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Where Does Civil War Revisionism Come From?

The Texas textbook fight was never really about history.

By Nathan Pippenger

In September, I wrote about a textbook controversy in Texas, where the State Board of Education (BOE) was considering new social studies textbooks that were found to be riddled with errors and distortions. On Friday, after an outcry that received national press coverage, the BOE approved nearly 100 new textbooks, with some corrections. The Texas Freedom Network, which had criticized a number of passages in the books up for approval, cites a few victories: passages peddling climate denialism and stereotypes about Muslims were cut, and corrections were made to material suggesting slavery was not the primary cause of the Civil War.

I mention this last item because it happens to coincide with a review of the esteemed Civil War historian James McPherson’s new book on Jefferson Davis. Steven Hahn, in the New York Times Book Review, leads off by noting that McPherson “unabashedly, and correctly, insists that slavery was the cause of the war” and “has always been a great partisan of Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause.”

Why does this description of McPherson matter? Any credible scholar of the Civil War should be unabashed about slavery’s primary role in causing the war. And to be a great partisan of the Union cause is admirable, but among decent people it should be no more remarkable than being a great partisan of, say, the civil rights movement. McPherson’s views, then, are notable enough to mention in the limited space of a book review, but they’re not academically or morally notable. What, then?

The answer lies in Texas—or, more specifically, the materials it uses to teach its young residents. If one stops to wonder why on Earth there are still attempts to graft “states’ rights” explanations onto the Civil War, in public school textbooks, in 2014, it becomes immediately obvious that the signal sent by Hahn’s description of McPherson is political. The conflict over depictions of the Civil War in Texas’s textbooks was not, in other words, a conflict among historians, or even a fight among competing historical interpretations—at least not at its core. Instead, it was a conflict over the way we use history in the service of political ends: as a way of locating ourselves within a tradition, of making our views intelligible, of giving precedent and reasons for our actions so that they avoid seeming like mere caprice or the naked assertion of power. History is a powerfully legitimating force in political conflict. In this case, the reasons for manipulating history were many: In the revised neo-Confederate version of the Civil War, the federal government can be recast as an alien, hostile, overweening body. Texas (or, more generally, the South) can therefore be portrayed as a distinct land with traditions that outweigh the ignorant demands of far-off federal officials. And that portrayal can be put to use, even if implicitly, even in coded language, for present-day political purposes—like opposing voting rights pre-clearance requirements or affirmative action.

I suggested in September that Texas’s textbook battle was primarily political, not historical, and I’ll go a little further today. If Texas ever becomes a blue state (which may indeed happen, and not too far in the future), these conflicts over Civil War history will likely recede into the distance. When the political occasion for neo-Confederate revisionism vanishes, so too will the conflicts over history. In this important sense, the attempt to rewrite the history of the Civil War was never really about history. It was politics, all the way down.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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