The Persistence of Myth: The Causes of the Civil War

Recent comments about the “controversy” over the causes of the Civil War highlight the challenges of teaching American history in 2017. 

Although there is little controversy among historians about the centrality of slavery in causing the Civil War, the myth of a “debate” persists. And with President Trump’s recent, historically inaccurate comments about the Civil War, this issue has once again been dragged into the spotlight, galling historians and history teachers.

The notion that there is any controversy only serves to advance the ideology of white nationalists and so-called Lost Causers. In promoting this “alternative” view, these groups seek to undermine the role of slavery in secession, in the development of American capitalism and even in the creation of the United States

As historian James W. Loewen puts it

The issue is critically important for teachers to see clearly. Understanding why the Civil War began informs virtually all the attitudes about race that we wrestle with today. The distorted emphasis on states’ rights separates us from the role of slavery and allows us to deny the notions of white supremacy that fostered secession.

Comments or narratives that do not place slavery at the center of the Civil War not only diminish the experiences of those who were enslaved and present-day African Americans, but they also undermine the enterprise of studying history.

In the classroom, the myth of debate around the causes of the Civil War is ripe for analysis through the lens of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to accept information and arguments that confirm or support our existing viewpoints and to disregard what might contradict them. Many fallacious historical arguments persist, in part because they appeal to the ways some people wish to see themselves or their identity groups in the past and in the present.  

It is important, then, that teachers not only teach the causes of the Civil War in a way that is faithful to the historical record, but also to use the falsely perpetuated notion of controversy to teach students about historiography (how history gets written) and confirmation bias. We need to equip our students with the facts and the awareness sufficient to debunk the myth.

When I told my students that the “controversy” persists, one suggested that we “look at what the primary sources say.” So we did just that, quickly seeing that maintaining slavery is a prominent theme of the Confederate states’ documented motivations for leaving the Union. When we thought about how and why, in spite of this documentary evidence, the myth persists, we were engaging in a historiographic discussion, exploring what actually happened and how it has been interpreted, spun and even manipulated.

I asked my students, who are mostly white, to reflect on why this particular myth might endure. One wrote, “It might be hard for historians and students to understand the truth about slavery because for a lot of people it makes them feel ashamed and guilty about their country’s brutal past.” We delved further into the discussion, and I reminded them of our learning about confirmation bias in a previous unit. We began to theorize that, as historians, we have to put aside what we wish were true to understand what is actually true, even when it may hurt or cause other negative feelings to arise.  

This school year, many teachers have been grappling with what it means to teach in a time when facts seem to matter less than convenience or partisanship and when standing up for truth and knowledge is considered a “radical” act.  As we look ahead to next year, we need to remember that students’ abilities to develop complex understandings of the past really matter. History is more than just the facts of what happened in the past; it’s also the story that gets written about those facts. If we forget the facts, we ignore the wisdom and guidance history has to offer us.

Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.

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