Just in time for next year’s sesquicentennial observance of the start of the Civil War, the Texas Board of Education wants new Lone Star State history textbooks that are more conservative.
For example, the board has proposed that the new school books match Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address with Lincoln’s speeches. Apparently, the board wants to put Davis on a par with Lincoln as a leader and as somebody to be admired.
A final vote on what will go in the books is set for May. Meanwhile, public comments are permitted. But it seems unlikely the board’s conservative majority will change course.
I teach history in a Kentucky community college. I often quote Lincoln, our 16th president, and Davis, the Confederate president. Both were born in Kentucky.
Lincoln opposed slavery in word and deed. Davis favored slavery in word and deed.
“Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally,” Lincoln said.
Davis praised human bondage as a worthy institution by which “a superior race” had transformed “brutal savages into docile, intelligent and civilized agricultural laborers.”
My guess is Davis’ comment would be a tad too candid for the new Texas texts. I mined it from “Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War” by Charles B. Dew.
Dew’s little book was published in 2001. But it is especially timely because 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the year the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter and started America’s bloodiest war. If the Texas board makes a list of supplemental reading for students, I doubt that “Apostles of Disunion” will be on it.
More than a few Texans – maybe including the board majority – seem to be proud that they live in an ex-Confederate state. Some Texans are even talking about seceding again.
Confederate-flag emblazoned “Heritage not Hate” bumper stickers are common in the Lone Star State and even in border state Kentucky, even though it didn’t secede.
There are plenty of other in-your-Yankee-face (or African-American-face) stickers for latter-day Johnny Rebs. Another one comes with the requisite Rebel flag and the message: “You Think This Flag Represents Hate and Slavery? YOU ARE WRONG!”
The “Heritage not Hate” white folks say slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War. They insist that 11 slave states seceded over “states’ rights.”
Of course, slavery had everything to do with the Civil War. “To put it quite simply, slavery and race were absolutely critical elements in the coming of the war,” Dew wrote.
By using the term “states’ rights,” white Southerners of the 1860s meant the right of a state to have slaves, just as white Southerners of the 1960s defended segregation in the name of “states’ rights.”
Dew teaches history at Williams College in Massachusetts. But he is a son of the South with a family tree full of Rebel ancestors. No doubt, his book has made him an apostate to Confederate apologists – and probably to most members of the Texas school board, if they know who he is.
Dew uses the words of real Confederates to rebut the neo-Confederates.
He quotes a raft of Rebels from Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens to emissaries from Confederate states who went to other slave states to tout secession.
The historian explained that after the Rebels lost the Civil War, many of their civilian and military leaders wrote their memoirs, in which they maintained “that slavery had absolutely nothing to do with the South’s drive for independence.” He added that their whitewash is being applied by white guy “neo-Confederate writers and partisans of the present day.”
However, Stephens was thankful the Confederacy was based “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 moral condition.”
Dew also quotes from secession ordinances Southern states wrote as they exited the Union. When Texans pulled out, they denounced “the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race and color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.”
Dew focused his book on a group of state-appointed commissioners who made the rounds of the slave states in 1860 and early 1861. They preached the same racist line: the only way to keep Lincoln and the Yankee “Black Republicans” from destroying slavery and white supremacy was to start a new Southern nation. (Today, the GOP is largely what the Dixie Democrats used to be: the white folks’ party.)
“Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political or social equality,” a Mississippi commissioner said.
Likewise, a Kentucky-born Alabama commissioner to Kentucky pleaded that secession was the only way the South could sustain “the heaven-ordained superiority of the white over the black race.” Another Alabama ambassador said ideas that slavery was immoral and that God created all people the same were rooted in “an infidel theory [that] has corrupted the Northern heart.”
Dew concluded, “By illuminating so clearly the racial content of the secession persuasion, the commissioners would seem to have laid to rest, once and for all, any notion that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War.”
This history teacher fervently hopes Dew is right. But it seems unlikely that the notion will be “laid to rest” in the new Texas school books.
Berry Craig is a native Kentuckian, a professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of “True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo” and “Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War.”