A new language for an old conversation

by John Dudley ’95

One hundred and fifty years ago young men in Virginia were facing an uncertain future. These young men, many of them the same age or younger than our Hampden-Sydney students, were facing a future that could include the creation of a new country, a prolonged war, and a dramatic change to their way of life.


Their country was at a crossroads and the future they faced was more complex than deciding between entering the workforce or going to graduate school. In March of 1860, Virginians were deciding whether they would remain a part of the United States of America or join the rapidly growing number of states breaking away.

In recognition and remembrance of this critical time in our national history and as a part of the celebration of the inauguration of Dr. Christopher B. Howard, Hampden-Sydney College's 24th president, on February 3 the noted historian and President of the University of Richmond, Dr. Edward L. Ayers, asked, "Why should we care about the Civil War?"

Before joining Richmond in 2007, Dr. Ayers was the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, where he was named National Professor of the Year in 2003 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Among his many distinctions as a historian of the American South, Ayers has written and edited ten books, including The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Ed Ayers
Dr. Edward L. Ayers, historian and president of the University of Richmond
Dr. Edward Ayers, historian and president of the University of RichmondSo, why should we care about the Civil War? Ayers says we often forget that this was an event of global importance, an event that greatly influenced the next hundred years. "We've gotten so used to it, we've seen so many highway markers, that we've domesticated the Civil War and we've forgotten what could have happened. We've forgotten that the United States could have been divided. What would the 20th century have looked like without this country unified to go to the aid of democracy? The other thing is that if we had established a separate nation, you would have found the fourth-richest economy in the world based on slavery, showing that you could have an advanced economy with forced labor. So, why should we care about the Civil War? Because matters of ground-shaking importance happened all around us."

To appreciate the effect the Civil War had on the United States and the world, Ayers examined what caused the war, particularly our long-held beliefs that the war was a matter of slavery, states' rights, or economics.

"This is a remarkably impoverished conversation, considering we've had 150 years to think about this. I really can't think of any other subject in world history for which we have exactly the same range of explanations that we did at the time. The French Revolution-how many times have we rethought that? The Russian Revolution, even the Cold War? But for the American Civil War we use the same language they used at the time and just argue back and forth."

This is not to say that the conversation has not had some changes. Among the usual explanations, the prevailing theory has changed. James McPherson's 1988 book, Battlecry of Freedom, tells us that the war was about the struggle between a modern North and an agrarian South-the economic explanation, which is similar to historian James Beard's explanation of the 1920s. In the run-up to World War II, people thought the Civil War was a terrible mistake that never should have happened. Ayers noted that the war in Europe and the Pacific changed that perception: "[Pulitzer Prize winning historian] Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., comes out of the war and says, 'We were wrong about the Civil War. Sometimes there are things that need to be destroyed. The American Civil War was an example of that, just like World War II'."

So, what is wrong with the possible explanations of economics, states' rights, and slavery?

"We've got to forget this idea that it was somehow in the soil that the South was all about states rights and the North is all about 'big government.' There's no 'big government' in 1860."

First, the South was not, as the argument stated, financially dependent on the North. The two regions had a symbiotic arrangement. Ayers points out that in 1860 the South, with its slave-based workforce, was the fourth-largest economy in the world, white Southerners were remarkably literate for the time, the South had an extensive railroad system, voter turnout among white men was above 80 percent, and the South controlled the cotton that fuelled the economic growth of the North, England, and France.

Ayers also contended that the states' rights argument, which Confederate President Jeffer­son Davis developed after the war ended, is "nonsensical." He said, "Why would the South claim 'states' rights?' Before the Civil War, the South largely controlled the federal government and was the main beneficiary of it. A majority of presidents had been Southerners and slaveholders. The Supreme Court was dominated by Southerners. Federal law said if slaves ran away you must return them; the federal government was on the side of the slaveholders. The war with Mexico was fought largely at the instigation of southern states. The Dred Scott Act used the power of the federal government to extend slavery into the territories. So, the South was not touting 'states rights' when [the federal government] was advantageous to it. Similarly, the North was all about states rights when they were asked to do something they didn't want to do: the War of 1812 or the Fugitive Slave Law."

He added, "We've got to forget this idea that it was somehow in the soil that the South was all about states rights and the North is all about 'big government.' There's no 'big government' in 1860. They barely have an army. The fact that the Confederacy fought against them for so long shows how little of an army they had."

The third possibility popular among those who have studied the Civil War is that an overwhelming tide of the abolitionist movement crashed head-on against the South's devotion to the slave system. However, Ayers pointed out that only two or three percent of Northerners were abolitionists. Rather than being staunchly anti-slavery, most Northerners actually were complicit with slavery in the South.

"All the Republicans said was that you cannot use the power of the federal government to extend slavery into the territories," explained Ayers. "They did not support John Brown; in their platform, they denounce John Brown. Frederick Douglas says the Republican Party is the worst thing that has ever happened to African Americans in 1860. They're not going, 'Yes, [Abraham Lincoln is] really an abolitionist.' Because he wasn't. He hated slavery but he says, 'Folks, there's nothing I can do about slavery where it is. The Constitution does give them the right to have it. There's nothing I can do about it.' Even when the war starts he says, 'Slavery is going to continue in Kentucky and in Maryland because the Constitution does not give me any authority to get rid of it.' So, we need to be suspicious of this idea that the North was really against slavery but didn't know it."

If these popular and long-held positions are not supported by evidence from the time, what does the evidence tell us? To find out, Ayers and the University of Richmond are using modern technology to tell us more about the issues of the day that drove people to war.

Ed Ayers
Dr. Ayers shows the functionality of the website of the Digital Scholarship Lab.
The University of Richmond has developed the Digital Scholarship Lab to collect and analyze tremendous amounts of data. Ayers used the technology to show how a closer look at the election of 1860 breaks down our common perception of North versus South, of a properly delineated Mason-Dixon Line. By showing the election results by county rather than by state, Ayers illustrated that unionist feelings reached throughout the South and the margin of victory in many counties was very slim. "What we saw with the 2008 election is that if you win the election with 52% of the vote, you don't control everything, and if you lose the election with 48% of the vote, you don't just give up. The same thing was true then. What did all of those in the South who voted for the Union in the fall of 1860 think for the next five years? What did all those folks who voted for the Democrats in the North think about all the way through the Civil War?"

Historians are also using the Digital Scholarship Lab to scour volumes of The Richmond Times-Dispatch to discover what was on the minds of people before the war. Was it slavery, states' rights, or the economy, or something else? By focusing his digital search on the months of Virginia's secession convention, Ayers found that slavery was a popular topic but states' rights was mentioned more often as the convention progressed. Likewise, during the course of the war various topics became more popular, some became less popular, and some, like the sale of war bonds and notices of escaped slaves, saw dramatic changes as the end of the war approached.

"Combined, these perspectives show us that we might as well get over the notion that this moment in the American past was simple, that you can fit your explanation for it on a bumper sticker, that something this complex is going to have a one-word answer."    

So, why should we care about the Civil War? "The truth of the history we write matters," said Ayers. "The truth that we pass on to our children matters. It can't be just what we wish it were. It can't be just what we use to flagellate ourselves. It can't be cheap. It has to be true to the evidence. So ... what's the best history? It's the history that can account for the most evidence. You say in court, 'What's the best explanation?' What's the best investment decision? Why would history be any different?"

The new processes at the University of Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab are providing new evidence, which can lead to modified-or even new-ideas about the Civil War. This is just fine with Ayers.

"This means that history is intrinsically revisionist. Somehow that has become known as some horrible word, but I want revisionist history just like I want revisionist medicine. If we relied on the explanations that people at the time had for illness in 1860, there would be a lot fewer people here right now. If we believed that there was no real cure for diarrhea and dysentery-that killed far more men than bullets-we would consider ourselves foolish. Why would we believe that we have not moved beyond the explanations [for the war] that people of the time gave? I don't know about you, but I don't know anything about the world in which I live right now. I read three newspapers every day to try to keep up, but I can't."

"We see that the war grew out of the presence and problem of slavery in the body politic of the nation, and that presence overrode the economic reasons for the union to cohere."

"We are going to find a new language, a more supple language, a more honest language, which is not about beating up anybody's ancestors, not about casting doubt on anybody's honor. It's about accounting for evidence. One hundred and fifty years is a long time to have the same argument."

Ayers said that we have had the story backwards, that for Southerners the issues were security and the sanction of slavery. Along with demands for the non-slave North to respect Southerner whites' economic rights, racial rights, and electoral rights, Ayers said Southerners also "demanded that the North respect the ethical basis of slavery." This ethical battle over slavery pitted the South against the North.

Meanwhile, Ayers said Northerners were upset with slave-owning Southerners' desire to expand slavery westward, for their previous dominance in the federal government, and their "contempt for working, white men."

He said, "This conflict was not about slavery itself, not about injustice to enslaved people, but about the implications of slavery for white people. That's what the Civil War was about: the implications of slavery for white people."

Once we understand why this country was torn apart by civil war, we can begin learning the lessons of this period in our history. With a truer understanding of the people and issues of the day, and with the technology to discover more evidence about the time, we can carry on a new conversation about the American Civil War.

Ayers ended his provocative and insightful presentation with this thought: "We are going to find a new language, a more supple language, a more honest language, which is not about beating up anybody's ancestors, not about casting doubt on anybody's honor. It's about accounting for evidence. One hundred and fifty years is a long time to have the same argument. I think that finally in our time we have a chance to hand our kids a richer language in which they can have a more productive conversation about the things we've been talking about for so long."