The sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War has unleashed a cacophony of voices from across the South and outside the region, including elected officials, Civil War re-enacters, and professional neo-Confederates, spreading falsehoods and myths about that pivotal time in U.S. history. They contend that the conflict was barely about slavery (if at all), that post-slavery and Jim Crow conditions were not that bad, States' Rights is the only legitimate form of government, and the South is now a paragon of racial tolerance and enlightenment. Confederacy defenders carefully ignore the original documents of the Confederacy that conflict with their modern views and re-interpretations. As usual, debates over history are often metaphors for present-day political battles.
While arguments about the war generate fierce debate, the period following the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, remains virtually unknown to large portions of the American public. Few university students, let alone your average citizen, can identify the time period, Reconstruction leaders, its accomplishments, or reasons for its collapse. And yet, it is the era that some have referred to as the country's greatest moment of democracy and it should be taught and remembered and, unlike the Confederacy, honored.
First and foremost, it needs to be stated in unambiguous and unqualified terms that slavery was the cause of the Civil War and the reason that the South seceded. In the words of the leaders of the Confederacy, spoken and written, slavery is given primacy over any other issue in justifying the attempted secession of eleven states. In his 1861 speech to the Confederate Congress, Confederate President Jefferson Davis details how Northern states initiated a continuous series of measures that were "devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves." Worried about the economic costs of abolition, Jefferson avers,
With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens cited a philosophical defense of slavery as the reason for the war. In 1861, speaking with clarity that some in 2010 deny, Stephens stated that enslavement was the "proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization" and it was "the immediate cause of the late rupture," referring to the war. He opposed (slaveholder) Thomas Jefferson's view that slavery was morally wrong and Jefferson's belief in the equality of the races. Stephens emphasized, in his now infamous "Cornerstone" speech,
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.
Davis, Stephens, and other rebel leaders were as clear in the 1860s as to the cause of the war as the South was in its decision to join the American Revolution a century earlier. Protection of the institution of slavery was paramount and was the nonnegotiable condition that Southern leaders and ideologues articulated in both joining the Union and deciding to leave it.