It may have taken five months, but I had my first "Holy crap I live in the deep south" moment today.

OK, my second. The first was seeing an advertisement for an Uncle Remus museum. OK, third. There was also that time at Hartsfield Airport when an old white woman got off a shuttle bus and handed her luggage to the first black guy she saw irrespective of the fact that he was a fellow passenger and not a luggage porter.

I digress. The following is my first HCILitDS moment in the classroom.
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Yes, that should hold.

It turns out that all of the jokes up north about the way the American Civil War is taught in southern schools are…well, not jokes. My students, almost all of whom are from Georgia, South Carolina (First in Secession, Last in Everything Else!tm) or Tennessee, informed me that the Civil War was not caused by slavery. It was caused by economic differences between the North and South. And states' rights. And a principled debate about state sovereignty. And the inherent tension resulting from the cultural differences between North and South.

Fortunately this was in an honors class. Most of the students are able, regardless of ideology, to understand that they had been on the receiving end of a comically awkward attempt at historical revisionism. But not all of them. One student earnestly pressed me, noting that he had been taught that "slavery" is a facile and incomplete answer to a complicated social-political conflict. I noted that this was an outstanding question, and in fact the sharpest students are inevitably those who refuse to accept superficial answers and insist on digging deeper.
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It warms my heart to see undergraduates exercising critical thinking skills and questioning The Man.

That said, the Civil War was caused by slavery.

Yes, states' rights was an issue. Namely states' right to maintain slavery. Yes, there were contentious economic differences between North and South, such as the fact that the entire Southern economy depended on cotton which in turn depended on slavery. Yes, there were dramatic cultural differences between North and South that made the Union a strained marriage. For example, in the South some people owned other people.
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That was a pretty big difference.

I rarely find myself arguing against intellectual subtlety, but the way this is taught in southern schools appears to go several steps beyond self-parody. This simply isn't a puzzling historical dilemma. Charles Sumner (who survived the infamous cane-beating on the Senate floor at the hands of South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks in 1856 because of his fierce anti-South rhetoric) said it best 150 years ago:

There are two apparent rudiments to this war. One is Slavery and the other is State Rights. But the latter is only a cover for the former. If Slavery were out of the way there would be no trouble from State Rights. The war, then, is for Slavery, and nothing else. It is an insane attempt to vindicate by arms the lordship which had been already asserted in debate.

Indeed, Chuck. Indeed. I assumed this to be common knowledge and my image of how the War is taught in the South was nothing but partisan Yankee humor. But now I understand quite clearly that the War of Northern Aggression is a peculiar issue down here. Quite fitting, given the Peculiar Institution that precipitated it.
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41 thoughts on “THE CULTURAL DIVIDE”

  • Good opportunity to demonstrate again the importance of original source documents. Get them to read the Articles of Secession (roughly the south's Dec. of Independence) where it's shown that to the southerners at the time it was pretty much slavery driving their actions.

    Then repeat with Osama bin-Laden's writings on why al-Queada acts as it does. Turns out they don't really care about America's putative freedoms-no, it's America's policies and actions in the Middle East that drives them.

  • I'll be the one to quote it, so we can all move on:

    "What was the cause of the Civil War?"
    "Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter–"
    "Just say slavery."
    "Slavery it is, sir."

  • Yup. Do explain to this bright student Occam's Razor, and that in many cases the simple answer to a large question isn't complicated. in fact, complication is merely obfuscation.

  • The traditional way to demonstrate the Slavery -> Civil War relationship is to quote the speeches and proclamations from the various secession conventions, where each state declared themselves quits from the Union. The right and importance of maintaining slavery above all else shows up again and again and again, and abstract arguments about "state's rights" are almost wholly absent.

    Also good for a laugh is wondering where the state's rights fan club was in the 1850s, when the government passed intrusive Escaped Slave Laws that ran roughshod over Northern states' sovreignty. Oh, that's right – they were the ones pushing those through.

  • This should give you a glimmer of hope. Just a glimmer, but whatever.

    Down the road here in Augusta, the city was approached about supporting a whites-only basketball league (jokes write themselves, so I won't bother), which is "not racist," but is to take the game back from "the colored people" or something.


    They approached Augusta and our white Republican mayor politely told them to get bent and go fuck themselves and die, albeit in his mayoral way.

    I was like okay, there's one tiny glimmer of hope.

    But fuck this part of the country, srsly.

  • The mayor of Augusta should have made a counter suggestion of a blacks-only golf tournament at one of the courses in the area. Unfortunately, I imagine his membership is too valuable to make such an absurd jape.

  • I went to college (in PA) with a woman from Virginia who always called it The War of Northern Aggression. When my boyfriend asked her who fired the first shots at Fort Sumter she insisted it was "the Northerners." It took a lot of convincing (and maybe even a Google search) to change her mind.

  • What I don't understand is why the South insists on revisiting and celebrating the Civil War (or The War of Northern Aggression) when it was such an utter crushing defeat. It's like they are celebrating getting their asses kicked. If any of them want to join "Good Hair Perry" and secede, let'em go and good riddance. By next summer I hope to be back in the States (MI), hopefully the only time I'll see the South is when I want a break from the snow.

  • Yes, unfortunately the stereotypes of southern hicks that cling to racism for dear life are not exaggerations. Welcome to Georgia Ed! Every one of us that was raised in a Georgia School has been taught, in some cases (such as mine) rather vehemently, to never reduce the civil war down to an issue of slavery. But those of us with some intelligence were never fooled by it — sure it was about States' Rights™, specifically states' rights to continue slavery.

    But it's just part of the larger culture down here that still wishes we were all living on plantations and watching the colored folk working the fields. A lot of people like to claim there's no more racism in America, but they've obviously never lived in semi-rural Georgia where, upon moving into a new neighborhood, your kindly neighbor nonchalantly warns you about "them niggers up the street", as if that kind of 'warning' wouldn't offend your sensibilities. I ordered a pizza once, back in college, and the guy was really, really late, but I figured I'd tip him a buck or two anyway — we all have shitty days. He apologized for his tardiness and thanked me profusely in his deep southern drawl, and told me that a lot of people didn't tip him in cases like that. I replied that, eh, different people see things differently, and sometimes things happen.

    "Well you know what it is…" He leans in real close, "It's because they're BLACK." With heavy emphasis.

    @Kulkuri: The south insists on revelling in the Civil War because they see it as one more way to rebel in the subtle ways they can against an oppressive central government that won't let them own other people and refuse to serve black people because of their skin color. There is still an entire section of the population down here that really hates the government simply because they're now forced to treat black people as actual people.

  • I've always preferred to call the war "The Recent Unpleasantness". But seriously, we probably need another war fought on our own native soil, at least for a month or two, so that the Teabaggers, conservative warpussies, etc. get an understanding of what REAL strife, turmoil, and tyranny is like. Probably help out some of the rest of us too, come to think of it. "Oh yeah, so that's what it's like for things to truly suck".

  • Ah, yes, this reminds me of college. I was shipped off to TN from CT to attend Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. Among the things that I 'learned' from other students: the civil war was about states' rights and certainly not about slavery, dinosaurs and humans lived together (my roommate), evolution never happened but you need to study it to get into med school (girl in my course on evolution), I'll certainly go to hell just for asking questions that could cause someone to doubt something they were taught about Jesus and his magical powers, black people have special leg muscles and special tendons in their legs that explain why there are so few white players in the NBA (friend whose dad was a doctor), this anatomical difference might help explain why black people do not swim and cannot play hockey (same friend whose dad was a doctor), and the anus was not built for reproduction and that's why homosexuality is wrong but it is not appropriate to ask same friend whose dad was a doctor about sex with mouths and hands even though that was what I seemed to see happening when I went into his room without knocking to retrieve my books. Who knows. Some of these people were ignorant enough that he could have been engaged in a good faith effort to make a baby. My fellow students would also speak of the war of Northern aggression and were shocked to learn that those of us from places like CT weren't still talking about it. To hear us talk about it, it was as if the North never raided the South over abstract principles having to do with state sovereignty. Oh, and it took one week for me to hear that malt about Thermopylae ("As at Thermopylae, the greater glory was to the vanquished") and I heard it from a faculty member. I don't think he was being ironic.

  • I was born and raised in rural Florida before my family escaped the South in a balloon during the Carter administration.
    As for the Civil War, anyone who doubts that slavery was the reason that the war started need only look at the Confederate constitution or Alexander Stephen's infamous Cornerstone Speech of 1861 to know otherwise.
    And while slavery was the central cause of the war, freeing the slaves wasn't. What the ruling elites in the North feared was another major economic competitor in North America – southern states with slavery was a major irritant, an independent southern nation with slavery competeting for foreign markets was intolerable.

  • I-95 Runs North says:

    Upon arriving in Richmond, VA – admittedly not the deep south, but the capitol of the confederacy – I had my holy crap moment within my first hour or two in the commonwealth. I was standing in line at a convenience store behind a black woman who was trying to help out the clerk by providing exact change. When I approached, the toothless, cloven-hoofed, inbred piglet greeted me with, "Can you believe that stupid fucking n- bitch?" It took me a long time to process this statement. Ultimately what struck me was the fact that this subhuman took one look at me, a white male, and just flat out assumed that I would be complicit in his racism.

    I lasted seven years there before 9/11 brought this born and bred Manhattanite running home. I've had numerous people from the deep, deep south beg me not to judge the entire south on the basis of R, VA, which they viewed as exceptionally toxic.

    Most of my neighbors in R, VA referred to the "War for Southern Independence" or – alternatively – otherwise it was referred to the "War AGAINST Northern Agression." Oh, and the agrarian v. industrial argument was the most popular canard.

    The pity is that I actually liked many things about Richmond and VA. If only it's natural beauty wasn't outmatched by the repulsive attitudes of much of its citizenry.

  • Then again, I have seen racist attitudes among white folks up in Yankeeland that would make their Southern cousins blush.

  • Professor Fate says:

    1) Someone, I forget who, postulated this little thought experiment re the causes of the Civil War. If you removed slavery and left everything else exactly as it was – does the south secede? Not Likely. No slavery no war.

    2) "What the ruling elites in the North feared was another major economic competitor in North America

  • The Declaration of Causes for Texas Secession is an illuminating document. It reveals three things:
    1: As we've established, States' Rights and hostility to Federal intervention were epiphenomenal to the central cause of preserving Slavery (which, incidentally, the southern states had successfully done by instrument of the United States Senate for decades, during which time the Federal government was A-OK as a dictator of national economic and social policy).
    2: The ONLY way in which secession could legitimately be attributed to causes other than slavery (and surely not an attribution your students have been encouraged to make) would be to attribute it to the ideology of white supremacy in which slavery was embedded and through which both slaveowners and the other whites, who hoped one day to be rich enough to own slaves, viewed the world. In this worldview, the justification for secession was resistance to a conspiracy of Yankees, Mexicans, Indians, and rebellious slaves whose intention was to foment rebellion, murder all whites (raping the women first) and pass laws compelling the survivors to engage in interracial sex. Really. These, IN THEIR OWN WORDS (and not the words of smart-ass Yankees), were the reasons Texans presented to the court of world opinion to justify armed separatism from the United States. Jonathan Swift could not have supplied a better parody.
    3: This worldview meshes so perfectly with the current Beckian worldview that I suspect some sort of wormhole running through the "former" Confederacy.

  • Ok, I've got to get prepared for the shitstorm I'm about to unleash on myself, but I feel compelled to weigh in.

    Yes, I went to high school and college in the south (I'm not sure if people are counting Florida as part of the deep south, but I'm laying all my cards on the table), but I think we're confusing issues surrounding the war and the overall causes of the war. We're all in agreement that slavery was one of the principal causes that precipitated the war, but the overall dispute surrounding states' rights (and the right to secede in particular) was something that had been ongoing since the Constitution was ratified. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were arguing about this issue well before the Civil War started.

    Let's take this exercise to another war that always makes American hearts beat a little faster – World War II. Is it possible to water down the outbreak of WWII to a single cause? If you can, I would like to hear it. Most educated people are of the mind that such complex and wide-ranging phenomena, like armed conflicts, can not be explained by a single variable; even if it is as apparent as slavery or the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

    Frankly, I'm a little surprised that given all the educated people that read this, they're so quick to make a close-minded, or adhere to a close-minded, argument like this. Yes, slavery was the motivating factor for the south (but not the north), but the overall issues of the Civil War, including but not limited to slavery, were born out of many unresolved issues resulting from the founding of the United States.

  • How bout them Dawgs?

    Ahh, Georgia stories; kinda makes ya wonder what Ray Charles was remembering when he sang Hoagy Carmichael

  • ok, three times now… I must be submittedly challenged

    How bout them Dawgs?

    Ahh, Georgia stories; kinda makes ya wonder what Ray Charles was remembering when he sang Hoagy Carmichael’s song.

    Even as a child, I was struck by my late grandmother’s – bless her heart – qualitative statements. She really was a sweet lady and apparently quite open-minded for her generation but she never failed to distinguish, for example, “Johnny, that worked at the gas station…” from “Johnny, the black boy that delivered the paper….” The first Johnny was of course a white man.

    I’ve often wondered whether her habit was a sub-conscious effort to illustrate that she associated with Black people more readily than her neighbors or if it was just another polite example of racism. Without going on and on about it, suffice it to say that her nature really did make this a valid question. She wasn’t wealthy, was not from a wealthy background – there are no plantations in our family tree – and she wasn’t poor, but she was widely respected across all class, racial and social lines in the small town where my dad grew up and she lived until she died.

    As for Ed’s Deep South epiphany, out here in Shrub’s hometown, or Laura’s, though the sign on the interstate lists them both, you wouldn’t detect much difference in Texans and Georgians contrived beliefs about the Civil War and we get to include the whole Alamo/San Jacinto/ Mexican thang; a double dose of dumbass.

  • If you go Rhodes College in Memphis and get them to pay for a part of your tuition, can you legitimately say that you got a Rhodes Scholarship?

  • Scott,
    I've heard that argument exactly once: from my brother-in-law who, while a good guy with no racial biases I can detect, insists on the "War of Northern Aggression" paradigm of the Civil War. And I read history books for a living.

  • "If you go Rhodes College in Memphis and get them to pay for a part of your tuition, can you legitimately say that you got a Rhodes Scholarship?"

    I can't, but they can/do say that sort of stuff all the time.

  • Good points, Scott. I think we can identify a lot of causes but not weight them all equally. Was there historical debate about the right to secede? Yes. Did it become a point of contention independent of slavery? Sure. The nullification crisis of the 1820s-30s was an example (and ultimately about depressed cotton prices, and therefore not completely independent of slavery as an issue). The first explicit effort at nullification predated that, though (the Negro Seamen Act (giggle) from 1823)

    If we wanted to boil WWII down to a single explanation it wouldn't be impossible (the Armistice that concluded WWI or, more generally, the rise of fascism would do in a pinch). Would they be the complete explanations? Or the only ones? Nah, we could come up with plenty of others. But wouldn't a lot of them come back to that?

    It was a deep historical argument but no matter what other avenue we pursue – nullification, tariffs on cotton, states' rights, whatever – none of it can really be separated from slavery or the need to maintain the legality thereof. This post probably makes my opinion on the subject seem more simplistic than it is, but every explanation I've heard comes back to the same point.

  • Thanks for the cogent, reasoned response, Ed. I thought the probably of a "you're a racist and a dumb southener" shitstorm arising out of my comments was pretty high.

    The issue of slavery and the Civil War have become so intertwined that it's really hard to tell where one begins and the other ends sometimes. Slavery is something that was so integral to the Southern culture and economy that anything you point to involving the South's involvement in the war will be connected to slavery to some degree. With this being said, what always struck me about the Civil War was how ambivalent the Northern political and military leaders were about the issue. Of course there were some, like Sumner, that fought against Slavery itself, the Lincoln Administration fought the war to reintegrate the rebel states and viewed the abolition of slavery as a means to weaken the Southern economy. If one side of the conflict didn't view slavery as the major instigating factor and even some within the Confederacy (Robert E. Lee's views on slavery are ambiguous at best) saw it as an issue of states' rights instead of slavery, saying the only cause of the conflict was slavery is short sighted. Was slavery involved, obviously. Are there other explanations, yes. Does examining both sets of explanations give us a much richer and nuanced explanation of the conflict, yes.

    My only point about World War II is that, while the rise of fascism in Europe does explain outbreak of war in the European theater, it does a poor job of explaining Japan's or the United States' involvement in the conflict. European fascist thought is different from what was going on in Japan politically during the interwar period. The Treaty of Versailles also doesn't explain why Japan and the United States (who were allies during WWI) were adversaries in WWII. WWII, just like the Civil War, shouldn't be boiled down to one simple explanation.

  • Japan's subjugation of "inferior" races who had their stuff (oil, generally: the stuff that fueled their navy) was very similar in intent to Germany's goal of subjugating "inferior" races and taking their stuff (which was more extensive than that sought by Japan, but like Japan's enemies included oilfields, colonies, and many other resources.) So in a way, World War Two was about racist nations seeking to control resources through various degrees of enslavement. That's pretty much all of history, though some nations fought on the good guys' side.

  • Grew up in Sacramento, California.
    Was taught, in high school, that the Civil War was not directly about slavery, and that *that* was a misnomer. Northern states had legal slavery at the start of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves…it freed the slaves in Confederate states *that did not return to the Union*. (And, in fact, did not free slaves in border states, like Delaware and Kentucky, which hadn't seceeded.)

    Regardless of revisionism and spin, I think it *was* more complicated.

    And if there's anything the kid's need to learn, it's that it's nearly *always* about the money.
    (So, yeah, a lot of it had to do with the Southern States' economic dependence on slave-supported cotton and tobacco growing. But the civil war wasn't about cotton or tobacco…)

    I think the confederate states seceded because of Lincoln's platform of prohibiting the expansion of slavery into new states. And I think that one of the consequences of the Civil War was the abolition of slavery. But I don't know when you've dug far enough to say the "root cause". Was the civil war about slavery? Or *was* it about the economic disparity that would result from abolition.

  • I think it was in the book Reconstruction by Eric Foner that I read a description of Southern plantations as "forced labor camps." That really put a whole new spin on the South's peculiar institution for me. It doesn't sound nearly as genteel and mint-julepy as "plantation."

  • Whenever a Southerner pulls the "states rights" line on me, I point out that the state of Massachusetts asserted a right to free any slaves who escaped to its soil. The federal Fugitive Slave Act soon put a stop to that. States' rights, my ass. The civil war was, is, and forever will be a war of people who thought they had the right to own other people against people who did not.

  • I'm no political science major, but I've always thought pointing to a single reason why a war was caused is rather silly. A war isn't a conflict between two singular entities, but between hundreds of thousands or millions of people, and each one has a slightly different reason for fighting.

  • Ed –
    I've taught this subject in American history classes several times, but thankfully all in the North. I'd recommend trying to get them to read a great book written by William Barney, _The Making of a Confederate_, about an elite southern plantation/slave-owning family in North Carolina. The main character, Walter Lenoir (the irony of their name meaning "black" in French is rich) contemplates divesting himself of slaves because he's morally opposed to it (because its power relationship corrupts whites) and moving to Minnesota. He draws up plans to move in 1858/1859, but he stays and joins the Confederate Army. It's very good – very complex, yet at its core Lenoir's life is oriented entirely around the "peculiar institution." RF Durden's _The Gray and the Black_ examines southern debates about emancipation, and is good too. And it's helpful to also have them examine the debates in early 1865 in the South about using slaves in the Confederate army. And finally, getting them to talk about the "Redeemer" governments in the 1870s and the establishment of Jim Crow, the Black Codes and the Klan, and the "Corrupt Bargain"/Compromise of 1877 really forces them to extend their thinking about slavery as the cause beyond JUST the "War of Northern Aggression" (as I'm sure you refer to it now, right?). Because the craft of history *IS* about analysis, but you can't pass beyond the contemporary sources and evidence, which seem to suggest that your students may be overlooking how southerners at the TIME felt – that they had to preserve slavery, just as you say, in the guise of state's rights.
    It is ultimately HIGHLY complex, but does seem to have significant support for defending the position that indeed, the war was at core about slavery. Of course, you could redeem yourself in their eyes by questioning, legitimately, I believe, that the South didn't actually LOSE the Civil War. Or, rather, they lost the military and political phase of it, but won the cultural phase of it.

  • interesting post. I'm from chicago, my wife from knoxville tn. Years ago I had to explain to her brother-in-law that my forebears were still in germany in 1861. Same for the Poles, Italians, Etc, who also lived in big northern cites. The civil war just doesn't resonate in the north the same as in the south for that reason. I mostly avoid these conversations…

    Slavery was the driver of the southern economy. You can talk about all the political and social reasons, but it alls comes back to the slave economy driving those issues. I recommend James McPherson's "battle cry of freedom" as a good summary source on this topic. great read. there are obviously thousands of books on this topic, but most agree on the slavery issue being the primary cause.

  • xjmueller-
    The irony of today's worship of all things Confederate by the mountain folk of Southern Appalachia is that back during the war there was such resentment of the Confederacy that many mountain men took up arms against it, either by joining the Federal army or fighting as guerillas.
    They saw through the sham of the slaveowners' " revolution" and understood they would gain no benefit from it.

  • States rights…small central government…these are the main themes of libertarians and republicans, and it is, to me, the civil war debate 140 years later. When I hear someone say 'states rights'. I think slavery. The person is advocating states be allowed to own others. That is all of it. Small central government crap is the same argument, the central government should not be able to tell a state they cannot own others.

    As a lifelong Southerner I can say with some authority that the 'defeated nation' psychology is rampant down here. The contradiction involved in waving, simultaneously, the rebel flag and old glory, in effect a Patriotic Traitor, has twisted the minds of minds already twisted enough to base their whole economy and world view on forced labor. Good Christian People.

    Just accept it and get over it; the Civil War was about slavery. Libertarian and Republican ideology is also an attempt to revisit the issue.

  • I'd like to challenge this, actually. Note that I am from Ohio, and have a thoroughly Northern education.

    Slavery, yes, was the central issue. But the South's economy was based on slavery because of imposition from the North. We essentially kept them from industrializing. They were caught in an export market – produce raw goods (mainly tobacco, cotton, and sugar), and ship it north, where it would be manufactured. They would then have to buy back the manufactured goods, which obviously cost more than the raw materials. They were bleeding money. We've seen the same thing with pretty much all of Latin America since the first days of colonization. Adam Smith wanted this for the newly-formed United States as well. But of course he'd want that – he was a Brit. Looking around the world, the countries with the strongest economies are all those (with the exception of Canada and Australia) which closed their borders and industrialized. Without the basic infrastructure allowing for production and self-sufficiency, one becomes dependent on the markets of the countries you're exporting to. The South was stuck in this cycle. Hell, we wouldn't even let them have a piece of the Transcontinental Railroad.

    All that being said, of course the war was about slavery. But the underlying factors are hugely important in the prevalence of slavery and the reluctance to leave it behind.

  • There is revisionist history on both sides of this debate. I can assure you that what Northern schools teach their kids about reconstruction is much different that what southern children learn. I don't know how many times I've had to explain what a carpet bagger was when I was having conversations about the Bush family.

  • Sorry to disappoint you, but your thesis is flat wrong. The Civil War was caused by the Confederate attack on Ft. Sumter.

    Certainly, slavery was a primary cause of the schism in our country at that time. There were many strident abolitionists at the time, one of whom you quoted, who put the blame on slavery. They were as radical then as anti-aborionists are today. John Brown was considered a terrorist and was tried and executed by the United States of America.

    The South didn't have to secede. The Confederacy didn't have to attack the Fort. The United States didn't have to keep military bases in what had become a foreign country. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free one single slave in the United States. It didn't even free that many in the south. Blacks lived as virtual slaves for another hundred years.

    There were (at least) two parties to this war. To blame it all on the south is just as revisionist as you claim the south is. War was as wrong then as it is now. A peaceful solution was possible then and would have been better for everyone involved.

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