Lindsey takes the wheel in this week’s #SkepticalTuesdays post, in which she calmly explains that yes, the American Civil War was, indeed, primarily about slavery.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard or read something similar to the phrase “history is written by the victors,” I’d have a much smaller student loan balance right now (assuming that student loan officers accept payment in nickels, rather than broken human souls). It’s a very convincing phrase, and evokes images of conquering armies crushing foreign lands, burning their books, and rewriting history in a way that makes them seem like avenging angels instead of genocidal jerks. But as Professor James Loewen points out in his Washington Post article, that phrase isn’t entirely accurate when it comes to a specific section of American history: namely, the Civil War. Instead, the case seems to be more along the lines of “the people who write history become the victors.”
After the Civil War ended, the Southern states embarked on pretty much the most (regionally, at least) successful PR campaign in history. Even better than the De Beers company inventing the idea that you need to buy an expensive ring with a stone that they just so happen to sell in order to get married.
This is why now we have more monuments to Confederate troops than to Union troops in Southern states, have phrases like “the War of Northern Aggression” and why in an age where we have access to all the information in the world on the same devices we use to lose at Candy Crush we are still having arguments about whether the Confederate flag stands for “oppression” or for “heritage.” (Hint: it stands for oppression.)
For history revisionists, like cigarette salesmen, the catchphrase seems to be “Get them while they’re young.” There’s a thriving industry in pro-Confederacy children’s books (and there is a sentence I never thought I’d have to type). With titles like Honest Jeff and Dishonest Abe, and storylines like “that time that Jefferson Davis kindly ‘adopted’ a slave boy,” the books paint a rosy picture in which Confederates are noble, brave figures of paternal virtue, and Union soldiers are belligerent aggressors who deliberately misunderstood and misrepresented the belabored South before setting it on fire. That Abraham Lincoln, man. What a freaking jerk.
But it’s one thing when certain parents buy their children historically inaccurate books, and thus pass on their misguided ideas in a controlled and limited form. It’s another thing when these types of ideas get enshrined in textbooks and passed on as official history to millions of students. Like what’s happening in Texas. Our story starts in 2010, when the Texas State Board of Education passed some ultra-conservative new education standards. The changes included touting the influence of conservative “thinkers” like Phyllis Schafly and Jerry Falwell, downplaying the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, and replacing the word “capitalism” with the phrase “free enterprise” (because who doesn’t like “free” things?) Among the most worrisome of the changes was the desire to downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War, reframing it (as Confederate-ophiles have been doing for over a century) as an issue of “states’ rights.” NPR replicated the rather succinct disagreement at the heart of the issue:
One side of the debate: Republican board member Patricia Hardy said, “States’ rights were the real issues behind the Civil War. Slavery was an after issue.”
On the other side: Lawrence Allen, a Democrat on the board: “Slavery and states’ rights.”
Or as I’ve heard it explained, “It was about states’ right to own slaves.” If you don’t believe me, ask the Confederate states themselves. Or at least, the Confederate states as they explained themselves during their moves to secede. In the “Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede From the Federal Union,” Texas explained:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
Mississippi straight-up said that its “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.”
But yeah, it was totally about dignity and states’ rights.
It’s bad enough when grown adults, who have access to books and the internet, and at least some ability to discern fact from fiction insist on decorating with Confederate flags, insist on a narrative of “states’ rights,” and ask questions like “Did the slaves here appreciate the care they got from their mistress?” (That is a real thing that happened). All of that is terrible enough. But when those incorrect and harmful beliefs are passed onto impressionable children, children who won’t learn for years (if they ever learn—those Confederate flag wavers had to come from somewhere) that they have been lied to about one of the most pivotal, and most shameful, periods of our nations’ history, that is just inherently, and morally, wrong. We will never have the conversations that we need to have, the reckoning that we need to have as a country, if we raise our children in ignorance about our racial history. And since Texas is the second largest textbook market, and often influences the rest of the country’s education decisions, that ignorance is likely to spread.
Now that’s a terrifying thought.
Lindsey Hanlon is a writer and librarian living in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as well as a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to explain that the American Civil War was, yes, mostly about slavery, she studies gender in comics and popular culture.