(NNPA)—A recent cover of Time magazine featured an illustration of a crying Abraham Lincoln with the inscription, “Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War: The endless battle over the war’s true cause would make Lincoln weep.”
While I question whether today’s effort to recast the Civil War would make avowed White supremacist Abraham Lincoln cry, there is no denial that much of America continues to shy away from acknowledging that slavery was the primary cause of what revisionists prefer to call the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression.
A Harris poll conducted in January showed that while 69 percent of respondents concluded that the North was fighting to preserve the Union, more than half—54 percent—believed the South was fighting for states’ rights; 46 percent thought the South was fighting to preserve slavery. In the 11 states that formed the Old Confederacy, two-thirds of Whites claimed states’ rights was the real issue.
In his 1861 Inaugural Address, Lincoln was clear: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”
That was quite a statement from a man who believed Blacks were inferior to Whites.
In the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, Lincoln stated: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people … I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.”
Lincoln’s goal was to preserve the union, not eliminate slavery.
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that,” Lincoln said in an Aug. 22, 1862 letter to the New York Tribune. “What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union.”
For the most part, Americans are not as clear as Lincoln was about the Civil War.
Time observed, “Americans have lost that clarity about the cause of the Civil War, the most traumatic and transformational event in U.S. history, which left more than 625,000 dead—more Americans killed than in both world wars combined.”
Yale University historian David Blight told the magazine, “No matter what we do or the overwhelming consensus among historians, out in the public mind, there is still this need to deny that slavery was the cause of the war.”
As part of the denial, myths were created to obscure the facts.
The Washington Post, in a Feb. 26 article headlined, “Five myths about why the South seceded,”
pointed out that Confederate states opposed states’ rights.
Written by James W. Loewen, author of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, the story observes: “On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina’s secession convention adopted a ‘Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.’ It noted ‘an increasing hostility on the part of non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery’ and protested that Northern states had failed to ‘fulfill their constitutional obligations’ by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War.”
The article debunked the myth that most White Southerners didn’t own slaves and therefore did not support slavery.
“Indeed, most White Southern families had no slaves,” Loewen wrote. “Less than half of White Mississippi households owned one or more slaves, for example, and that proportion was smaller still in whiter states such as Virginia and Tennessee. It is also true that, in areas with few slaves, most White Southerners did not support secession. West Virginia seceded from Virginia to stay with the Union, and Confederate troops had to occupy parts of eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama to hold them in line.
“However, two ideological factors caused most Southern Whites, including those who were not slave-owners to defend slavery. First, Americans are wondrous optimists, looking to the upper class and expecting to join it someday. In 1860, many subsistence farmers aspired to become large slave-owners. So poor White Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people support the extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy now.”
While many Americans remain in denial about the cause of the Civil War, there is no denying that more than 180,000 African-Americans—both free and runaway slaves—served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Even a handful, enticed by the promise of freedom, fought on the Confederate side. Even Blacks in the Union Army were paid less than White soldiers. Some refused any pay, realizing that no price could be placed on their freedom.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, http://www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at http://www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)