History of Transformation of Civil War Opinion
August 5, 2018 8:32 AM   Subscribe

The Civil War was fought entirely on the basis of slavery. I've just been informed of this (quite bluntly!) and it's been made clear to me that it's the only opinion a civilized person may express on the matter. So, ok, I can dutifully keep myself within civilized society by getting with this program, sure. But, in my disorientation, I'm curious about how this came about!

I was taught at college (Cornell, not Ole Miss) in the 80s that there were complex factors behind the Civil War, and that slavery was just one of them...though not a primary one. Apparently, I'm the last person to have gotten the message that this is not only wrong, but monstrously racist. Slavery was not only a major factor, but the only factor. To suggest otherwise is to invite mob attack, get yourself fired at work, etc.

Surprising! But......accepted.

I'm less interested in the historical case for this (having already read the arguments back then) than I am in the meta-history. How and when did this sea change occur, and is it like gender/racial difference research where the topic's grown too hot for any academics to "go there"? If so, what happened to professors who'd been in consensus with the century of previous mainstream opinion? Did they all either pivot sharply or else retire?
posted by Quisp Lover to Education (33 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
is it like gender/racial difference research where the topic's grown too hot for any academics to "go there"

I'm not a historian, but I do have biology training. So I'll start with this part: gender/racial difference isn't even like that!

What it's really like is that people have this story they want to tell about how bias is totally like justified and stuff because it's so very scientifical. They make bad rationalizations then get slapped down hard by scientists.

Then they go off sulking into the corner about conspiracies and political correctness run amok and how you just can't study certain things or else your funding gets cut.

Don't buy it for a second.
posted by traveler_ at 8:42 AM on August 5, 2018 [25 favorites]


... in the 80s that there were complex factors behind the Civil War, and that slavery was just one of them

The problem likely isn't people diminishing the complex factors, but that taking the "nuanced" definition of the cause of the Civil War is a very loud and obvious stance, and clear dog-whistle, of White Supremacists and those who want return to the antebellum South. Making the Civil War discussion deliberately about slavery is a relatively new stance, since racist parties have gotten much sturdier platforms and easier access to an audience of late, which allows them to try and rewrite history the way they want, and one of those is playing up those complex factors and attempting to erase the influence of slavery. So, the option to be loud and undeniable in the opposite "It's All Slavery" direction is a way to go, rather than being pushed to say you agree with the White Supremacists over nuanced arguments.

So, I'm not saying what you learned in the 1980s is wrong, but it's a stance used by racists to try and backtrack over what the Civil War was about -- they try to focus on the "complex factors" but act like slavery wasn't what put the conflict over those complex factors into place.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:51 AM on August 5, 2018 [37 favorites]


I think it is possible there were different reasons for each of the two sides. I think part of the change you see may be due to using primary sources rather than secondary sources.
Reading Confederate VP Stephen's "Cornerstone" speech, it's pretty clear what the issue was for the south.
1861 Speech by Stephens
posted by rudd135 at 8:58 AM on August 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


I was taught in the 1980s in Canadian Universities that Slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War, among such other nuanced causes such as views on economic tension between the land-owning wealthy/everyone else, and states’ rights. I was taught there were religious differences between North and South where some organized religion were actively against slavery (protestents and Catholics in the Commonwealth), some believed slavery was biblically supported (baptist) and that there were some leftover tensions from the earlier revolutionary war (sorry, I don’t remember what those specific tensions were though) and impacts of the US failure in the War or 1812 (again, sorry I don’t remember why). But basically it boiled down to slavery was bad and a war had to be fought to stop it. This is all going off memory and I have not really thought or read about the civil war since. Perhaps the global view of the civil war, separate from the view that Americans have, is influencing the American view, right or wrong. When we studied it we also looked at a lot of primary sources, including a lot of writings from former slaves that escaped to Canada and contemporary newspaper accounts from both the north and the south. We didn’t have a textbook or anything that gave an over-arching narrative.
posted by saucysault at 9:10 AM on August 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


Thanks, AzraelBrown. So what are non-racist, mainstream historians teaching? Have they all pivoted to the position that doesn't coincidentally put them in league with racist idiots? What a strange position for academics to find themselves in!

rudd135, as I said, I don't want to re-litigate the actual issue, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the notion of one speech (however important) defining a widespread and complex movement. Also, I'm quite sure the massive scholarship on this issue did consider primary sources. Which is not to say their conclusions were right, of course!

Traveler, thanks for the correction. So the hypothesis of differences is suspect to begin with, since the notion is, to you, provably untrue. But isn't that circular? If not, would it be proper to study the truth of it, from a neutral perspective? Is anyone doing so? Would you be ok if they did?
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:10 AM on August 5, 2018


Were you actually informed that mobs are motivated by academic consensus, or are you perhaps mischaracterizing the nature of what was expressed to you as a matter of mob rule and academic sang froid and objectivity, when instead it may have been about prevailing popular resolve against racism and white supremacy?

A fundamental issue is that the U.S. never went through the equivalent of de-Nazification with regard to slavery and white supremacy; the consequence being both persistence and repeated resurgence of white supremacy and an urgency in resisting its current reinvigoration.
posted by XMLicious at 9:12 AM on August 5, 2018 [37 favorites]


Traveler, thanks for the correction. So the hypothesis of differences is suspect to begin with, since the notion is, to you, provably untrue. But isn't that circular? If not, would it be proper to study the truth of it, from a neutral perspective?

So is there some politically correct cabal out there preventing people from studying why the sun is cold, or why things fall up?

I'm pretty sure the mods frown on using askme is a place for back and forth discussion. I suggest you do some googling about the causes of the civil war. Hopefully you were trained at Cornell to evaluate sources. I suggest you look at trends in the types of sources that hold the different positions. Neo Confederates and extreme right wingers love to argue that it wasn't about slavery.
posted by natteringnabob at 9:34 AM on August 5, 2018 [33 favorites]


One other thing that occurs to me, since you use the term “non-racist”, is: would the sorts of historians you're thinking of actually anoint themselves or their teaching as free from racism? Perhaps the willingness or unwillingness to do so over time would be a more enlightening trend to examine, a meta-meta-historical phenomenon more closely tied to the reactions you describe to marginalizing slavery as a cause of the Civil War.
posted by XMLicious at 9:39 AM on August 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


I'm no expert, but this article on what historians have been saying about civil war causation suggests that the consensus is absolutely that slavery was central. It is also chock full of nuance. Lots of good leads on the historiography for you. The last few paragraphs are useful for framing how historians think about popular conceptions of the civil war.

Your premise that the arguments have not changed much since the 80s is pretty shaky, by the way, especially considering that what you were being taught could well have been reflecting consensus from the 60s or 70s, assuming you were in an undergrad survey course.
posted by col_pogo at 9:45 AM on August 5, 2018 [14 favorites]


The article What Twenty-First-Century Historians Have Said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature by Michael E Woods (Journal of American History, Volume 99, Issue 2, 1 September 2012) might help with this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:22 AM on August 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


In brief there's a big difference between saying (A) "slavery wasn't the cause of the Civil War" and (B) "slavery was the root cause of the war, and there's a lot more detail we can get into -- about how exactly that shaped up, how other factors interacted with that, what else was going on, etc -- to fill in a more complete picture". Historians are saying B, not A.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:29 AM on August 5, 2018 [22 favorites]


You're kind of asking two different questions: when and why did popular attitudes about explanations for the Civil War change, and when and why did academic researchers' explanations about the Civil War change.

The first has been answered above. As for the second, as col_pogo mentioned, the term you want is called historiography - the study of how history is written, why it's written that way, and how it changes.

You seem to be working on the assumption that the change you've noticed anecdotally is the result of some kind of self-censorship and attempt at political correctness. I think that's not an accurate assumption when you're talking about serious academic historians. Some of them are ideologically motivated, but many really are looking to understand, to dig up new sources and see what light they shed, and to test their hypotheses in a scientific-method kind of way. If a historian sitting in an archive found Jefferson Davis's secret diary saying "we're all pretending it's about slavery to troll the North but really it's because we have a secret deal with the Canadians" - that would excite the historical community to no end, not to mention make that historian's career. And Ken Burns would have a good reason to make a new edition of his documentary!

Consider that your assumption might be backwards: that reading through the primary sources of the day (which are plentiful online, you can spend a few years reading through them yourself) shows a pronounced emphasis on slavery compared to anything else. In which case the question would be why earlier historiography didn't reflect that.
posted by trig at 10:36 AM on August 5, 2018 [41 favorites]


It may be getting off-topic to have a big long thing about this. But no the differences are studied, quite extensively. It's just that there are two stories about it: one that the academics tell, backed by their research, that can only be summed up as "it's complicated".

Then there's the story that—well I'll just flat out say it—the bigots tell. That story is tidier, driven by seeking out sources that confirm their existing views, and protected by a shell of "this is the truth that the Powers that Be won't teach you because they'll lose their jobs!" You know, Bell Curve stuff.
posted by traveler_ at 11:05 AM on August 5, 2018 [7 favorites]


Here’s a way to think of it: as an ethics instructor, there are a handful of premises I start with which I assume my students share; namely, that genocide, slavery and intentional killing are all wrong. No debate needed, we can use these as examples in reducto ad absurdum arguments, we can evaluate why they’re wrong but always with the view that we will be coming to the same conclusions.
I’ve changed this recently, in response to the political climate. Rather than exploring the nuance which follows from these assumptions, I find myself needing to return to the first premises—genocide is fundamentally unacceptable etc. Undergrads, man.

So there’s likely a similar type of thing happening here, with added bonus cultural identity stuff. I also learned in public school that the American Civil War was, sure, about slavery buuuut here’s all these other (secondary!!) effects and causes, with a downplay on how secondary those really were...because (imo) it was assumed we already knew the connection between the big bad of slavery and those procedural, federal, interpersonal secondary concerns. This was a mistake, to be clear. I ended up a young adult focused more on the trees than the forest, knowing the details of the arguments taken to the fed and local governments better than how they fit together under the umbrella of slavery. My teachers presumed I already had cultural access to the arguments contra slavery, so we talked instead about the legality of secession, what economic factors led to an attempt to find external allies for the slave owning states, the invention of the cotton mill...all knock on effects of the fundamental position that slavery was acceptable.

Luckily I ended up reading billions of other things, and concerned more with critical analysis of history than merely the disjointed pieces presented to me. But I did spend a long time in that same space as you, confusing state rights with the issue (the right TO...what? oh right encode legal slavery), confusing the muddy issue of succession with the rationale for such a split (reinstatement of escaped former slaves to states where their status was not recognized), the destructive march through Georgia vs the arguments for total war against human rights abusers...etc.

This is not a shift to being more PC, this is a shift in pedagogy to include the nuance in the context which was underrepresented, to link the effects to the cause in more detail and clarity, and yes, to silence the white supremacists who capitalize on those details being the primary causes mistakenly forward in most people’s perceptions.
posted by zinful at 11:07 AM on August 5, 2018 [16 favorites]


I think people are being too hard on you. There were scholars in the not too distant past who did have different opinions on the causes of the Civil War, where slavery did in fact play a less important role. E.g. this review article from 1986 (available through Jstor), which blames the war on a 'psychic crisis' in the South:
In light of these findings, the efforts of historians to devise overarching, inclusive rationales for secession in terms of Dixie's ingrained agrarianism, conservatism, or (more recently) planter-class "hegemonism" appear to possess only limited validity. Instead, post-1970 state studies suggest that the South's attempt to leave the Union derived impetus from antagonisms within the region, from stresses exacerbated by rapid economic growth with its attendant social complexities, governmental activism, and class stratification. Racial nightmares provided the leitmotif for political radicalism, but the conflicting interests of planters and yeomen, urbanites and countryfolk, Democrats and Whigs, elitists and egalitarians, the young and the old, served to shape and direct the secession movement as well. Echoing Richard Hofstadter's well-known interpretation of American expansionism in the 1890s, therefore, it does not seem unreasonable to argue that the upheaval of 1860-61 stemmed, in large measure, from a broad-based and multifaceted "psychic crisis." Beset by internal schisms, white southerners sought to restore community and cohesion in their own ranks by attacking common foes: first abolitionists, then Republicans, and, at last, the federal government itself. Seeking unity by destroying the Union, they plunged into the ultimate irony of their irony-ridden historical experience. ("Secession and the States: A Review Essay" by James Tice Moore, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 94.1 (1986): 60-76)
posted by crazy with stars at 11:22 AM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


So what are non-racist, mainstream historians teaching? Have they all pivoted to the position that doesn't coincidentally put them in league with racist idiots? What a strange position for academics to find themselves in!

As LobsterMitten says, they're generally more careful in their arguments to distinguish any "It wasn't 100% about slavery" to make it clear that the White Supremacist looms who also say that sort of thing are making a fundamentally different argument.

I get what you're saying but I think part of what is happening here is that the mainstream "How it's okay for educated people to talk about this stuff" has shifted. People have access to a lot more information. Historians as a group are significantly more diverse than they were even a generation ago (and there is a lot of institutionalized racism at the heart of why that was) and are creating and insisting on a more thorough look at wtf is up with the Civil War and just how much not just slavery but racism was at the heart of what was going on (this is complex since of course slavery is racist but there were a lot of other racist views of the world that were not undone when slavery was undone and continue to inform bad policy in the US and elsewhere).

This, coming at a time when we're seeing a resurgence of Confederate flags and the dingdongs who are fighting for their rights to fly them and you have to be more careful about how you talk about a complex topic. You see this in other disciplines. So things that we know because of science:

- vaccinations are not 100% safe (but are exponentalliy safer that the world without them)
- rape is about power more than sex (but it's a lot more complicated than that)
- genetic variations that can align somewhat along what we call "racial lines" or sex lines (mostly useful to either SRS BZNS scientists or garden variety racist/sexist creeps)

So people who think they are being edgy will make these types arguments without the understanding of the entire scientific underpinning to back it up and it's like a new kind of wrong. And mostly the people who do this are people who have a jerk point to make: racists anti-vaxxers, incel types. And it's hard because the other people who make these points are low-social-skills nerds who don't realize just how wrong it is to wade into an argument with anti-vaxxers and be like "Well, actually they have a point..." and then get resentful when people get annoyed because they are technically correct (vaccinations are not 100% safe but usually no one is saying they are). And then you have an angry nerd on your hands when you're just trying to talk about science. You see it on MetaFilter all the time. So that is what this is about.
posted by jessamyn at 11:30 AM on August 5, 2018 [46 favorites]


First, it's absolutely true that no event in human history as large and complex as the American Civil War has ever had a single unitary cause. But among the causes of the ACW, slavery occupies a central place. It's basically impossible to talk honestly and comprehensively about any of the other causes without reference to it. Sure, states' rights was an important talking point in antebellum politics, but the issue that kept inflaming the states rights conflict was slavery. (And it's hard to see Southern leaders as principled defenders of states rights when most of them were actively pushing for a Fugitive Slave Act that used federal power to force free states to deploy their law enforcement resources in defense of the institution of slavery). And the clash of economies was an important factor, but the single most salient difference between the Northern and Southern economies was that one of them kept a third of its participants in permanent, brutal bondage to a small elite. And so on and so on. No matter what aspect of the causes of the war you want to talk about, you have to work really hard if you don't want to talk about how slavery provided the context that shaped it.

And yet there have been a lot of historians who have been willing, even eager to put that work in. Literally going back to the war itself there has been a powerful strain of profoundly disingenuous historiography aimed at exculpating Confederates by claiming that the war wasn't about slavery. This started with the Confederates themselves. As soon as it became clear that the Federal government wasn't going to be trying and executing Confederate leaders en masse, figures like Jefferson Davis and Jubal Early started writing books and articles and giving speeches about how the Confederate cause had never been about slavery, often in direct contradiction of their own public writing and statements before and during the war. And they basically won. By the 1890's this was the dominant historical narrative about the ACW: that nobody was right and nobody was wrong, and it was all a great tragedy to be deplored. Historians read primary sources of course, but they chose to focus more on sources like Jefferson's autobiography, and less on contemporary sources like old newspaper articles or the proceedings of the secession conventions (which were probably harder to get a hold of). And there were powerful cultural and political reasons that this explanation was easier to accept.

So saying that the cause of the ACW was slavery is reductionist and oversimplified. But if you're asked to give a one-word explanation of the causes of the ACW, "slavery" is definitely the least wrong answer. And there's a long history of people trying to deny that fact. Or to use an analogy: if you're talking about the shape of the Earth, "round" or "spherical", while technically incorrect, is close enough for anyone who doesn't have a professional or personal reason to be very precise about the matter. And if you go around loudly telling people who think that Earth is spherical that they're just plain wrong, they might be forgiven for thinking that you're some sort of Flat Earther. (Especially if there are actually a lot of Flat Earthers running around and saying exactly that).
posted by firechicago at 11:34 AM on August 5, 2018 [35 favorites]


Surprising! But......accepted.
I'm less interested in the historical case for this (having already read the arguments back then)


this is a very confusing question. you were just informed of this generally accepted position, it was surprising to you, even though you already understand the historical reasoning and copious evidence and have since your college days? you accepted it, just like that, but you don't understand how the rest of the world could pivot as quickly and, I have to assume, sincerely as you just did yourself?

fwiw I am at least a decade younger than you, maybe a couple, and when I was in public school in New York state in the 80s-90s, the go-to example clarifying the meaning of historical 'states' rights' sloganeering was the Fugitive Slave Act. it was thus made clear to us -- with historical citations, not through assertions of ideology -- that those who rallied to this cause were solely concerned with southern states' rights, as expressed through the will of voting & legislating (so, white male) southerners. it was the natural and indeed the only inference to be drawn. we did not come to believe that it was all about slavery because anybody said that -- I don't recall any discussion about some one-sentence cause of the war, in those terms; none of my social studies teachers were very excited about it or trying to get us to profess anything in particular -- but because every allegedly nuanced and complex issue regarding state laws or economics or trade or class was connected to slavery. I don't remember how early this came up but I certainly got a clear-ish picture before high school.

there are geographical differences in how U.S. history is taught; I went to an ok school in a region with abolitionist roots a few centuries back, [1] but these things vary all over the place, and they may have gotten worse since my day, such that people have to be fiercer and more declarative because there is more revisionism around to push back against. but enough people had my kind of basic history education before college that we could go into upper-level courses with the basics already down. so, programming/deprogramming was not a big issue; I was aware there were still Southern partisans in the way I was aware there were still Holocaust deniers, but they had lost the traction they have since regained. the historical record leads to certain conclusions if it is presented without too much distortion. But I also went to college in New York State. (But so did you. But again, I was a decade or two after you.)

[1] edit to clarify: the abolitionist roots are that old, I mean. the 90s are not a few centuries back even if it feels like they were, sometimes.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:37 AM on August 5, 2018 [8 favorites]


Thanks, everyone!

By chance, I just this moment came across the following tweet offering a very useful angle:


"The best sources of why states seceded are the Ordinances of Secession written by each state. They wrote what they believed. Just read them. It was about slavery"
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:49 AM on August 5, 2018 [13 favorites]


I think that perspective changes but the facts remain. As an example studying American history in Europe the Civil War was framed largely as a cultural clash between people who basically wished to continue living as land owning colonials and those who rejected that way of life as exploitative and backwards. Slavery was obviously the most central social and economic issue to that divide but there were others: economics, foreign ties, women's rights, state vs local power.

Studying history in American in the 90s and it was framed as inevitable as federalism became more established and opposed and the US economy changed. Slavery was where the unstoppable force met the immovable object in the creation of a strong US central state.

So perspective is a thing: As the field becomes more diverse the emphasis has changed to look more at the civil rights aspect, although the information has always been there. Keep in mind that in terms of the war- Northern abolitionists and women's rights campaigners were enormously important in making the abolition of slavery an actual result of the Civil War, and not something to be compromised on. They fought for militant emancipation, no compromise on treaties and then they fought for voting rights for black males. Then they started to fight for women, most of them anyway. It was one of the rare instances in history when humanists went to war, figuratively and literally.
posted by fshgrl at 12:56 PM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Here's a relevant article by the author of Lies my Teacher Told Me, about the uses and misuses of history. Sample quote:
I argue that anything with implications for the present is de-emphasized. For example, we can talk about slavery because it ended; it now has become an American success story because we voted it out and fought it out. What about racism, though? Racism was, of course, the ideological justification for slavery. Slavery and racism were tightly entwined, but while slavery ended in the 1860s, racism doesn’t just end.
posted by clew at 3:43 PM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


I can't speak for anyone else, but for my part my opinion changed on the acceptability of arguing that slavery was anything but the overwhelmingly primary cause of the civil war during the debate on the tearing down of confederate monuments.

People pointed out that these monuments were not created immediately following the civil war but in the 1900's-1920's. That's many decades later. That's when the people who actually fought the civil war were old, out of the way, dying off. It was the time of the KKK coming back with a vengeance.

Up until then, I had believed that the forgiving attitude toward the South and their motives had been a relic of a divided nation trying to reconcile with itself and seeking peace after the war. I was forced to reconsider that. Instead I have to consider that this stuff was spread and advocated by people who had no direct experience with the war. It was propaganda created well after the fact by people with an agenda utterly opposed to the principle of "Liberty and justice for all" that I hold dear.

Consequently, I now take a much dimmer view of anyone who seems like they're trying to apologize for the actions of the confederacy.

Like I said, I can only speak for my experience, but I don't think I'm the only one who had a similar change of thought.
posted by Zalzidrax at 4:58 PM on August 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


To the narrow question of when, not how, I can offer anecdotally that by the time I was in high school in the mid-90's, textbooks taught that slavery was unequivocally the cause of the Civil War. A set of "complex reasons" canards was advanced by some classmates who picked that up I don't know where, but they were evident racists or at least engaged in some pretty crummy trolling. They were not citing historians.
posted by kensington314 at 5:57 PM on August 5, 2018


I was taught at college (Cornell, not Ole Miss) in the 80s that there were complex factors behind the Civil War, and that slavery was just one of them...though not a primary one.

I'm wondering—are you talking about a single history class, i.e., part of general requirements, or was history your major? If it's the former, that's unfortunate. If it's the latter, it's a travesty and should be grounds for some kind of lawsuit.

Point of anecdata: I was born in 1954, raised in a conservative town in IL, attended a State university, and I was never taught anything other than that the Civil War was about slavery. I've heard the other versions of the years, but I had no idea that anyone—let alone the academic world, for Christ's sake—took this discussion seriously.
posted by she's not there at 5:57 PM on August 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


The notion that slavery was the central cause, but "it's complex", inexcusably dilute the issue of slavery/racism. Does anyone believe that the American Civil War would have occurred if slavery had not been a fact of life, i.e., that these various complexing issues alone would have been sufficient?
posted by she's not there at 6:16 PM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


This may seem to start off topic but it'll get back to your question soon. I grew up in the South; my parents and extended family are from the North. In fact, my mom grew up in Ithaca and went to Cornell. Growing up as a white liberal/progressive person in the South, you see examples of racism every day, especially outside of cities and liberal suburbs. You are taught about how bad the racism is and you try to fight against it because you are vigilant and know it's there. You know the Civil War was based on slavery, and that its legacy is institutionalized racism and individuals' racists thoughts and actions. People of Color in the South experience this racism every day in various ways, and it's awful.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s and traveling between regions, I found that many liberal white people in the North consider racism a "Southern" problem. It's something that exists very far away from them and people they love. However, People of Color in the North also experience racism every day in various ways because it's everywhere in the US, and it's awful. On one hand, the average person in the North does tend to be more progressive than the average person in the South. On the other, this Northern liberal privilege can be used as an excuse to not go deeper on serious issues and reexamine one's own views. I've been there but I've worked to get better and am learning more and more every day.

In other words, just because this perspective is new to you doesn't mean that it's actually new. I try to be open to new things without being defensive. It's hard but essential: I remind myself that it is my job as a white person to simply listen with open ears and an open heart, not to prove myself or defend old positions. I believe you are asking this out of genuine interest and it's a valid question; however, I also find your tone patronizing and off-putting. I also encourage you to come interview all sorts of people in the South about this and I think you'll have your answer very quickly. Also, please remember, with our president as a prime example, racists still run this country and are writing the history books. This is just one small step.
posted by smorgasbord at 7:08 PM on August 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


Fwiw I'm nearly 45 years old and never in my life have I taken an American History class where the Civil War was presented as not entirely about slavery. The message I'd gotten by the time I graduated high school was "the American Civil War was about states' rights to legally enslave humans." The only change I've noticed is that it's now way less tolerated when self-styled contrarians try to "well actually" on this topic. It did used to be a thing that people who wanted to be known as edgy free-thinkers would say, but the reason it was the "edgy, free-thinking" opinion is because that's definitely not what anyone I know was taught in school. Nowa days, if you want to be an edgy free-thinker but not sound like a white supremacist, you need to mansplain/whitesplain another topic. That has definitely become consensus.

You might be interested in the podcast Uncivil.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:31 PM on August 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


For what it's worth, I went though school and college in the 1950s 60s and early 70s and it was considered obvious by all (in all the textbooks etc) that the Civil War was all about slavery and everyone had known that from the beginning. This was at the height of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King and George Wallace etc. in the news every night --- of course the war was about slavery, for pity's sake, what else could it have been about? That explanation, besides making sense, provided the satisfaction of showing how history affected our own time.

"There were many other factors..." was not a mainstream view then and I was surprised when I heard of it much later - maybe in the 1980s. So it might be that it was just a short-lived revisionist fad.
posted by JonJacky at 7:43 PM on August 5, 2018


I suspect you may have been educated by marxist historians. (Marxist in the academic sense, not the "OMG socialism" insult, although, to be fair, there's quite a bit of overlap.) Marxist historiography views historical events as the outcome of competing class concerns. To bring it back to the Civil War, I distinctly remember hearing at some point in my education that the Civil War was "inevitable" because of the economic differences between the industrial North and pre-industrial South. That's part of the nuance you cited, yes, but it's also spurious. Why did the Southern plantation owners resist economic modernization? Because their economy, and really their whole lifestyle and social organization, depended on slavery. This is one of the major faults of marxist historiography, that it can easily devolve into simplistic economic determinism. As they say, when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Marxism is undoubtedly useful, but sometimes it misses the point.

Marxist historiography was arguably the most popular approach to history in the 80s, so it wouldn't surprise me if you were exposed to it. However, it has since declined in popularity, largely in favor of race-, class-, and gender-based methodology. It's not surprising to see that a more race-based interpretation of the Civil War is now predominant. In forty years, another historiographical approach will be popular, and we'll be thinking of the Civil War that way. I don't know if you were trained as an academic historian or not, but this is one of the main misconceptions about history as an academic discipline: non-historians see the past as a collection of objective facts, which historians merely collect and display. Academic history is more about the interpretation of the facts we know, usually to fill in unknowable gaps in fact ("why" questions in particular are usually pretty hard to answer definitively.)

I would also push back on slavery as the sole cause from another angle. I do not question even a bit that the South seceded because of the slavery issue, but it takes two to tango, and it feels a little self-congratulatory to me, as a Northerner, to say that the North fought solely to end slavery or to fight racism. It seems a stretch to me to view Sherman's burning of Atlanta as a campaign for racial equality. I mean, Lincoln didn't issue the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863, and even then it was due to strategic considerations. Each side had their own reasons.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:00 AM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]


I suspect you may have been educated by marxist historians.

....Or southern ones. Or ones that were themselves influenced by southern ones.

In the early 20th Century there was a sort of collective attempt to reform the image and reputation of the Confederate States, pitching the idea that "okay yeah so it wasn't a great thing they were fighting for, but it was an honest mistake, and that makes it sympathetic and tragic that these people died for an ultimately doomed cause, isn't their devotion heroic?" A lot of this image-upgrade was in pop culture - it's why we have Gone With The Wind, it's why we have so many Confederate monuments all over the place (most of them were put up at the same time), and there are other books and songs and movies and such that spin the notion of the Confederate States as Generally Good People Who Were Just Devoted To An Ultimately Doomed Cause.

Of course, "the Civil War was about slavery" contradicts this; so that may be where a lot of the "actually it was about states' rights" got more emphasized in the scholarship (if not where it was introduced). And, I mean, it's actually partly right - if you ignore the fact that the thing these states were wanting the right to do was, well, own slaves. But technically the bit about "it was about states' rights" was accurate. The problem is that "it was about states' rights" has been further used to gloss over the "but it was mostly about slavery" part, which in turn people have used to justify and excuse away allegations of instutitional racism, so "it was about states' rights" can sound like a bit of a dog whilstle to some. (Think like how "actually it's about ethics in game journalism" sounded in the days of Gamergate.)

What's probably also complicating things is how granularly people think about history; how broad-strokes their thinking is, versus how nuanced. That can also vary widely. And history itself being a pretty slippery fish, with a myriad of perspectives on it depending on who's talking, you can make a credible case for everyone being partly right.

And that's why i'm throwing up my hands and saying that i"m not necessarily trying to get at the truth of the Civil War here; instead, I'm trying to explain why there seems to have been such a difference between what you were taught and what this other person was taught, and why they seemed so angry about it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:39 AM on August 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


An article in today's Guardian.
posted by mareli at 10:38 AM on August 6, 2018


It seems like you are concerned about the threats of groupthink. Perhaps one of the largest lessons of the last decade is that a certain number of people will always eagerly take any measure of nuance or obfuscation of agency as fertile ground to grow incredibly dangerous ideologies, which result in the deaths of actual human beings. Vaccines have been mentioned. Flint is another example.

Since neither the South (nor the North!) have ever been held to account for their systematic forms of racism, entire swaths of our population have cherished the thought that slavery wasn’t that bad, and anyway the war wasn’t about that, and anyway a lot of slaves loved their masters, and anyway if they hated it so much why didn’t they fight back, and anyway the ones who did fight back did it in a wrong way, and anyway aren’t the Africans who sold slaves to white slavers the real villains, and anyway sometimes people were mean to the Irish also, and anyway aren’t descendants of slaves lucky to live in the US, and anyway it’s so long ago why can’t “they” get over it. Every scrap of complexity becomes a new escape hatch from the central reality.

When you see an increased emphasis on “of COURSE slavery was at the root of the Civil War”, interpreting this as groupthink is fairly naive (academics hate agreeing with each other, it is actively bad for your career). This is simply an attempt to collectively hold the line on a foundational truth that a lot of non-academics are seriously invested in eroding. When you find out that certain truths are not actually self-evident (all men are created equal, for example) to everyone who claims to swear by them, you begin to talk more loudly about those truths, and to call them truths. That is emphasis, not conformity.

You can see similar forms of reframing happening in many other disciplines, as experts realize that what they consider to be “givens” are often being ignored or elided. The Stanford Prison Experiment isn’t taught the same way now as it was ten years ago (is this behavior inherent to humans? or to the young white men who volunteered to play prison games?). The Kitty Genovese case turns out to be more about dirty cops with the NYT carrying water for them and homophobia than “a callous society”. The way we talk about J. Marion Sims as the founder of gynecology can no longer be separated from the fact that his breakthroughs were based on human experimentation and torturing live women.

Slavery was not only a major factor, but the only factor. To suggest otherwise is to invite mob attack, get yourself fired at work, etc.

I would encourage you to take this moment of reflection to reconsider this form of rhetorical framing. The people who have been subjected to actual mob attacks surrounding this issue, many of which ended in violent murders are overwhelmingly black, and descendants of the very slaves under discussion. Heather Heyer was an exception, but she was standing with them in a moment of crisis, and paid with her life. Did you hear that the Emmett Till historical marker was just shot dozens of times, again? Just over a month after the last time this happened? The performance of his ritualistic slaughter at the hands of an actual angry mob is ongoing.

The number of people who have been subjected to mob attacks for suggesting that the Civil War had complex roots is pretty much exactly zero.

If what you meant to say is that "sometimes people who say racist dogwhistles lose their jobs and/or people make mocking memes on Twitter about them", then perhaps you can say that. In the context of discussions of a war fought over the right to own, abuse, and slaughter human beings with impunity, it is important to be precise in our language and our framing.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:47 AM on August 6, 2018 [15 favorites]


Perhaps of interest in context: The Mike Wallace Interview from July 1958 of Senator James Eastland (transcript), a century after the Civil War and a couple of dozen years before the 1980s, in which Eastland (amidst a blizzard of ridiculously and terrifyingly racist and pro-segregation statements) asserts that the “War Between The States” was “caused by other reasons” (“Other reasons than the abolition of slavery?” “Why certainly.”) Wallace reacts as though it's a patently absurd statement, even if in the course of his live television show he demurs from taking the bait and continues with his prepared questions.
posted by XMLicious at 6:22 AM on August 13, 2018


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