The War Over Why the War Started

Published:April 20, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

There’s an interesting piece in this morning’s Washington Post about how schools teach the causes of the Civil War in the era of Obama. Well, Obama is the story’s hook, but aside from some airy cliches about a “national conversation on race,” I’m not sure he has too much to do with anything. Still, talking about what caused the Civil War is always a good way to start a row, and the Post reporter, Valerie Strauss, dutifully records the various angles teachers use—which boil down, more or less, to slavery vs. states’ rights.

Every reporter’s trick is to then quite the peacemaker, the source who finds the middle ground so that the article can reach a conclusion while also being perfectly non-controversial. Enter Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, one of the BackStory “history guys,” and a member in good standing of the Encyclopedia Virginia Editorial Advisory Board.

“Ayers said it is time for both sides to face facts,” Strauss writes, referring to competing Northern and Southern interpretations of the war.

“We do understand the centrality of race and slavery in all of American history,” Ayers said. “But we also understand that the stereotypes about the war are not accurate. The North did not go to war to bring slavery to an end . . . and without slavery there would have been no Confederacy.

“This means everybody needs to give up something. The self-righteousness of the North and the defensiveness of the white South. It’s time.”

Ayers plays his role perfectly here, but I also think that he—or perhaps Strauss in the way that she positions his comments in the story—is conflating two very different concepts:

  • What caused the Civil War; and
  • Why soldiers fought

The fact that Northern soldiers didn’t sign up to free the slaves doesn’t preclude slavery from being a cause of the war, does it? Perhaps Confederate soldiers fought to preserve their homeland—but that was what they fought for, not why the war started. And perhaps the war started because of arguments over states’ rights, and perhaps those arguments never would have led to war were they not also about slavery.

What do you think?