When I was in my seventh grade US History class and we got to the unit on the Civil War, my teacher asked the class what the cause of the Civil War was. Most of us said slavery, and she told us we were wrong, that the cause of the Civil War was sectionalism. Sectionalism implies that there were disputes between different regions of the United States that could not be settled by federal mediation. The Nullification Crisis in the 1830’s, for example, was sectionalism; protective tariffs were an issue in which every region had a different opinion. But sectionalism was not the cause of the Civil War, even though historical revisionists and authors of seventh grade history textbooks write that it is. To understand the cause of the Civil War, we have to revert to the basic primary documents from the time period. Newspapers, secession documents, government bills, for example. These documents show the true nature of secession and the cause of the Civil War – slavery! Theoretically, one could argue that disputes over slavery were, in fact, sectionalism. That would be correct in some ways. But arguing that sectionalism was the cause of the Civil War cannot be deemed correct. Slavery was larger than sectionalism, and it was not simply because the North hated the South and vice versa that the South seceded. The South seceded to protect their institution of slavery, which then began the Civil War. Calling it sectionalism dulls what really happened at the expense of understanding how horrible slavery was.
This new understanding was one of the most important aspects of my research project. I think our country tends to glaze over the details of the slavery conflicts, and learning the depth of our country’s past racism and prejudice was eye-opening. Of course, giving seventh graders a lesson on how horrible slavery was might be too much for them. But, there must be a way to teach history correctly, and we should find a way to do that without losing the truth of what happened before the Civil War.
2013-2014 Presidential Fellows
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