Essays, History.

Whitewashing the most peculiar institution:
a Lost Cause


Thomson, GA, July 1860. PD-US.


Leonard Pitts, one of my favorite columnists, just wrote about the persistent whitewashing of Confederate History in the old South in an article entitled “The Civil War: A conspiracy of amnesia“, and pointed to the out and out lies that are being told about it; the biggest whopper, of course, is that the Civil War was not about slavery!


os_image. PD-US. Click to view enlarged picture


The South was quite clear and unambiguous as to why they started a Civil War (See my recent post on this topic): in their own language justifying their secession from the Union, they described slavery as the primary reason for their treasonous behavior:

“It is not safe . . . to trust $800 million worth of negroes in the hands of a power which says that we do not own the property . . . So we must get out . . . ” — The Daily Constitutionalist, Augusta, Ga., Dec. 1, 1860

[Northerners] have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery . . . We, therefore, the people of South Carolina . . . have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and other States of North America dissolved.” — from “Declaration of the Causes of Secession’’

“As long as slavery is looked upon by the North with abhorrence . . . there can be no satisfactory political union between the two sections.” — New Orleans Bee, Dec. 14, 1860

“Our new government is founded 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.” — Alexander Stephens, “vice president’’ of the Confederacy, March 21, 1861


Pitts points out that, following their defeat, the South moved quickly to deny that their primary motivation for attempting secession was slavery, or that it was any motivation at all! They fell back on the tried and true “state’s rights” constitutional argument, or on any “cause” save that of slavery, tried and true because it arose in the Constitutional Convention of 1781 as, among other things, a mechanism by which Southern states could block any attempts to stifle slavery.

-Comix Talk, Bryant Paul Johnson

This comic is a brilliant summary of the deep origins of political conflict. Click image to read the entire comic.. Attrib: Bryant Paul Johnson, Comix Talk.


His article brought to mind my first visit to the University of Virginia (UVa). In the summer of 2006, I stopped in the UVa campus book store, and happened upon a book about the antecedents of the Civil War written by a professor at the University. I grabbed it up because I was curious about what was currently being taught about the Civil War to the students of a university in the Old South. While paying for the book, my cashier looked first at the book and then at me, and asked me: “What do you think the causes of the Civil War were?” I responded by saying that I thought slavery was the primary cause, directly, and indirectly through the unbalanced political power the South held through their Constitutional ability to vote their slaves without representation (the infamous 3/5 clause in Article I), then asked her what she thought. She smiled, and said that she agreed with that, but that that was not what was taught at the UVa. She was a UVa student, and had taken a class on Civil War history there, and she said that in the entire course, slavery had not been mentioned once! A second cashier joined our conversation (there was a lull in business), and she was also a UVa student, and she seconded what the other cashier said, and noted further that she grew up in Virginia and had been taught in a similar manner in high school; anything but slavery was offered up as causation of the Civil War.


-PD, Aaron Josephson

Rotunda, University of Virginia, T. Jefferson, architect. Attrib: Aaron Josephson, PD.


The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and it was one of the three proudest accomplishments in his life which he had inscribed onto his tombstone (the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia state Bill or Rights being the others). Today the UVa has several highly regarded graduate programs, and in general is considered to be one of the best public universities in the United States. That turns out to be a fairly recent phenomenon. For most of its existence it was considered to be a mediocre academic institution, in large part because it’s teachings and practices were typical of other Southern universities, particularly in its defense of the antebellum Southern culture and its heavy reliance on the enslavement of other human beings. In Jefferson’s time, it was designed to train only a small number of the propertied slave-owning elite, and its curriculum then supported and defended slavery as an economic and moral system (e.g. Solomon had slaves, so God clearly supported the dominion of superior men over inferior ones, etc.). As universities in the 19th and 20th century competed for academic excellence, attracting the best and brightest professors was necessary to raise the quality of an institution; Southern universities struggled to do this, as many of the best academicians were unwilling to work in institutions dedicated to first the enslavement, and following the Civil War, the suppression of the rights of its black citizens. The UVa began to slowly desegregate in the 1950’s, and began to build its programs into nationally recognized ones; today they are justifiably proud of their record in desegregating their campus and reaching out to black students.


Thomas Jefferson, 1800, by Rembrandt Peale. PD-US.


While Jefferson has been lionized in this country as the great defender of individual rights, in his private life he was a practitioner of slavery, and the practical effect of his political will was to preserve the institution of slavery in the South. Jefferson, who was a very effective rhetorician, liked to characterize himself as a plain spoken man interested in protecting individual freedom, even while he routinely generated less than forthright defense after defense of the Southern way of life and its “peculiar” institution of slavery. (See my post on Jefferson’s Legacy.) “States rights” was his favorite tool for the protection of slavery, as it was for generations of Southern politicians before the Civil War, and generations of Southern politicians after Reconstruction in suppressing black citizen’s rights via distorted state laws and judicial practices. It survives today.


CSA battle flag, Army of Tennessee. PD-US.


That even the University of Virginia, which has significantly changed its character, continues to play the “amnesia” game with regards the Civil War shows that there is still some way to go before we honestly confront our worst behaviors as a nation. The whitewashing of slavery in the Old South is an indicator of problems unacknowledged and problems unaddressed; in the South, there continues to be not only celebration of the antebellum institutions that relied directly on the utter brutishness of slavery and celebration of the war they started with intent to preserve those institutions, but, probably not coincidentally, there continues to be efforts in these same states to deny their black citizens the ability to vote. It is hard for me to understand why the state of Mississippi would today want to make a public hero of Nathan Bedford Forrest; while he is considered to be one of the best Generals of the Confederacy, he was also a leader in the deliberate murder of former slaves during and after the Civil War, and one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.

The South today has a majority of conservatives, who embrace their patriotism, their love of the United States of America. I have often wondered how one can talk about such patriotism in one breath, while in the next breath embrace the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, which was and still is as anti-patriotic as can be: The treasonous dissolution by violent means of the United States of America.

Slavery in the United States would appear not only to be the “peculiar” institution, but the most peculiar institution; it has the historical property of becoming invisible when those who once practiced it so will it. Much progress has been made in making the United States of America a land of individual freedom, and an important part of that has been enfranchisement of our former slaves. Wouldn’t it be the best outcome that the “Lost Cause” of the South, that great whitewashing of Southern slavery, becomes itself a lost cause?

[Update: A recent post by Justin Green: Enough with this Lost Cause nonsense. ]

3 thoughts on “Whitewashing the most peculiar institution:
a Lost Cause

  1. Thanks for the tip; I’ll keep a lookout for Loewn’s book. If I understand it correctly, the Texas state schoolbook commission also influences many texts outside of Texas, and that it has been a target for conservatives for many years; they are heavily over-represented on the commission.

  2. Re the sales clerks’ account of what they were taught about the Civil War, the state of Texas requires a Lonestar edition of its American history textbooks, there is a state commission that approves textbooks for the whole state. Of course the Texas market is big enough that publishers are willing to make a Texas version of history. Maybe Virginia uses the Lonestar edition in its schools. James Loewn, who wrote “Lies My Teacher Told Me” has been working on a book to explain how US history textbooks embrace the lie that slavery wasn’t the principle cause of the Civil War. He’s an interesting writer.

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