Yes, Texas, The Civil War Really Was about Slavery

Denial about the causes of the Civil War is so widespread and longstanding that you might think it impossible for those of us who know better to be outraged anymore. But it’s July 2015: just weeks after the racial terrorism in Charleston; just weeks after Strom Thurmond’s son said of South Carolina’s Confederate heritage, “It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins, and work for a better future;” and just days after the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from Capitol grounds. At this moment when some white Southerners are showing signs of a long overdue historical awakening, the Texas State Board of Education has announced guidelines for teaching U.S. history that state slavery was a “side issue” in the Civil War and that don’t mention Jim Crow.

I thought the neurons in my brain that generate anger had burned out sometime during George W. Bush’s second term, but the events of the past three weeks have proven they still work.

Or very recent history has created new neural pathways in my brain.

The Texas State Board of Education’s decision to teach whitewashed (no pun intended) history in the wake of the Dylan Roof murders is a klondike of denial, insensitivity and political tone-deafness that I find almost impossible to process. It’s one thing for deluded but generally well-meaning people to cling to a sanitized idea of the Civil War out of a misguided notion of identity. It’s quite another to impose a dishonest version of American history on millions of students. Furthermore, the state board is exhibiting a breathtaking shamelessness given that a nine-year-old of average intelligence with Internet access could refute the insidious racist propaganda they want to inflect on Texas youth.

According to the new standards for teaching history, Texas school students will learn the Civil War was about (in order of importance) “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery.” Let’s examine these terms. “Sectionalism” refers to the economic and social differences between regions of nineteenth-century America and the resulting political conflicts. What were those differences? After 1800 the North industrialized rapidly and its economy diversified. The South remained agricultural with an economy based on cash crops, crops grown by slaves. And the biggest regional conflicts of the era were about the expansion of slavery into newly acquired territories. States rights? As Larry Wilmore deftly pointed out in a Daily Show segment a few years ago, by states’ rights white Southerners of 1861 meant their right to own slaves. In listing their reasons for secession from the Union, the South Carolina convention stated that the free states of the Union “have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States…they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States.”

And by “property,” they meant slaves.

In their “Declaration of the Causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union,” the members of the Texas convention bemoaned that, “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…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.”

Those evil, evil non-slaveholding bastards.

And as if the secession declarations weren’t clear enough, in March 1861 newly elected Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens declared, “Our new government is founded 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.”

So, really, the causes of the Civil War were (in order of importance) “Slavery, slavery and slavery.”