the start was not to stop the Death Camps. Lincoln’s goal at the start was not to end slavery. But FDR ended the death camps, and Lincoln helped end slavery.

    By your logic, FDR and the Allies didn’t care about the death camps, because they didn’t fight the war to end them.

    Want proof what the Southern leaders were demanding? Easy enough — read their demands. Only, they called them Ultimatums.

    I have a sneaky feeling you don’t show the Southern ULtimatums in your history classes. I have a sneaky feeling you could not possibly do it.

    Check out the South’s own ultimatums. I didn’t write them. The Southern leaders did.

    Im not surprised you have no clue what the Southern Ultimatums were. These are among the many things the South has just pretended never occurred. Wouldn’t you WANT to know what the Southern Ultimatums were?

    First Ultimatum — to spread slavery AGAINST the will of the people in the territories (they meant Kansas).

    Have you read the Ultimatums?

    Have you read the gleeful Southern newspapers reporting the Ultimatums as “The TRUE ISSUE”?

    Go find your Southern Ultimatums. Your leaders issued them. Your newspapers gleefully reported them as “THE TRUE ISSUE”. Why aren’t they in every Southern edited text book? It was the South’s own Ultimiatums, how could you not mention them? How could you not put them on the COVER of your own history books? They were YOUR ultimatums. They were praised in YOUR Southern newspapers.

    Why not show what they were?

    The Southern newspapers bragged them up, as “THE TRUE ISSUE” . New York papers reported them. Lincoln refused to respond to them. Why don’t you report your OWN Ultimatums?

    Were the Ultimatums some last minute nutty demands by the South?

    Hardly. These were the exact demands the South had made for sixty years. The Ultimatus were just the articulation of the basic history of the USA from 1800-1861.

    And why you are at it, check out the Cornerstone speeches (yes, more than one) Jeff Davis broadside of Jan 5, 1863, and Lee’s handwritten account books.

    Without further ado, I present you the Southern Ultimatums, with my comments in ( parenthesis).

    Richmond Enquirer

    Saturday Morning, March 23, 1861

    The True Issue

    ….. The Northern States have driven the Southern States out, the Northern States must bring back the Southern States. ….. The ultimatum of the seceded States is left in no uncertainty; it is to be found in the solemn action of the Montgomery Constitution and may be analyzed as follows:

    1)That African slavery in the Territories (Kansas) shall be recognized and protected by Congress and the Territorial Legislatures. (Keep in mind, Kansas had just voted 98%-2% against slavery, and fought a four year war aginst slavery.)

    2)That the right to slaveholders of transit and sojourn in any State of the Confederacy, with their slaves and other property, shall be recognized and respected.

    3)That the provision in regard to fugitive slaves shall extend to any slave lawfully carried from one State into another, and there escaping or taken away from his master.

    4)That no bill or ex post facto law (by Congress or any State,) and no law impairing or denying the right of property in negro slaves, shall be passed.

    5) That the African slave trade shall be prohibited by such laws of Congress as shall effectually prevent the same…………..

    ===================== END QUOTE

    The SPREAD of slavery — against the will of the people. That was the issue. There was not a single word except about slavery. No word about taxes, no word about tariffs. No word about state’s rights.

    In fact, each Ultimatum was a direct assault on states rights. No state had the right to make any decision about slaves, or rights for blacks, or rules about slavery in their own state. In fact, Kansas must accept and respect slavery — by force. No state could decide any issue about slavery. No state could give blacks any rights whatso ever. No state could decide what happened to blacks in their own state!

    The Ultimatums were a violent assult on state’s rights, as much as it was a violent threat to spread slavery.

    Learn more

    • Kevin Levin Dec 8, 2010 @ 16:43

      Exactly who are you responding to with this comment? Perhaps you should go back and re-read the post. No one is denying that slavery was not at the center of the push toward secession. This is just as bad as the nutty rants that one hears from the other side.

  • Andy Hall Dec 8, 2010 @ 13:33

    In the end I am not sure how much longer we can continue to manufacture these debates.

    For a while, I’m guessing. The broadcast media is very focused on framing every question as two opposing viewpoints, and tends to shoehorn complex topics into that format. It tends to dumb down issues, and rewards Argument Clinic-style tactics. It rewards verbal fireworks. You really have to be a tinfoil hatted-loon not to be able to get face time on cable news. “Most scientists believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun. You disagree, Professor Huffenpepper, why is that?”

    I see your update that the interview has been canceled. That’s possibly even more interesting. The SCV representative didn’t do that well on Olbermann with the Virginia textbook controversy for those who were actually paying attention; I wonder if someone took the C-in-C aside and explained that the effete, librul, Yankee media were going to make him look bad. Again.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 8, 2010 @ 13:48

      I read that it had more to do with wanting to give more time to taxes, but who knows. Perhaps it will be rescheduled.

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