Let’s Dispel With the Myth That the Civil War Wasn’t About Slavery

Let’s Dispel With the Myth That the Civil War Wasn’t About Slavery

This past weekend, white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and Klansmen marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The images of young white men wielding torches and weapons, attacking peaceful protesters, and chanting their racist, anti-Semitic rhetoric shocked and disgusted the world (with one notable exception). In doing so it should remove any doubt that these statues are more than just meaningless artwork or innocent reminders of American history. These monuments are salient iconography for the most vile, hateful, and racist groups in this country.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Many people have correctly pointed out that most Confederate monuments were constructed in the 20th Century as cultural symbols of white supremacy and opposition to black equality. These monuments served another purpose as well: to whitewash the history of the Civil War rather than reckon with our nation’s original sin.

Ignoring history does not make it go away. It allows some of our most painful wounds to fester, and the void left is filled by opportunistic extremists. Today, many American students still learn in history classes the myth that the American Civil War was not about slavery, but are told that it was rather about state’s rights. Which, even if it were true, raises the question: state’s right to do what?

The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia is a perfect example of how Confederate monuments remove the responsibility of slavery from the Confederacy. The Atlantic recently wrote: “The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.” Revisionists tell a story of a man who despised slavery and reluctantly came to the defense of his home state. Monuments to the man have helped whitewash that history, and remove his responsibility for leading the army that fought to keep people enslaved. The reality is that Lee was a cruel slave owner who said: “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race.” It is not possible to honestly examine the American Civil War and not include slavery.

Slavery was the issue that divided the nation in the mid-19th Century, and the issue that led to the Civil War. Tariffs, investments in infrastructure, and Catholic immigration divided the political parties, but slavery divided the nation. For decades America had refused to address the slavery issue, but by 1848 the nation could put-off the question no longer.

In 1848 the United States decisively won the Mexican-American War, and in doing so acquired vast new western territory (present-day California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and western Colorado). Almost immediately, the issue of slavery was no longer easy to avoid. The burning question: Would the new territories allow slavery or would they be free? On this question Ralph Waldo Emerson presciently warned, “Mexico will poison us.”

For the next decade Americans fought, often violently, over the question of slavery’s expansion. Southerners further argued that they not only had a right to protect their slave “property” out west, but throughout the nation, including free northern states. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. Far from respecting state’s rights, the South used the law and the power of the federal government to force Northern free states to accept slavery within their territory. Slaves who escaped bondage were hunted down in free states by federal marshals, and the law forced Northerners who objected to slavery to be complicit in perpetuating an institution they found evil.

Over the next decade the slavery question broke America’s two national parties, Whigs and Democrats, destroying the Whig Party completely in the process. By 1860 Democrats had become a mostly-Southern, slave-state party, and the newly-formed Republican Party swept Northern free states in the presidential election. The divide over slavery was so heated that Republicans did not even attempt to campaign in many areas of the South for fear of violent opposition.

With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Southern states responded by issuing Declarations of Session. South Carolina, the first state to secede on December 24, 1860, mentions slavery 18 times in their Declaration, explicitly saying the primary reason for secession was increasing hostility toward,  “the institution of slavery.” Mississippi declared: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” Georgia’s main reason for session was to protect, “African slavery.” Texas declared it was, “protecting the institution known as negro slavery.” The reasons for session from the Union and establishment of the Confederacy could not be any clearer.

America’s 245 years of legal slavery, the following century of apartheid, and the last 35 years of racially-biased mass incarceration stem from the nation’s inability to honestly confront our history of race and racism. Acknowledging and accepting our imperfect and painful past is the first step to healing these wounds, and by doing so we’ll deny racists and white supremacists the ability to exploit our ignorance of our history for their own deplorable means.