Forgetting Slavery

To mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War -- April 12, 1861 -- the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans on their view of the war's legacy and released the results Monday. On the whole, they weren't particularly surprising. More than half of Americans say that the war is still relevant to politics and life, a plurality of Americans agree that it is inappropriate for public officials to praise Confederate leaders, and most people don't have much of a reaction when they see the Confederate flag displayed.

But when Pew asked participants about the origins of the Civil War, the results went from mundane to surprising. Not only do a full 48 percent of Americans say that the Civil War was "mainly about states' rights," but among those younger than 30, a whopping 60 percent agree with the assessment. Pew notes that seniors are the only other age group in which more say that states right caused the war, and even then, only 50 percent of seniors agree with the statement. Given the general association of "states' rights" with conservatism, and generally liberal views of younger Americans, this is astounding.

Why does this matter? The virtues of historical accuracy aside, it's vitally important that Americans remember the centrality of slavery to our history. If there's anything genuinely admirable about this country, it's in our ability to account for and overcome our mistakes. To whitewash and sanitize our account of the Civil War is to diminish the United States and the qualities that make it great.

Civil War historians disagree on many things, but there is a general consensus surrounding the reasons for the war, and slavery is at the top of the list. To be fair, it would be inaccurate to say that the Union went to war to free slaves or even prevent the spread of slavery. But in the decade preceding the Civil War, American political life was virtually dominated by slavery as an institution. The preceding decade began with the Compromise of 1850, which opened the possibility of slavery's westward expansion, and concluded with a border war in Bleeding Kansas, where Northerners and Southerners battled over whether Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a free state or a slave state. In between came Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which sold 300,000 copies in its first year, outraged slave owners, and fueled abolitionist sentiment throughout the North; the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and allowed settlers to permit slavery by popular vote; the Supreme Court's infamous ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which established that "a free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a 'citizen' within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States"; and John Brown's antislavery raid on Harper's Ferry.

When war finally came, Southern secessionists were straightforward about their reasons for leaving the Union. Mississippi's declaration stated, "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world." South Carolinians were careful to note Lincoln's hostility to slavery in their declaration, and, when it was time to form a government, Confederates enshrined slavery into their Constitution.

With the evidence so heavily stacked in favor of "slavery" as the main cause of the Civil War, how is it possible that 60 percent of younger Americans believe a revisionist account, in which slavery was an ancillary concern for Confederates who primarily fought to preserve their "liberty" (presumably, to own slaves)?

For starters, the country itself remains divided on the cause of the Civil War. How one views it depends a lot on geography and race. As Pew notes, 52 percent of self-identified Southerners believe that it is appropriate for politicians to praise Confederate leaders, and 49 percent of Southern whites see states' rights as the war's main cause.

Indeed, these divisions have been in place as soon as the war ended. Southerners, with little opposition from a war-weary North, began to perpetuate a mythology of the "Lost Cause," in which the South was a noble defender of its land and traditions. Until relatively recently, this view was well represented in historical scholarship and popular culture: Two of the most popular literary sensations of the early 20th century, The Clansman and Gone With the Wind, borrowed heavily from this mythology.

Predictably, this cultural trope has carried over to the nation's classrooms. For example, according to standards adopted last year by the Texas State Board of Education, Texas eighth-graders are expected to "explain the issues surrounding causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states' rights, and slavery." Likewise, in Virginia last year, a fourth-grade social-studies textbook was recalled because it asserted that African Americans had freely fought for the Confederacy, a claim made to minimize the relevance of slavery to the war.

During a similar controversy last March -- when Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia announced Confederate History Month, with nary a mention for slavery -- The Washington Post noted that teachers have a fair amount of leeway in how they teach the Civil War, which can mean an emphasis on "states' rights" and "economic differences" over slavery and sectionalism. This is especially problematic in parts of the country where Robert E. Lee is held in high esteem, and the Civil War is known as the "War Between the States."

That so many young Americans believe a revisionist account of the Civil War is, if anything, another sign of our collective refusal to deal with our difficult past. Slaves built the White House and fueled Wall Street, but we want nothing more than to forget slavery and the central role it played in our nation's history. For now, this is difficult. After all, in historical terms, slavery is relatively recent (or, as comedian Louis CK joked, it's "two 70-year-old ladies living and dying back to back"). But Americans refused to deal with slavery and its legacy before, and they can again.

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