Why we can’t be honest about the Civil War

By Alan Bean

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a new Harris Interactive Poll suggests that 54% of Americans believe the South seceded over states rights, not slavery. 

That would have been news to the folks at the helm of the Confederacy.  Consider this lead quote from A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll provides results almost as skewed:

When asked the reason behind the Civil War, whether it was fought over slavery or states’ rights, 52 percent of all Americans said the leaders of the Confederacy seceded to keep slavery legal in their state, but a sizeable 42 percent minority said slavery was not the main reason why those states seceded.

“The results of that question show that there are still racial, political and geographic divisions over the Civil War that still exist a century and a half later,” CNN Polling Director Holland Keating said.

When broken down by political party, most Democrats said southern states seceded over slavery, independents were split and most Republicans said slavery was not the main reason that Confederate states left the Union.

Republicans were also most likely to say they admired the leaders of the southern states during the Civil War, with eight in 10 Republicans expressing admiration for the leaders in the South, virtually identical to the 79 percent of Republicans who admired the northern leaders during the Civil War.

A recent TIME essay asks why Americans, 150 years after the shooting stopped, are so unwilling to admit that slavery was the primary issue and why so many white Americans identify with the Lost Cause.  David von Drehle points out that for twenty years after the end of the civil war, most Americans, North and South, were too traumatized by the carnage to ask hard questions about what it was all about.  Then came a self-serving treatise from Jefferson Davis arguing that the South fought to preserve a treasured way of life against Yankee aggression.  The myth of the Lost Cause was born and has never died.

The essay asserts that prior to the end of the Second World War, American historians (and Hollywood producers) showed great sympathy for the Southern position and that the assumption of black inferiority shaped the mainstream academic consensus until the 1950s. 

Von Drehle doesn’t argue that most soldiers in gray were consciously fighting to preserve slavery or that most Yankee soldiers were fervent abolitionists.  But he reminds us that the Founding Fathers left it to later generations to work out the slavery issue.  The North and South muddled along pretty well until the age of western expansion raised the stakes. 

Ultimately, he suggests,

The Union and slavery had become irreconcilable. The proposition on which the revolutionaries of 1776 had staked their efforts — the fundamental equality of individuals — was diametrically opposed by the constitution of the new Confederacy. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition,” explained Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. In other words, the warring sides had stripped their arguments to first principles, and those principles could no longer be compromised.

It is refreshing to hear VP Stephens telling it like it was.

I can’t help feeling that our contemporary prophets of American colorblindness, 50 years on, will sound very much like the bigoted Ivy League historians who so recently took up cudgels for white supremacy because the price of doing otherwise was unacceptable.

8 thoughts on “Why we can’t be honest about the Civil War

  1. Why? Because most Americans are intelligent enough to know that you cannot distill a complex issue down to a single reason. It is very similar to the initial attempt to explain away the Tea Party Movement as racism. Every finding of fact shows that the movement is complex and is motivated by many diverse issues and emotions. Likewise any serious investgation of the people who lived in the South from 1840-1870 reveals that their thoughts, motivation, and feelings about succession and the subsequent war were so diverse that they cannot be simply categorized as the desire to maintain slavery as an institution. If you read the journals of soldiers and politicians, the desire to maintain slavery is not what you come away with. No doubt, slavery had to go. That the War was the way of Providence is something we want know in this life. The moderate-liberal need to put everything into a tiddy box and tie a ribbon around it is silly. Their need to control what people think about present or past events as evidence of some type of societal evolution is even more silly.

  2. The problem with the angle given here is like so many and really most writtings on the War and Slavery, it comes at one angle. This war was not a one issue war. Ask the following questions if you really want the truth:
    1) What was the North fighting for?
    2) What did the majority of Northeners have a a postion on Slavery
    3) How were people treated in the North ( workers / immigrants/ etc)
    4) If Slavery was a main issue why did so many in the South fight for something they had little part of ( ie: only a small percent of Whites owned Slaves in the South)
    5) If the war was over Slavery, why did Lincoln sign West Viginia in as a Slave state during the war
    6) Why did Lincoln only free Slaves in Area in rebellion and not the whole South
    7) If the war was over Slavery why did Slave States Fight against Slavery?

    I have more, but perhaps you see my point. If you truly want to talk about the truth of the war consider my questions. Plus while your at it, perhaps we should take the log out of our own eyes before we go after our ancestors. It seems really wrong to allow 1000s of babies to be aborted, and still support slavery in action today by shopping at stores that sell products made by vertual Slave Labor and under harsh conditions.


  3. Every country in the world has had slavery at one time or another and I see no need for America to apologize for having had it. Now that any chance of my engaging in sanctimonious mea-culpas is out of the way, know this – there did not have to be a war at all. The issue was not slavery, the issue was the South’s right to go its own way in peace. Many Southerners, including Alexander Stephens, repeatedly said, “all we ask is to be left alone.” The North doggedly refuse to honor that request. Let the South go, don’t launch an invasion of her sovereign soil, and you have no war. As one Confederate private said to his Yankee captor, “go home and tend to your own business and leave us to ours and this war will end tomorrow.” Bottom line, don’t invade the South, let it go in peace, and there’s no war and no 620000 dead. There’s your “honest” appraisal of the war.

  4. Brother Alan Bean,

    Keep on searching for answers, but in your search – if truth is really what you seek – then you must move beyond your prejudices and pre-concieved notions.

    1st, you go about this with the very common mistake, which is to believe that secession equals war. NOWHERE in the history of the universe does peacefully departing from a mutually agreed upon association (secession) mean death, murder and war. In all factuality, you have just STRENGTHENED those examples. Secession has never meant war – look at what just happened in Sudan!

    The proposed Corwin Amendment to the US Constitution strongly supported be President Lincoln in his 1st Inagrual Address of March 4th 1861. The resolution of the US Congress on July 25th, 1861 as to why the war was being fought. Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley on saving the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation EXEMPTED freeing slaves in New Orleans, Norfolk, Portsmouth, York County, and parts of James City County and Williamsburg Virginia, West Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Lincoln’s words to the 3 distinguished gentlemen from Wisconson in August 1864 that his sole reason for the war was to save the Union.

    There are numerous other examples of this, but you will have to leave the old bias. I hope only the best for you in discovering these most important facts.

    Thanks and God Bless

  5. Well said Mr. Thornton. This writer has a very narrow understanding of the war. Let it suffice to say that had Lincoln not invaded the new southern nation there would have been no war…and slavery would ended, as it ended all over the West, peacefully.

  6. Excellent Rex! I hope other people read your comments because they are far more intelligent than the usual brainwashed utterings we see in the article.

  7. Mr. Bean,
    Wow, where to begin. From looking at your information, it seems that you care about people, and are Christian. Most Confederates I know feel the same. Why we can’t come to a consensus about the war is simply that we have been lied to about our history. For 150 years we have been taught the lies the North invented to cover their crimes. Satan is the father of all lies, and therein lies the rub.
    I’m sure, like most, you were taught that the South seceded to protect slavery and that the North invaded the South to free the slaves. Both of these are factually wrong (making them lies) Sources for this information would be Gen. Grant and Pres. Lincoln. I think they knew more about what was going on than so-called historians today. The problem is that both the North and South had slavery, and Lincoln wanted to make slavery permanent, if the South would only stay in the Union. Why did he want the South in the Union?
    The South paid the vast majority of the tariffs at the time, and this money feed the federal government, which spent the money on Northern infrastructure. Lincoln’s backers were big banks and big business, who benefited from this arrangement. When the South seceded, they wished their Southern brothers well, and were quite happy to see them go their way…UNTIL the South passed a very small tariff (a Constitutional one, by the way, compared to the Unconstitutional one Lincoln supported). A week after wishing the South well, the North rose in anger and wanted to destroy the South (this would include slaves, by the way) It wasn’t the lure of keeping slaves that brought the South back into the Union, it was the high tariff that drove the South out. (at this point, if the North wanted to end slavery, why didn’t it. It not only continued, but when W. Va. was illegally admitted to the Union, it was as a slave state. So much for fighting to free slaves)
    The North didn’t even have slavery on its mind until a British publication suggested it use the war to end slavery (this was during the second year of the war) even though slavery was ended peacefully in almost every Western country. You begin to see how the slavery argument doesn’t hold water….in fact, it leaks like a sieve. So why did this become the story line adopted after the war by the victorious North.
    One reason the North didn’t push slavery as an issue was that it wasn’t a popular position. Virtually everyone at the time viewed Africans as inferior to whites, Lincoln chief among them. Whenever the slavery argument was stressed, desertions rose in the Northern ranks. By the end of the unpopular war, many regiments of Yankees were actually German mercenaries, who spoke no English. Many of these were Marxists escaping from failed revolutions in Europe, and wanted to help Lincoln create the strong central government he was working to build.
    When you talk of States’ Rights, you have to look at our history. The British Crown made a peace treaty with 13 Independent states. These states created the federal government. Lincoln and his regime claimed that the federal government created the states. Today, we see this as ludicrous, and the South, along with many in the North did also. Lincoln was a mercantilist, following in the steps of Webster and Hamilton. Big business, big banks, corruption in government, protectionism all follow this thread of American history. You also see there are few proponents outside of those who benefit. Lincoln was actually a very wealthy lawyer, another fact they don’t want you to know.
    Now let’s see who is on the other side of history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Hancock, Paul Revere, James Madison, George Mason, Patrick Henry, John C. Calhoun, John Taylor of Caroline, Jefferson Davis, Judah P. Benjamin and a lot of others. It is easier to defend those who wrote the Constitution and defended it, than those few who sought to subvert it and change the form of government in America.
    However, the side with the most guns often wins. That happened here, and we lost our Republic and have become an Empire. Just like Rome, it has entailed a gradual loss of liberty, and though not apparent at times, a loss of wealth and values. (well, not wealth if you’re one of the fellows sitting behind certain desks in N.Y. or D.C.) Jeff Davis said, Truth, though crushed to ground by overwhelming force, remains the Truth.
    The time has come to return to the values of our Confederate ancestors and Founding Fathers. You can see the movements springing up around the country. (one of the biggest secession movements is in Vermont) Tea Parties, 10th Amendment, Nullification, States’ Rights, State Sovereignty can all help us return to a time when liberty was real and government did not have the power of life and death over citizens. That is what keeps those who favour a strong central government of unlimited powers from agreeing with those who view government as constrained by a Constitution. Jefferson and Madison said man is sinful and cannot govern himself…so how can he govern others. Their answer was to limit what the government could do. They saw the Constitution as a chain on the central government. (my question is who gave them the hacksaw?)
    There are Biblical questions that bear on these views of government. The 10 Commandments say we should not steal, but that is what the government does every day. It says we should not lie, but again the government does it every day.
    I hope this helps you understand why people have disagreements over these issues. I have spent almost 25 years studying this, and learning the truth about history. There are a lot of pastors involved in these movements, trying to get Biblical and Constitutional principles back in our government. I’d be glad to help you if you would like more information, or lists of references that I recommend. Please feel free to contact me.

    Brett Moffatt

    (865) 805-3801

  8. Brett, it is not we that have been brainwashed, it is you. Your arguments seem to lie on the following claims:

    1. That the South seceded in response to unreasonable tariffs and the desire to be “left alone” rather than slavery. This is incorrect, as the South defends slavery as a “divine institution” in one of the states’ constitutions, and prohibits any state in the Confederacy from banning slavery. In addition, the Confederacy can make absolutely no ethical claim of being unfairly taxed or intruded upon, when they are repeating the same treatment to a far more severe degree to their slaves.
    2. That Lincoln was the puppet of big businesses and banks, when the South was an aristocracy of big planters essentially controlling all of the land and money, followed by poor white farmers who did not own slaves but still supported slavery for racist reasons (and the fear of competition from freed blacks), and slaves at the bottom. Both the North and the South had a rich, elite, corrupt ruling class. The difference is that the North’s poor men and women were still free, whereas the South’s were not.
    3. That the North cannot be seen as the good guys because some of the border states owned slaves. This is a false dilemma fallacy; all but four of the Northern states had banished slavery, but none of the South had. Explain that to us while you wave your Confederate flag. Also feel free to list any Southern abolitionists, woman’s suffrage advocates or any “radicals” that were indeed hundreds of years ahead of their times, as most liberals turn out to be. History is inherently liberal. The four border states chose not to secede; what do you expect, that Lincoln forcibly kick them out because they owned slaves, or force them to abolish slavery, thus enticing them to secede, surrounding DC with a hostile state and losing a large portion of the North’s industry? The Union cannot kick out a state.
    4. That the old days were the days of liberty and equality, blahblahblah. The old days were the days of segregation, lynching, violence against gays and non Protestants, no minimum wage, opposition to science, and various other evils that we today have not eliminated, but have controlled. There is a reason why judging people from the past, even great men like Washington, does not look favorably on them; because our standards have incalculably gone up. You want to relive the old days? Go to the middle east. They still run their government on 6000 year old principles. We are enlightened.
    5. That the Confederacy was noble. It wasn’t. The Confederacy was among the most evil nations ever invented by man. While other nations had slaves, the Confederacy seceded solely for the purpose of protecting the institution? Don’t believe me? Just read their constitution. It’s disgusting and reeks of some of the most disturbing and blatant hypocrisy of all time.

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