Civil War and slavery: past is prologue

A Liberal Dose

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I was born, in 1968, and raised right here in Sparta. When I was growing up I was fascinated by the Civil War – I still am. I researched and wrote about it in my dissertation and in several academic publications, as well as two epic-length novels and many short stories. It is a dramatic subject, and is really second only to the American Revolution in establishing just what the United States of America is. I’ve also researched and written extensively about slavery. Like it or not (and hopefully for all of us it is “not”), slavery, too, played a huge role in the early centuries of our country and the struggle to establish what America is.

When I was growing up, the textbooks said the Civil War was fought over slavery. That’s not the impression I came away with, though. Grown-ups, including teachers, said it wasn’t “really” about slavery at all; it was about states’ rights, or tariffs, or because Yankees were jerks who tried to tell us how to live. It wasn’t really the impression I got from movies, either, like “Gone with the Wind.” When I was in my late teens, I discovered books at the old bookstore in the mall that seemed to back up this alternative view and that called Abraham Lincoln a racist and a tyrant. It seemed like the South was being misrepresented in the history books – and that wasn’t hard to believe, because it seemed then (and now) like the rest of the country looks down on us and treats us unfairly in general. What I’m trying to get across is, as a white Southerner I grew up thinking about the Civil War the way the majority of you probably do.

But I learned differently.

In college, I met Professor Larry Whiteaker – like myself, a native of this area. I had him for U.S. History, and took his upper division course on the Civil War. Dr. Whiteaker (like my grad school co-adviser, Vernon Burton) had been directed in his dissertation at Princeton by James McPherson, Pulitzer prize winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom” and probably the most esteemed living historian of the Civil War. Dr. Whiteaker was very emphatic: the Civil War was about slavery. I still wasn’t completely convinced.

Then I went to graduate school and did a deep dive into the primary documents of the era. Thanks to the wonders of Google, you can do the same without leaving your home. Check it out. The seven states that seceded to form the Confederacy (Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas) each issued statements explaining why. The main reason: to protect the institution of slavery. Four Upper South states later joined, after the siege of Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down the rebellion: Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee. The vice-president of the new Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens, gave a famous speech at the very beginning of the war explaining why the Confederacy existed and why they were willing to fight. It is called “The Cornerstone Speech” – please look it up and read it. As my space here is limited, I’ll give you the high points: he said the new Confederate constitution was better than the U.S. Constitution, because it explicitly (rather than vaguely) defends the institution of slavery and because it explicitly lays out the “great truth” that black people are inferior. That “great truth,” Stephens said, was the cornerstone on which the Confederacy was built.

During grad school I read through all the available primary documents about the Civil War in the Upper Cumberland. Of particular interest was the statement prepared by the city of Cookeville that Tennessee should secede to protect slavery and keep black people in their place.

All very interesting, you might say, but what does this have to do with modern politics, or education? Stay tuned.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    

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