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Slavery equals Civil War. What’s not to get?

I love Christmas. Okay . . . what I really love is Christmas break. I save vacation days and spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s staying up late and reading.

This year? The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl and At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson.

And, of course, tons of online stuff. I’ve gotten hooked on the iPad Flipboard app and could spend hours browsing cool, useful, useless and random goodies.

It was during one of those random meanderings that I ran across a quick post about Republican governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour and his recent interactions with the media. If you haven’t been keeping score, Haley seems just a bit out of touch with reality – both in 2010 and the 1960s.

Barbour grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi and was in his teens during the early 1960s. When asked in a recent interview what life was like growing up in the South during the Civil Rights movement, Barbour replied

I just don’t remember it as being that bad.

Of course, this may have had something to do with the fact that Barbour’s white.

He went on to praise the work of the local White Citizens Council for its work in keeping the peace in Yazoo City. Mmmm . . .

But like all things online, that conversation led to other topics and discussions. Including, as the country begins the Civil War sesquicentennial, the idea pushed by some that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War.

Really? That old chestnut? Surely people can’t still be arguing for that old states rights idea.

Apparently they can. The Secession Gala, held in Charleston, S.C. several weeks ago, celebrated the signing of the Ordinance of Secession, the document that is seen by historians as the beginning of the Civil War. The focus? States rights.

We’re celebrating that those 170 people risked their lives and fortunes to stand for what they believed in, which is self-government. Many people in the South still believe that is a just and honorable cause.

Apparently forgetting that the document itself spelled out pretty clearly what the issue was:

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

It’s interesting that historian James Loewen suggests that the Ordinance actually outlines South Carolina’s opposition to states rights. The document lists grievances against 13 northern states for passing laws that attempted to hold federal slave policy (such as the Fugitive Slave Act) at bay — using states’ rights as their rationale.

The future Confederate leaders, President Jefferson Davis and Vice-President Alexander Stephens, certainly knew what the issue was. Davis in April 1861 extolled slavery as a benevolent invention that allowed a

“superior race” to transform “brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers.”

Stephens, in March 1861, proclaimed that Thomas Jefferson’s earlier declarations of universal liberty were “in violation of the laws of nature.”

Our new government is founded on exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.

William Harris also knew. Speaking to the Georgia secession convention in 1860, he brought greetings from Mississippi:

Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish – the part of Mississippi is chosen. She will never submit to the principles and policies of this Black Republican administration. She had rather see the last of her race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pyre than see them subjected to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the Negro race.

States rights? Maybe. But as award-winning Civil War historian James McPherson asked

States rights for what purpose?

It’s pretty obvious. Southerners of the 1860s were very clear about what the issue was. As we begin the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, let’s be just as clear. It wasn’t about states rights. It was about human rights.

What’s not to get?

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. EDSITEment has some great lessons on these issues, slavery and secession.

    For example, Abraham Lincoln, the 1860 election and the Future of the American Union and Slavery

    We have a lesson on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address Defending the American Union which touches on Alexander Stephens cornerstone speech

    January 3, 2011
    • glennw #

      Cool! I didn’t go out and look for aligned lesson plans – was too busy ranting about neo-confederates. Thanks for adding some great stuff to the conversation!


      January 5, 2011
  2. Shannon #

    Just a quick thank you for your inspiration you have given me. I just graduated a few weeks ago and wanted to let you know how your emails helped me get through student teaching. Your ideas and knowledge have inspired me and I cannot wait to have my own classroom and impart your ideas that you have bestowed on me!
    Newbe Teacher

    January 6, 2011
    • glennw #

      I glad they came in handy! Teaching should not be a solitary activity – be sure to pass on all you’ve learned to someone else. Good luck!


      January 6, 2011
  3. Nice lessons.

    Let me add this thought, though.

    First, I agree that the Southern states, the first 7, left to protect the institution of slavery. It’s pretty obvious by their own words that they left the Union b/c of slavery. If it’s state’s rights, then it’s state’s rights to own slaves.

    However, and this is new to me… so, point one, the first 7 state seceded b/c of slavery. But, I’m starting to think that Lincoln didn’t declare war b/c of slavery. He himself said he’s keep slavery if it would save the union. I’m starting to think Lincoln’s #1 reason for war in April of 1861 was to deny the right of secession. It wasn’t until later that he made slavery a war goal, which could be seen more as a PR device. The right of secession had been talked about a lot previously in the US and even Jefferson felt it was justified as a last resort.

    More evidence to this is the other 4 states, like Virginia which voted not to secede until Ft. Sumter. I’m still researching the other three states, but Virginia had voted to stay in the Union just a few days prior to Ft. Sumter, pretty overwhelmingly. Then, Ft. Sumter occurred and they voted to secede.

    I don’t think Ft. Sumter was about slavery. It was clearly a battle of National v. State authority.

    Plus, when you look at the nationalist movements in Europe that saw the unifications of Germany and Italy, later granted, the march toward nationalism worldwide was a major preoccupation.

    Thus, I think it’s very likely that the actual war that Lincoln declared was about denying the right of secession, and thus state’s rights, much more than Lincoln’s desire to end slavery.

    This all may seem obvious, but as for a cause of the war… the actual fighting and bloodshed, while slavery caused the secession, I don’t think we can say slavery caused the actual fighting.

    Does that make sense? Again, I’m still playing this through my mind, too.

    January 11, 2011

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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