The Civil War in America’s narrative

by Henry on April 14, 2011

Matthew Yglesias “points to research”:http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2011/04/many-white-southerners-still-love-the-confederacy/ showing that many white Southerners still refuse to concede on the Confederacy.

bq. roughly one in four Americans said they sympathize more with the Confederacy than the Union, a figure that rises to nearly four in ten among white Southerners. […] When broken down by political party, most Democrats said southern states seceded over slavery, independents were split and most Republicans said slavery was not the main reason that Confederate states left the Union.

This is perhaps, not entirely surprising. What is more surprising to me is that this version of events is officially accepted by the United States. I became a US citizen yesterday, after spending some time over the previous few days reading the “US civics study guide”:http://www.uscis.gov/USCIS/Office%20of%20Citizenship/Citizenship%20Resource%20Center%20Site/Publications/PDFs/M-638_red.pdf to study for the citizenship exam (since I am a political scientist, it would have been _particularly_ embarrassing for me if I had failed it). For better or worse, it’s hard for me to switch off my inner social scientist. Hence, I started paying a different kind of attention when I read that ‘states rights’ is one of three acceptable answers to the civics question ‘name one problem that led to the Civil War’ (slavery and economics are the other two). My understanding, perhaps mistaken, is that ‘states’ rights’ is typically employed as an explanation by those who would prefer to forget (as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes; also “here”:http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/04/the-ghost-of-bobby-lee/38813/) that it was one particular right – the right to own slaves – that was what was really at stake in the conflict. The study guide goes on to elaborate that:

bq. The Civil War began when 11 southern states voted to secede (separate) from the United States to form their own country, the Confederate States of America. These southern states believed that the federal government of the United States threatened their right to make their own decisions. They wanted states’ rights with each state making their own decisions about their government. If the national government
contradicted the state, they did not want to follow the national government.

after which it does get into a discussion of the relationship between slavery and economic systems in North and South, and its relationship to the Civil War.

This – of course – was only a very small part of the event in question (and in any event I got asked a completely different set of questions on the day) – but it was interesting. Tests of this kind are a very useful way of gauging what is accepted, and what is not accepted as part of the official national narrative, especially when, as in the US, there is no national history curriculum. I was surprised that this _was_ part of the accepted (or at least acceptable) narrative, alongside the expected questions on Martin Luther King, and the origins of slaves in Africa. But perhaps there is a different history of the role of states’ rights in the conflict than the limited one I know (I am obviously not an expert on US history, or on the origins of the Civil War).