Back in 2002, a local writer wrote an article in a local newspaper lamenting the 8th grade history books used in schools today. A 13-year old girl responded with a lengthy (and nasty) letter. I responded to her letter with the article below. You might find it interesting.
"Clare Gets a History Lesson", by Michael Scalise
Clare Nowel’s vitriolic diatribe (New Times 8/29/02) against Patrick O’Hannigan’s commentary (“Don’t know much about history”, New Times 8/15/02) is a perfect example of the problem Mr. O’Hannigan was trying to convey.
Contrary to what Clare believes, it is hardly trivia about what the real cause of the Civil War was or how the war should be referred to.
Ms. Nowel claims that the “right” that the Confederacy was fighting to defend was the right to own other human beings. She is a victim of the myth that the Civil War was fought over slavery. While slavery is reprehensible, Mr. O'Hannigan is correct that history books have misled Americans to believe the war was started to free slaves.
The Southern states had already won the slavery issue without firing a shot. The North had given the South every concession toward slavery. The infamous Supreme Court Dred Scott decision in 1857 had declared slaves as property. Lincoln and Congress had approved a constitutional amendment protecting slavery forever. Lincoln didn’t campaign on abolishing slavery in the south, but rather the opposite. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued 2 years into the war and was done to help keep Northern support behind the war because the North had been losing battle after battle. It also did not proclaim all slaves free, only the slaves in areas that the South controlled. Border states on the union side and parts of southern states that the union forces controlled were specifically excluded from the proclamation.
Secession is unquestionably the cause of the War Between the States. Slavery was not the reason the South seceded from the union. They seceded because of taxation, specifically, the Merrill Tariff of 1861. Unlike the slave issue, the tax issue was nonnegotiable on both sides. Just as with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and many other conflicts and rebellions, oppressive taxation was the root cause of the War Between the States.
The North had 23 states with 22 million people and the South had 11 states with 5.5 million whites and 3.5 million slaves. In 1860, those 11 states paid almost 80% of the total federal revenues, which were largely spent in northern states.
The Tariff Acts of 1828 and 1832, referred to as the “Tariff’s of Abominations,” were the precursor to the War Between the States and the first southern rebellion. South Carolina called a convention to nullify those federal laws. There were better political leaders in 1833 and lowering the tax averted that crisis with the great Compromise of 1833. By 1860, the South had abandoned nullification and leaders promoted secession as the preferred method to stop the tariff.
The Morrill Tariff of 1861 was passed which effectively doubled the 1857 import taxes and were triple the rate of the 1828 tariff that caused the first southern rebellion. Tax rates were at an all time high. The doubling of the 1857 tariff was the cornerstone of the Republican platform on 1860. This was the payoff to wealthy Northern industrialists who supported Lincoln. The high tariff would mean that southern states would buy goods from northern states instead of the less expensive European goods, or pay a tax. Either way, the north benefited.
In Lincoln’s supposed conciliatory inaugural address, he promised there would be “no bloodshed or violence” and “no use of force” against the seceding states. Even the mail would be abandoned if not wanted. But taxes were another matter. Lincoln stated he would “collect the duties and imposts, but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no use of force against or among the people anywhere.” The South could secede as long as they paid the taxes to the North!
The South didn’t want to be vassals paying taxes for the Northern states. Lincoln didn’t fight to save union, but rather to save the tax base and financial interests for those who supported him. With the South seceding, the federal government would have lost 4/5 of their tax revenue. The free ports in the southern states would mean that northern states would lose at least half of their commerce. This would devastate the northern states economically. It was not a coincidence that the first shot in the war was at Fort Sumter, a customs house for collecting federal taxes. None of this was mentioned in Clare’s book.
Lincoln did campaign on opposing slavery in new territories, not for moral reasons but for economic and political reasons. He was appealing to white free laborers who didn’t want to compete against slave labor in new territories.
The American Civil War wasn’t a civil war at all. A civil war is competing political group fighting to take control of a government. Was George Washington fighting to take over London? Of course not! The Revolutionary War was a fight for independence. Was Confederate President Jefferson Davis trying to take over Washington D.C.? Of course not! The South was fighting for freedom from oppressive taxation. Did the South have the right to secede from the union? Well, just as much right as the original colonies had the right to secede from England in 1776. The Declaration of Independence states that the people retain the inalienable right to "alter or abolish" a government "destructive" to their liberties. Forty counties in Virginia peacefully seceded from Virginia in 1861 and formed West Virginia. Did they have that right? Did the southern states have a right to secede from the union? Did the 13 colonies have the right to secede from England?
While Mr. O’Hannigan states that it should called the War Between the States, the official name is the War of the Rebellion. The southern states called it the War for Southern Independence or the War of Northern Aggression. Had the South won their fight for independence, the war probably would be referred to as the Second American Revolution. Why is it referred to today with the completely erroneous name of the “Civil War” when it wasn’t a civil war? Why isn’t it at least referred with the official name of the War of the Rebellion?
Whoever wins the war, writes the history books. History books tend to portray Lincoln as a great president when he and the Republican Party pushed the South to secede with oppressive taxation. Then Lincoln is credited with “saving the union.” Lincoln was the most powerful and tyrannical president the nation has ever seen. He spawned a new era of uncontrolled despotic acts of a tyrannical central government. He was often brutal. He tried civilians in military court to deny them a jury trial. He locked up dissenters without a trial. He even tried a Democrat politician in a military court in Ohio who criticized the war effort. Can you imagine what would happen today if George Bush had Jesse Jackson arrested, tried, and found guilty in military court of “treasonable sentiments” because he criticized the war on terrorism? By destroying the states’ right to secession led to the unrestrained repressive federal government we have today. The myth of Lincoln promulgated in government-run schools and textbooks are one of gigantic proportion, on a par with one of the most dangerous myths of all, the myth that the U.S. is a democracy.
While Ms. Nowel states “history teachers should be commended for doing a great job,” she is hardly in the position to make that judgment. In fact, it is the height of arrogance to claim that she “learned a lot.” Based on the content of her letter, I’d say she learned less then she thinks, though I can’t blame her.
While Ms. Nowel’s claims she was encouraged to look at many points of view when studying history, she states that she only needs to listen to talk radio to get other viewpoints of history. This is another example that proves Mr. O’Hannigan's point. Why is the other view of history talked about on talk radio instead of the classroom where it belongs? Ms. Nowel would learn more history listening to radio talk show host Michael Medved (a Yale graduate in U.S. History) than she would by listening to most high school history teachers.
Ms. Nowel claims that teachers have to deal with “extreme parents who get upset if the books contain information they don’t like.” It appears to Clare that only “extreme parents” complain about book contents. As a former high school student and now a parent, I do have a problem with a history books that contain errors. The most glaring errors are often errors of omission, where the author conveniently leaves out important FACTS. Am I an “extreme parent” because I expect history books to be accurate and contain facts instead of the author’s politically correct version of reality? This year my son has the same history book that Clare had last year. While the book has two pages about the 1828 Tariff of Abomination, there is no mention whatsoever about the 1857 tariff or the Morrill Tariff of 1861. The four chapters covering that era talk almost exclusively about slavery. The book has a one sentence explanation of why the south seceded from the union, stating the South was appalled the nation elected an antislavery president. After the election, but before Lincoln took office, the House and Senate passed the Morrill Tariff act and then some states seceded, but no mention of this in the book at all. In 80 pages covering the war, there is only part of one sentence that mentions the south was unhappy about tariffs. The book even makes the absurd assertion that “war was inevitable.”
We all know the famous George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Freedom and liberty are always one generation away from extinction. It is incumbent upon each generation to pass on to the next a good foundation of the country’s history of freedom and liberty. If not, this country will someday become history.
638,000 Americans lost their lives in a war for independence, in the most important historical event in the country’s history, and Clare doesn’t seems to have any idea what they were fighting for. That fact should scare everyone.