Using Facts: Use Them or Do Not Bother
As we continue to work through the Civil War period I have been showing my students the causes of the conflict. I have always told them that they should rely on facts to make their choices on anything because facts matter. The cause of the Civil War is pretty simple, yet has been distorted by many people even before the conflict ended. Most of the time this distortion is in conjunction with political ideology of the time period in question. Today's distortion reflects that quite well. Unfortunately, there remains a large number of people who prefer to ignore the facts and rely on beliefs which means they are willfully ignorant of the cause of the Civil War.
As I ask my students, "What cause the Civil War?" let us look to what the people of the past said. I point out to students that when they examine a source for information they need to examine the entire source, not just one part of it. That source needs to be placed in context with the events surrounding it and matched with other sources to build a larger picture. If they take one sentence from a source, it is not representative of the entire document nor of the larger group or groups of people in the time it was created. It could be representative of the document if said source can be summed up in that sentence. That is rarely the case though.
To use one sentence or part of a source while ignoring the rest of the source, especially if the rest of the source contradicts the sentence is known as cherry picking. To purposely disregard everything else that contradicts the sentence is a distortion of the factual record and a grave misrepresentation. Historians are trained not to do this. They are trained to use the historical record in its entirety or as much as they can access when making interpretations. This is where the historian differs from a hack or psuedo-historian wannabe.
Far too often, especially when dealing with the cause of the Civil War I see gross misrepresentations where people use a sentence from a source to support what they say. In many cases they are wrong and in essence lying about what they are trying to say. In the case of the Civil War, the facts show that slavery was overwhelmingly the cause of the conflict. There are those that say state's rights was the cause of the Civil War, not slavery because there was no way that many men would fight for slavery. Yet, when we examine the primary sources, it becomes very clear that slavery was the cause.
So why do people insist on something else? Most of the time it is because of their ancestry. They do not wish to believe that their ancestors fought on the behalf of something so vile as slavery. They will cherry pick through the sources and pull up bits and pieces to support a fantasy that falls apart when the facts are shown. A case in point lies with a few documents known as the secession declarations or ordinances of secession. These sources were created by the delegates of the state conventions that voted to secede from the United States.
Here is what is so amusing. Those people of the Civil War era wanted everyone to know why they chose secession. They were clear about it. Every one of the documents shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that slavery was the reason they chose to secede, specifically the expansion of slavery into the western territories. However, those that want you to believe something else caused slavery will ignore those documents or pick out the pieces that do not list slavery. We see this happen all the time.
So, that's where having the primary sources digitized comes in handy. A quick visit to the Avalon Project gives us some primary sources like these here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/csapage.asp You will find links to many state papers of the Confederacy plus four of the secession declarations including that of South Carolina, the first state to secede. Being the technological savvy instructor I am, I went straight to that source and put it on the screen for the class to see.
Going through the document line by line reveals something. Specifically that slavery was why the delegates chose to secede. It is pretty plain. A word search reveals the word slave or slavery is listed in the document 18 times. The word right is listed 19 times with six of them being in conjunction with slavery. The other uses of the word revolve around the attempt to establish the compact theory of government where states are in a compact with the federal government.
Now, in reading this document one might think that the compact theory was accepted at that time. This is of course erroneous which is why sources have to be set in context. If one were to rely on the document alone, it would stand. However, was the compact theory accepted constitutional doctrine at the time which is what some people try to say it was? The answer is no. How do we know this? Because of other sources which clearly show that the compact theory had been proposed and rejected multiple times.
There were three Supreme Court cases that dealt with the compact theory before the Civil War and in all three cases the Court rejected the theory as the basis of government and instead stated that the source of the government's power was through the people and could not be negated by the states. These cases are Chisholm v. Georgia, Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, and McCulloch v. Maryland. So when you look at the South Carolina secession document knowing that the Supreme Court had ruled against the compact theory (Thomas Jefferson be damned!), it is pretty clear that the delegates were basically ignoring the Constitution and trying to give their ideas credence.
Fortunately, they failed. So there really is no reason for anyone to believe the Civil War was caused by state's rights. Why? The people of the past told us why they seceded. When they tried to say their choice was their right, they were deliberately lying knowing full well that they did not have that right. Yet, today many people will try to say they did. Sorry, but the facts contradict them. That is why the facts are so important. Anyone can say anything, but only the facts will support or reject their statements. Those facts must be examined in their whole and in context.
So when you read something that makes you wonder if it is true, you would do well to check the facts. Unfortunately, too many people do not want to take the time to do so. You might ask if my students believe me...ask them. I showed them the primary source documents so they could make up their own minds.
As for the general population, here is the challenge: If you think the Civil War was caused by something other than slavery, prove it. Use primary source documents that clearly show it was caused by what you say it was. In other words if you are going to say it was caused by state's rights, show me that state right where the people of 1860/61 said it was causing their decision to secede. Show me the primary sources and explain their context. I just showed where South Carolina's delegates said they had the right to secede which they did not, but that the cause of their secession was that of slavery.
So far no one has been able to do so in the five years since I first issued this challenge. The primary sources reject their claims every time.