Now that our current governor has announced his presidential campaign on Twitter, it strikes me as a good moment to look at his take on one of the most important questions in our nation’s history: What caused the American Civil War?
Answering this question is more than an academic exercise.
On multiple grounds, an honest assessment of what caused the Civil War is a good historical litmus test for any politician running for president.
So many of our current domestic problems turn on questions relating to race, and race was critically involved in the Civil War. The war resulted in the most sweeping social reform in our history: the emancipation of almost 4 million men, women and children who had been held in bondage. By any reasonable measure, we are still living with the consequences of the Civil War, and a candidate’s take on this period of our national experience is worth knowing.
The best answer to Ron DeSantis’ interpretation of the causes of the Civil War emerged from a November 2022 article in The New York Times describing his experience as a faculty member at a prep school northwest of Atlanta. Following his graduation from Yale, he spent a year at the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, teaching American history, coaching and doing dorm duty, before heading off to Harvard Law School.
“The Civil War was not about slavery,” his Darlington students quoted him as saying, “it was about two competing economic systems,” an industrial North squaring off against an agrarian South. Slavery was a “business,” and the free labor North and the slave South were, in essence, fighting over differing definitions of what constituted “property.” In short, young Ron DeSantis was offering up an economic explanation for the coming of the Civil War. The racial content of the South’s slave system was not the key; it was the slave’s legal definition as chattel property that was the critical variable.
How does this interpretation hold up?
Not very well, the overwhelming majority of American historians working in this field today would say, and I am among them.
The clearest picture of what caused the Civil War, I have argued, emerges in the words of some 50 men who served their slave states as secession commissioners in late 1860 and early 1861. They went out, principally from the Deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, to explain why their states were leaving the Union and to try to persuade other slave states to join them.
These men made no efforts to beat around the bush, and their speeches and public letters are blood-chilling.
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On Dec. 17, 1860, Commissioner William L. Harris of Mississippi told the Georgia General Assembly that “Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality.” He concluded his speech to the Georgians with these words: Mississippi “had rather see the last of her race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile, than see them subjected to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the negro race.”
Alabama Commissioner Stephen F. Hale wrote a public letter to the governor of Kentucky on December 27, 1860, carrying a similar message. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in November 1860 was nothing less than “an open declaration of war” on the white people of the South. And “the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”
These same words and sentiments occurred over and over again in the commissioners’ messages. And it seems to me that we deserve a president who is aware of this history, who is awake to the realities of our racist past. It just might help him or her govern in the interest of all of our citizens, not just those who want “woke to die.”
Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, emeritus, at Williams College. His interpretation of Civil War causation can be found in “Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.”