James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me (1996), is never afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. In his essay, “Using Confederate Documents to Teach About Secession, Slavery, and the Origins of the Civil War,” Loewen makes a series of claims about how the conventional wisdom in classrooms and textbooks remains frighteningly disconnected from the truth apparent in the primary source documents of the period. Loewen states flatly that the Civil War was about slavery and that the documents leave no doubt about that point, but that most teachers still believe it was about states’ rights. You can read Loewen’s full essay inside the print edition of Volume 25 of the OAH Magazine of History (April 2011) or online via Oxford Journals. But since Loewen’s essay is really a series of combative and thought-provoking arguments, we have excerpted some of the most important claims here as a series of blog posts and invite teachers, students and all visitors to this site respond to each claim with their own comments and impressions.
From James W. Loewen’s essay in OAH Magazine of History
Since 1998, I have been asking general audiences, college undergraduates, people who run historic sites, and K– 12 history and social studies teachers, “ Why did South Carolina, and then ten other Southern states, secede?” Invariably I get four answers:
2. states’ rights
3. tariffs and taxes (or issues about tariffs and taxes)
4. the election of Lincoln.
Repeatedly, I then ask these audiences to vote. All my audiences weigh in similarly, whether they are teachers, students, or historic site staff. Nor does region make a difference: from south Florida to North Dakota, responses are the same. States’rights draws fifty-five to seventy-five percent of the votes. Slavery usually receives about twenty percent. The election of Lincoln usually gets only a handful — two percent. Tariffs and taxes varies from ten to twenty percent, depending largely on how many votes go to states’ rights. Teachers can modify what I do next into an activity for students. I ask my audiences, “What do we do now? Does majority rule? Is that how we do history?” “No, no,” they chorus. “ We need evidence.” “OK,” I reply, “what would be good evidence to resolve the matter?” Student audiences may say, “Google it!” to which one reply might be, “Google what ?” Googling does not replace the human judgment required to sift through the results and decide what is credible. Teachers typically volunteer, “Newspaper articles ” — on the right track, but vague. I reply, “From the 1993 Portland Oregonian ? “No, no,” they chorus. “From South Carolina in 1860.” Now we can discuss the meaning of primary sources and the important role they should play in this exploration. South Carolina newspapers are good, I admit, but they are hardly the best source. Audience members may volunteer, “Diaries from the time.” Again, these are primary sources, but hardly the best. Eventually, someone will usually say, “Wasn’t there some sort of convention? Didn’t it say why South Carolina was leaving the Union?” If no one does, teachers can pull out the document discussed below, read its title, and ask if it might be relevant. Students will immediately grasp that it is the “smoking gun.”
From James W. Loewen’s article in the OAH Magazine of History
Working with the American public to understand the causes of the Civil War can be an exercise in frustration. Confederate leaders themselves made it plain that slavery was the key issue sparking secession. And yet, four of five Americans — including many teachers — hold basic misconceptions about the era, revolving around a vague, abstract concept of “states’ rights.” Questions about why the South seceded, what the Confederacy was about, and the nature of its symbols and ideology usually give rise to flatly wrong “answers.” Because the states’ rights perspective on the Civil War is so pervasive, it can be difficult for teachers to get beyond this framework in their classrooms. But fortunately, there is a wealth of primary Confederate documents that teachers can use. Moreover, with the arrival of the Civil War sesquicentennial, public attention will be focused on the topic for some time to come. The time is right for teachers to help students grapple with the powerful evidence that slavery was the central factor in the formation of the Confederacy.