One of the more interesting — if not enlightening — debates about social studies curriculum standards at the May State Board of Education meeting in Austin focused on the avowed importance of including a study of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address alongside the first and second inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln. Eventually the board’s far-right faction succeeded in adding the Davis address.
We count on Texas classroom teachers to provide their students with a candid and complete insight into the basic beliefs of the leaders of the Confederacy. With slavery downgraded by the board from its status as the primary cause of the Civil War (with slavery now listed behind sectionalism and states’ rights elsewhere in the new standards), this insight is particularly important. Davis’ inaugural address, after all, doesn’t even mention the word “slavery.” Excerpts from several other documents, however, go a long way in telling the real story.
In a May 31 online article in Salon, fifth-generation Texan Michael Lind suggests that students study the Cornerstone speech by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, on March 21, 1861 (about a month after Davis’ inaugural address). Stephens made clear that the Confederacy was not founded on a core idea in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” In contrast, Stephens said:
“Our new government is founded upon 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 normal condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
The Declaration of Causes of Texas secession is another important resource for learning about the Confederacy’s origins. What did Texas leaders see as the reason for secession? Excerpts:
“In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the 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 the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”
“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”
The Confederate Constitution is another rich source for learning about the Confederacy. As Lind points out in his Salon article, it is as though the Confederate document’s authors had taken the U.S. Constitution and “rewritten (it) to cripple the central government.” The Confederate government was forbidden, for example, to spend money on most forms of infrastructure and from fostering industry. Hostility to the authority of a strong central government is, in fact, the major theme of Davis’ inaugural address (with slavery mentioned not even once). It seems clear that the anti-government theme is what appeals to the state board members who insisted that students study Davis’ speech — as if Davis had been the nation’s first freedom- lovin’ Tea Partier instead of the treasonous leader of a group of rebellious states that wanted the right to continue enslaving millions of human beings.
Interestingly, as the war turned badly for the Confederates, their leaders instituted a number of changes that made their central government quite powerful: a military draft, an income tax and inflating the currency to push citizens into higher tax brackets. We suspect state board members won’t want students to learn about that.
Revealing “the truth and the whole truth” about the Confederacy provides a vitally important history lesson for Texas students — and a strong reaffirmation of the founding principles in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But politicians on the State Board of Education are whitewashing the truth. Doing so insults not just the sacrifice of those who fought to defend the union and our nation’s founding principles. It also handicaps the education of Texas students by promoting ideological agendas ahead of facts and sound scholarship in their public school classrooms.