Did Slavery Cause the Civil War?

by Ryan

Who would even ask such a ridiculous question in the 21st century? Apparently lots of people. From a recent story in the Washington Post entitled “Five myths about why the South seceded”:

One hundred fifty years after the Civil War began, we’re still fighting it — or at least fighting over its history. I’ve polled thousands of high school history teachers and spoken about the war to audiences across the country, and there is little agreement even about why the South seceded. Was it over slavery? States’ rights? Tariffs and taxes?

Now why on earth would people believe that “states’ rights” was a more significant causal factor than slavery? Um, maybe because they went to school in Texas. According to the new social studies standards adopted by the State Board of Education last year, Texas 8th graders will be expected to:

explain the issues surrounding causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states’ rights, and slavery…

And lest you think that the order of this list is not intended to connote importance, this was was actually an amendment made by politicians on the board to the original draft standards prepared by teachers and scholars. Conservatives on the SBOE proactively voted to insert this phrase during the May 20, 2010 meeting, and the discussion before the vote made perfectly clear that they believed sectionalism and states’ rights superseded slavery in terms of importance. In other words, the order of this list is no accident.

The same state board members also insisted that the new standards require students to study Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural speech. And guess what? Davis’ speech didn’t even mention the word “slavery.” The speech featured instead a long attack on the federal government and a defense of states’ rights — as if he were the original Tea Partier and slavery had nothing to do with southern secession. (Never mind that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens made the truth about slavery’s centrality clear in his “Cornerstone Address” just a month later.)

So what does the Washington Post article say about the importance of states’ rights in the lead-up to the Civil War?

Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery.

On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina’s secession convention adopted a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” It noted “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and protested that Northern states had failed to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War. [emphasis added]

Surprise, surprise. The Texas SBOE got it wrong. And a damaging historical myth is passed on to another generation of students.