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The Causes of the American Civil War

The Causes of the  American Civil War

When I was in High School —the Pebble Hill School that was, the MPH of today— I had an American History teacher who was famous for his never-ending pipe ceremonies (he would empty, refill, tamp down, light and smoke his pipe while teaching class) and for teaching me one of the best history lessons I ever learned: read original sources. For an historian, this will come as no surprise, and a friend I met years later shared with me his adventures in original documents in ancient Spanish – mastering not only the language, but the handwriting and lack of a formal grammar and spelling, so that he could learn what the Spanish were thinking at the time. But for many students, history books are a long, boring slog through somebody’s lists, interpretations, and analyses.

Another teacher in that same school, Art History this time, would quiz us by showing us a piece of art we had never seen, and then ask us to play historian/sleuth by determining “when” the painting or sculpture or architecture was created by exploring the subject, style, and sophistication of the piece. That is – what was of interest to people in, say 1300? What technologies did they have? Why did they build buildings or sculpt icons? Again, my object lesson was: what was the thinking of the people then?

Still a third history teacher —World History— would pace the room telling us stories. Just that. Yes, dates and dynasties – but most memorable was that the narrative flowed so that the people in them came alive, and we could inhabit the time and the smells and the sounds of the period. She helped us climb inside, so we were being rather than observing. Once more, that reminder that to try and think with people rather than just about them teaches you a different lesson – both perspectives are important, but unique.

I was lucky, too, to have parents who both loved history and books, so we had many books around us, and many of them were very old – fragile paper printed in two columns with antique fonts. Books that had inscriptions in the front, were bound with string and glue, and smelled a little musty – many of them with one of those paper “Ex Libris” stamps glued to the inside front cover with the name of some owner written proudly on them. The language and preoccupations, the assumptions and lack thereof, of the time in which the book was written were written as clearly as the subject of the book.

Battle of Spottsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup

Then one day along came the film, Somersby, set in the Civil War. The director chose to take the viewer inside an antebellum plantation house of the South – and uses only the light that would have been available. It was stunning to me, and I have never forgotten it —me, a child of artificial light and 150 watt bulbs— how much of their lives people in the past lived in the dark! Another moment of seeing with the eyes of the person living THEN.

All in all, I was fortunate to know from a relatively young age that while history can be analyzed and explained and understood knowing the outcome, to be able to put oneself in the place of those living it is almost a form of acting – to understand a time, “feel” it as if you were in it. Try it. It may surprise you.

Oh, and speaking of the Civil War: my parents were given to re-fighting it every so often; perhaps as a proxy for other arguments, or more likely because they had different ideas about why the war was fought and but certainly because it was an issue about which their worldviews differed. Without saying who took which position, and without denying the glaring challenge to any discussion of that particular time and that particular war (slavery), as we kids listened we learned that there were *many* forces at play – and many sentiments being played upon – as that war was brewing.

It should have come as no surprise to me, then, when I was digging around in a box of old books and stumbled upon a book of speeches, essays, and critical writings —most of the period— about the Civil War, along with my high school “me” notes taken as I debated for The South (it was a formal debate, and I was assigned the position). Our arguments were to be drawn only from the readings in the book, which led with arguments for and against secession prior to the war —including such notables as Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln— and followed with the concept of “revisionist history,” in which the very idea of re-visiting history from the standpoint of 50, 100, 200 years later, is examined.

The book still fascinates – perhaps more than ever in our current climate of careful speech, verboten ideas and even “thought police.” I began to read the book again, wondering as I did if students in a high school history class today would be permitted to have such a debate, let alone have at its heart the question: “what caused the American Civil War?” Of equal interest was the discussion in the excerpts and articles and speeches in the book of the very idea of a “fixed” history of a subject: at least as important as the subject of the “causes” of the war was the debate of the value of “interpreting” history, and whether we can reach a better or more informed insight as we draw further and further from an event.

There IS the “zoom” factor of statistical analysis: any individual woman may be taller than any individual man, but if you “zoom out” to a large enough population, men will predictably be taller than women. At the time this book was compiled, the “zoom factor” was not quite 100 years, and for many of the essays, it was still a “living” debate. The further we move from any event, the harder it becomes to remember, or imagine, how it might have felt to live in those times, to be of that generation, to limit oneself to what people then knew and didn’t now – what the manners, mores, values, and belief system were (particularly without judging it from our standpoint today).

And if I learned nothing else from my various experiences in studying history, there is still —and always will be— much to gain from “seeing” it, as best we can, through the eyes of those living it, as well as examining it in the light of its consequences; of trying to see modern parallels in the hope of making better choices, or, as Chesterton warns us – not knocking down a fence in the road that might still have a purpose just because we can.

Problems in American Civilization

Edited by Edwin C. Rozwenc

Amherst College

Lessons from High School and History

Jamie Wallace