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Commentary: The compromise of slavery and the gaslighting of the Civil War

I might not remember everything I learned in public school, but I do remember the day I took the state standardized eighth-grade social studies test. 

One of the questions was, "What was a cause of the Civil War?" Slavery, for some reason, wasn't an option. But states' rights was. Instead of protesting to the teacher (which 14-year-old me was wont to do), I did what the directions told me: Determine the best answer to the question from the four answer choices provided. I knew the right answer, but picked the "best answer" to get a higher grade. 

I knew the real cause of the Civil War, but I realize now that not everyone taking that test did.

Denton is no stranger to the debate over Confederate imagery. County commissioners recently approved the formation of a committee to decide what to do with the Confederate soldier monument on the downtown Square. A few residents also asked the Denton ISD board to consider renaming an elementary school named after Robert E. Lee, a general in the Confederate Army.

As I scrolled through reader feedback online, I thought surely I must be dreaming. Some folks were trying to convince others the bloodiest war in American history had nothing to do with slavery. The gaslighting continued Tuesday when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly argued that the "lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War."

Convinced I must be remembering things wrong, I called up historian Richard McCaslin to set the record straight. McCaslin teaches history at the University of North Texas and has authored several books about different aspects of the Civil War.

McCaslin said he often talks to public school teachers about the causes of the Civil War they're required by the state to teach: slavery, states' rights, tariffs and fundamental differences between the North and South.

"Slavery is the basic reason for the war," McCaslin said. "Having said that, a thousand people went to war for a thousand different reasons. But slavery was the gorilla in the room we couldn't get around."

When it comes to states' rights (or the idea that certain political powers are reserved for states rather than the federal government), McCaslin said it was a principle used as a tool for the war.

"It's not an end or goal in and of itself," he said. "Your state has something it wants to defend: the Southern way of life based on slavery."

A debate over high tariffs did lead to the Nullification Crisis in 1832, but Southern lawmakers actually wrote the 1857 tariff that lowered rates drastically. McCaslin argues that tariffs dropped by 50 percent by the time the war started.

"Why would you want to kill people over something that was half of what it was?" he asked.

McCaslin contends that the idea of the North and South being too different is a narrative pushed during the war to encourage soldiers to continue the fight.

"It's hard to kill people who are like you," he said.

To Kelly's point about a lack of compromise, history is littered with explicit compromises when it comes to slavery: the Three-Fifths Compromise, the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act. So, in a way, it makes sense that a war would spark once those compromises ceased to work out. 

The conversations happening today about monuments and schools are rooted in history and merit discussion. But those conversations need to be rooted in historical fact, not a Lost Cause narrative. If, in 2017, we can't even say the word slavery when talking about the Civil War, the conversation is lost as well.

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.

FEATURED IMAGE: Protesters and Confederate sympathizers meet up and debate with each other near the Confederate memorial at the Courthouse on the Square. Around 50 people showed up with flags and signs at the location to participate Saturday, August 26, 2017, in Denton, Texas. Jeff Woo/DRC