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Even though the Civil War hasn’t receded all that far into the past—the Associated Press reported last month that two children-of-Civil-War-vets are still alive and well and receiving government veterans’ benefits!—we may not remember very much about it. This month, Ken “Burns” Jennings will reveal that a lot of what you think you know about the Civil War is a bunch of Bull Run.

Civil War Myth #4: The War Wasn’t Really About Slavery.

A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War produced this shocking finding: only 38% of respondents said they believed that slavery was the war’s main cause. Nearly half—48%—opined that “states’ rights” was the real issue, while a wishy-washy 9% blamed both equally. Even more remarkably, younger people were more likely to be slavery skeptics than older ones!

Slaves planting sweet potatoes, 1862/63

Not every “states’ rights” advocate is necessarily some kind of virulent neo-Confederate. In the South, impressions of the war are still, 150 years later, bound up with regional pride in complicated ways that Northerners find hard to understand. The justly lauded valor and sacrifices of the boys in gray are obviously easier to appreciate with misty nostalgia if we can convince ourselves that they weren’t made in the name of the most abhorrently cruel practice in American history. Secondly, there’s a modern political angle to polls like this one, with “states’ rights” having again become a much-buzzed watchword for movement conservatives in debates on subjects from Obamacare to gay marriage. It’s also possible that people today have heard so many “big picture” explanations for the Civil War (the industrial North and the agrarian South and so on and so forth) that they feel uncomfortable reducing all that to a one-word answer like “slavery.” You can see the effects of this in, for example, the episode of The Simpsons (not normally a bastion of neo-Confederate thought) in which Apu becomes an American citizen. On his naturalization test, the examiner asks him about the causes of the Civil War. Apu begins a long, nuanced answer about social and economic factors, only to have the weary proctor interrupt him. “Just say slavery,” he prompts. The received wisdom, even for a viewer with no agenda whatsoever, might be that it’s a ridiculous oversimplification to pin the Civil War on slavery.

There’s only one problem with that: an overwhelming consensus by historians today that of course slavery caused the Civil War, you dimwits. “Probably 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of serious historians about the Civil War would agree on the broad questions of what the war was about,” Princeton’s James McPherson, who won a Pulitzer for his Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom, has said, “which was the increasing polarization of the country between the free states and the slaves states over the issues of slavery, especially the expansion of slavery.” The best evidence for this is found in the states’ actual 1861 secession statements, which are full of rabid pro-slavery rhetoric and thin on high-minded “states’ rights” hand-waving. In fact, many are critical of states’ rights—specifically, the northern states’ refusal to return freed slaves. If the states that formed the Confederacy were so convinced that the defense of slavery was a necessary and sufficient cause for war, who are we to doubt them? “States’ rights” might sound more flattering in hindsight, but it’s mostly a semantic distinction. There was one particular “states’ right” that the nation as a whole deemed worthy of going to war over: the “right” to legalize ownership of another human being.

Quick Quiz: What future senator carried four southern states in 1948 as the presidential candidate of the pro-segregation States’ Rights Democratic Party, or “Dixiecrats”?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo: Slaves planting sweet potatoes, 1862 or 1863. Library of Congress.



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citrixmeister


quality posts: 0 Private Messages citrixmeister

It is, sadly, ludicrous to think that there could be a single proximate cause for any war. Obviously then slavery should be considered as one of the major causes of the civil war.

sprkmaker


quality posts: 4 Private Messages sprkmaker

Dont know the answer but i'm gonna throw out Strom Thurmond because he was old as hell and racist.

citrixmeister wrote:It is, sadly, ludicrous to think that there could be a single proximate cause for any war. Obviously then slavery should be considered as one of the major causes of the civil war.



SESteve


quality posts: 15 Private Messages SESteve

I'm going to guess Strom Thurmond.

Rolex24


quality posts: 0 Private Messages Rolex24

Yeah. I guess as you sort of summed it up. It was over states rights. The state's rights to let it's people own slaves.

Another distinction to make though is that it is indeed the reason for the war, it was not necessarily the reason people fought. Yes there were many bigoted racist plantation owners there were many that just went to fight when they were called.

It was the place they called home. And they were at war. So you went to fight if you could. There were not a lot of conscientious objectors.

gtxr100


quality posts: 0 Private Messages gtxr100

The WAR itself was about Lincoln trying to keep the Union together, in result cost over 800,000 people their lives. I love how today we idolize Lincoln and view him as such a great President even though he 1) *Suspended Habeas Corpus* 2) Illegally made Nevada a State to secure his 2nd election 3) obviously overlooked the 10th amendment 4) Only declared slaves free in the south and not in the border states...odd... Point: States had every right to secede and 800,000 people died and Lincoln is glorified.

sindaan68


quality posts: 0 Private Messages sindaan68

Decades of political disagreement, economic differences and cultural differences all summed up in one short blog post. I wish there were more like you to point out how incredibly stupid the rest of us are when it comes to the causes of war. Let me guess. WW2 was only about the holocaust right?

jai151


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jai151

GTX put it well, but let me state it even more clearly.

The SECESSION was about slavery (amongst about a hundred other issues, but yes, that was the big one). The WAR was about States' Rights (Specifically, the right to leave the Union).

gtxr100


quality posts: 0 Private Messages gtxr100

Jai... spot on.

lhbhatten


quality posts: 1 Private Messages lhbhatten

Very well put, GTX and Jai. Thank you.

aardwolf64


quality posts: 5 Private Messages aardwolf64
sprkmaker wrote:Dont know the answer but i'm gonna throw out Strom Thurmond because he was old as hell and racist.



Strom Thurmond was a Republican. The Democrats were the pro-slavery party. It can be argued that they still are, except through entitlement programs.

Edit: Oops... he was a Democrat when he was the most racist. As he got older, he became a Republican.

NascarDad


quality posts: 21 Private Messages NascarDad
gtxr100 wrote:The WAR itself was about Lincoln trying to keep the Union together, in result cost over 800,000 people their lives. I love how today we idolize Lincoln and view him as such a great President even though he 1) *Suspended Habeas Corpus* 2) Illegally made Nevada a State to secure his 2nd election 3) obviously overlooked the 10th amendment 4) Only declared slaves free in the south and not in the border states...odd... Point: States had every right to secede and 800,000 people died and Lincoln is glorified.


Don't forget how he had Maryland invaded and took over the legislative chambers to prevent them from voting to secede. I also thought the Constitution specifically prohibited creating a state out of the territory of another state, something along the lines of "no new state shall be formed within the jurisdiction of any other state", so what about West Virginia?.

mykpfsu


quality posts: 0 Private Messages mykpfsu

What Jennings seems to want to skip over is that people do not dismiss slavery as a reason their ancestors fought and died because they want their ancestors to sound better. They dismiss slavery as the reason because thats not what the vast majority of the Confederate army fought for. Your average Confederate soldier was too poor to own a single slave. Heck Robert E Lee would have lead the Union Army had Virginia stayed in the Union. So no, they did not fight for slavery.

NascarDad


quality posts: 21 Private Messages NascarDad
jai151 wrote:
The SECESSION was about slavery (amongst about a hundred other issues, but yes, that was the big one). The WAR was about States' Rights (Specifically, the right to leave the Union).


Exactly.

Meanwhile, since the victors write the history, it is unsurprising that so many historians agree with Ken's point of view.

Jertyrael


quality posts: 20 Private Messages Jertyrael

Harry Truman?

"Woot and all our various sites will continue to be an independently operated company full of horrible, useless products and an untalented jerkface writing staff, same as it ever was." -- Matt Rutledge

slothful1


quality posts: 1 Private Messages slothful1

It is possible for states to have very evil motives for seceding (i.e., maintaining slavery) while still being absolutely correct in their view that states have a right to secede.

moondigger


quality posts: 11 Private Messages moondigger

It might be instructive for folks to actually do what Ken suggested, and read the articles of secession. While individuals fought for various reasons which may or may not have had much to do with slavery, the primary cause of secession (and hence, the resulting war) was indeed the issue of slavery. To wit, if slavery was not in question, the secessions and the resulting war would not have happened.

One example, from Texas's articles of secession:

[...The northern states...] based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.


Emphasis (bold and italics) added by me.

dububud


quality posts: 0 Private Messages dububud

Remember when America kicked the crap out of all those looser southerner traitors? That was awesome! That's what you get for hating America so much that you want to leave. It makes me want to buy a navy blue dodge, paint an American flag on the roof and call it the General Grant. Now watch me jump this creek. Yee haw!!!

moondigger


quality posts: 11 Private Messages moondigger
NascarDad wrote:Meanwhile, since the victors write the history, it is unsurprising that so many historians agree with Ken's point of view.


Actually, in this case the opposite is (largely) true. Most school textbook publishers operating in the past 60-80 years were based in the southern states. If you examine social studies/history textbooks published by those companies between the 1920s and the 1990s, you will find that there was a steady shift over time from emphasizing slavery as the primary cause of the secession and resulting war to the more modern idea that slavery was but one of many causes.

Most of the expert historians who now agree that slavery was the primary cause had to abandon their earlier teachings from grade school and high school when college-level history classes had them examining primary source materials like the actual articles of secession and actual newspaper editorials published in the southern states during the time leading up to the war. These sources leave no doubt whatsoever about slavery being the dominant cause. It is only lower-level textbooks used in grade schools and high schools that have advanced the false notion that slavery was not the critical factor.

kelleydr


quality posts: 0 Private Messages kelleydr

While I would concur that the Civil war was fought over slavery, I believe that it is a mistake to dismiss other viewpoints on this as a "myth", as it is an arguable point regardless of what so-called "historians" may have a "consensus" on.

For me, the question comes down to one of whether the Civil War would have been fought if slavery had not existed. And for me, it is apparent that, no, the war would not have been fought if slavery had not existed. Certainly there would have been sectional frictions, just as there are today. But those frictions would have been unlikely to have led to war. Therefore, in my opinion, one can only conclude that indeed the Civil War was fought because of slavery.

tjamil


quality posts: 26 Private Messages tjamil

If not Thurmond, then it's George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama.

EDIT: I was wrong; I looked it up. Wallace ran for pres in 68. Thurmond is the correct answer

kylemittskus


quality posts: 229 Private Messages kylemittskus

This is the best thread ever! A bunch of people who don't actually know what they're talking about -- not having read any primary sources -- defending the confederate flag as an iconic symbol of states' rights (except, of course, the rights of opposing states to do something different).

"If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine." -Rainer Maria Rilke

"Champagne is a very kind and friendly thing on a rainy night." -Isak Dinesen

don_mynack


quality posts: 0 Private Messages don_mynack

I'm no capital "H" historian, but I thought everybody knew the Civil War was about gay rights.

idiotwind13


quality posts: 3 Private Messages idiotwind13
NascarDad wrote:Exactly.

Meanwhile, since the victors write the history, it is unsurprising that so many historians agree with Ken's point of view.



Lincoln is revered because he did what was necessary to keep the country united. There is simply no way that the United States would still be independent if he had not. We would all be speaking German, Russian, Japanese, or Chinese by now. If you think otherwise you have not thought through the U.S.'s history from the time of the Civil War through today. The easy thing for him to do would have been to let the South secede. We are the country that we are because he made the hard choice and did not.

johnnyicemaker


quality posts: 1 Private Messages johnnyicemaker
Tin Manwind13 wrote:Lincoln is revered because he did what was necessary to keep the country united. There is simply no way that the United States would still be independent if he had not. We would all be speaking German, Russian, Japanese, or Chinese by now. If you think otherwise you have not thought through the U.S.'s history from the time of the Civil War through today. The easy thing for him to do would have been to let the South secede. We are the country that we are because he made the hard choice and did not.



I agree 100%
UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL.

randomnut


quality posts: 0 Private Messages randomnut
sindaan68 wrote:Decades of political disagreement, economic differences and cultural differences all summed up in one short blog post. I wish there were more like you to point out how incredibly stupid the rest of us are when it comes to the causes of war. Let me guess. WW2 was only about the holocaust right?



A better analogy would be saying that World War 2 was about seizing Lebensraum ("living space") for the Germanic peoples.

moondigger


quality posts: 11 Private Messages moondigger
randomnut wrote:A better analogy would be saying that World War 2 was about seizing Lebensraum ("living space") for the Germanic peoples.


Neither is a good analogy, because the fact of the matter is that the cause of the U.S. Civil War can accurately be summed up this way. Without the slavery issue, it would not have happened.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

mykpfsu wrote:What Jennings seems to want to skip over is that people do not dismiss slavery as a reason their ancestors fought and died because they want their ancestors to sound better. They dismiss slavery as the reason because thats not what the vast majority of the Confederate army fought for. Your average Confederate soldier was too poor to own a single slave. Heck Robert E Lee would have lead the Union Army had Virginia stayed in the Union. So no, they did not fight for slavery.



I'm always mystified when this argument comes up from Southerners. I understand that it might ennoble individual soldiers to point out that they weren't slaveowners, but that's not really relevant to the broader historical question of the war's cause.

Let me put it this way: more than half of the U.S. soldiers who fought in Korea were drafted. Does that mean that the Selective Service Act of 1948 was the cause of the Korean Conflict? No, Korea was about Truman's desire to contain Communism. The individual motivations of the soldiers might be an interesting bit of social history, but they're almost meaningless when the topic is "what caused the war?"

I would be the first to agree that Southern soldiers were, individually, just as brave, self-sacrificing, etc. as their Union counterparts. But that doesn't make their insurrectionist government's cause honorable in the least.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

And yes, the Quick Quiz answer is Strom Thurmond. Yet another honorable cause for the "States' Rights" banner: segregation and Jim Crow!

alanhwoot


quality posts: 38 Private Messages alanhwoot

I knew this would bring out the Confederates.

Ken's right, it was all about the slavery. "State's rights" is meaningless unless you specify what rights you're talking about. In this case, it's owning people as property.

And the slave states didn't have much respect for any other states' rights. The Constitution does provide for the return of fugitive slaves, but the Fugitive Slave Act took it much further. A slave owner just had to claim someone was a slave. That claim could not be questioned and the person accused was not permitted to raise a defense or see a judge.

So, surprise, surprise, this did mean some free citizens of northern were stolen into slavery, and the northern states were not permitted to do anything to stop it. So much for states' rights.

The Constitution does cover admission of states but is silent on states leaving. It might be possible for a state to leave with the agreement of the federal government, but the Constitution does give the authority to suppress insurrections. That covers anyone wanting to leave without permission. And habeus corpus can be suspended in a time of rebellion.

As for why the Emancipation Proclamation didn't cover the whole country, it wasn't legal to do so. Having it cover the areas in rebellion was done under martial law, in the same way that the army might confiscate other property in the war zone. (Yes, people argue that even this was a stretch of the President's authority. But it's clear he had no authority to do so in states not in rebellion.)

The 13th Amendment was required to outlaw slavery in all states.

I realize it's a sensitive subject, and I have Southern ancestors. But I realize that they were on the wrong side of history.

LarryLars


quality posts: 65 Private Messages LarryLars
gtxr100 wrote:The WAR itself was about Lincoln trying to keep the Union together, in result cost over 800,000 people their lives. I love how today we idolize Lincoln and view him as such a great President even though he 1) *Suspended Habeas Corpus* 2) Illegally made Nevada a State to secure his 2nd election 3) obviously overlooked the 10th amendment 4) Only declared slaves free in the south and not in the border states...odd... Point: States had every right to secede and 800,000 people died and Lincoln is glorified.



Responding to:

1) The U.S. Constitution allows suspension: "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it."

2) I searched the internet and could not find any discussion of illegality regarding Nevada's admission to the Union.

3) I'm assuming you are mentioning the 10th amendment to justify your "Point" claim that the states have the right to secede. The U.S. Supreme Court in Texas v. White, et al. "held that the Constitution did not permit states to unilaterally secede from the United States ...". Chief Justice Salmon Chase wrote:
"The Union of the States ... received definite form and character and sanction from the Articles of Confederation. By these, the Union was solemnly declared to 'be perpetual.' And when these Articles were found to be inadequate to the exigencies of the country, the Constitution was ordained 'to form a more perfect Union.' It is difficult to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?"


4) Regarding the Emancipation Proclamation, I could have not put it any better than alanhwoot's post above.


!

Have you checked your Private Messages lately?

jeparz


quality posts: 0 Private Messages jeparz

Thurmond is the correct answer. He's a racist.

What I have always felt is most interesting is how it is seemingly under-emphasized that 2 million Union soldiers (mostly white) fought against 1 million Confederate soldiers (mostly white) and abolished slavery.
The seemingly popular consensus being that "the white man is racist". You don't suppose "somebody" has been trying to intentionally foment turmoil within the population for the past 150 yrs do you?

cappomutato


quality posts: 19 Private Messages cappomutato

Special award goes to Texas for seceding and fighting a civil war over slavery with two different countries. They really really wanted slaves. Remember the Alamo, fought for the right of the white wealthy to own the black and brown poor.

Also, Southern apologists, the South started the war. The South may have been allowed to go their own evil, ignorant direction had they not attacked US forts.

yay taco

yinh


quality posts: 0 Private Messages yinh
jeparz wrote:What I have always felt is most interesting is how it is seemingly under-emphasized that 2 million Union soldiers (mostly white) fought against 1 million Confederate soldiers (mostly white) and abolished slavery.
The seemingly popular consensus being that "the white man is racist". You don't suppose "somebody" has been trying to intentionally foment turmoil within the population for the past 150 yrs do you?



Merely being anti-slavery doesn't mean you're not racist.

The idea of "the white man is racist" is well-supported by America's pervasive institutional racism up to the civil rights movement, and even since then. Are non-whites often racist? Of course. But, white men overwhelmingly control every aspect of America's institutions, both public and private. Thus, within the context of this discussion, their racism is, by far, the most relevant.

yinh


quality posts: 0 Private Messages yinh
sindaan68 wrote:Decades of political disagreement, economic differences and cultural differences all summed up in one short blog post. I wish there were more like you to point out how incredibly stupid the rest of us are when it comes to the causes of war. Let me guess. WW2 was only about the holocaust right?



That's an amazingly terrible guess, even for a sarcastic response.

US entry into WWII was about Pearl Harbor. We were logistically supporting the Allied powers (and enforcing an embargo on Japan), but we were stubbornly isolationist until Pearl Harbor. The US gov't didn't give a crap about the Holocaust until its nonchalance became a major PR problem for it. And really, European countries had a long history of persecuting Jews. The Allies fought Hitler because he was trying to take over the western world, not really because he tried to wipe out the Jews and Slavs, because when it came down to brass tacks, Europe couldn't care less about the Jews (well, that's not quite accurate: they generally hated the Jews). You can see this very clearly in the NIMBY attitude that led to the creation of the state of Israel.

In the Pacific theater, WWII was about Japan trying to take over all of east Asia. In fact, China had been fighting what was essentially the Pacific side of WWII years before Hitler invaded Poland, back when it was called the Second Sino-Japanese War (it's only a "World War" when a lot of white guys are involved ;-)).

By comparison, the American Civil War was a much simpler affair.

keysersozae


quality posts: 0 Private Messages keysersozae

"Neo-confederate?" Really?

"Neo-confederate thought." lol, there's a phrase you don't come across every day.

whatsamattaU


quality posts: 1069 Private Messages whatsamattaU

Well, Ken, I was only 1 of 2 posts on the last Debunker. I guess you hit the right nerve this time,....

SnazzleTooth


quality posts: 0 Private Messages SnazzleTooth
keysersozae wrote:"Neo-confederate?" Really?

"Neo-confederate thought." lol, there's a phrase you don't come across every day.



I don't think it's that uncommon, although you don't hear it as much as in the past.

ekummel


quality posts: 1 Private Messages ekummel

I'm sorry, but what you say makes no sense at all...If you look at a timeline of events, you will see that Slavery was abolished by the 13th ammendment which was ratified in 1865! *AFTER* Lincoln's assination. The Civil War *STARTED* in 1861! So how was Slavery the point when the North didn't free the slaves until *AFTER* the war was over? See the flaw in your logic? Sure, you got your "facts" from the usual sources...but you know what they say. The victor writes the history! Now, if you want to go with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, this was in 1862 (first version) or 1863 (second version. *STILL* after the war started! In fact, the North didn't abolish slavery until they started losing the war and running out of able bodied men to fight. So they offered the "colored" folks freedom if they fought for the north! Ha, How's *THAT* for freedom!
I have to ask you. have you ever talked to a person who was alive during the Civil war? I did, and I got the truth straight from someone who lived it...simple as that! They don't print "truths" in text books. Read "Lies my teacher told me" for details on the phony information text books give you!

drpuzzle


quality posts: 1 Private Messages drpuzzle

Here is a serious thought that I would like Ken to respond to, but doubt he will. The same phenomenon is happening today as happened then. In the South, it [i]is[-i] states' rights, from the standpont that the Federal government was taking over a pre-existing right that was, according to the Constitution, reserved to the states, and yes, the main right was, of course, to have and to hold slaves, and because of predating the Constitution. In the North, the preponderance of belief was that the government has the power to control certain rights [i]because[-i] the are not enumerated in the Bill of Rights .

Same thing today with (dare I say it) guns. Some states believe that they alone should be able to regulate arms, as a pre-existing right shielded from government control by the second amendment. Other states believe that the government should control guns despite the Second Amendment and despite keeping and bearing arms predating the Constitution.