By DeWayne Wickham
It’s late August 2011 and the new school year has just begun in Austin. Answering a nationwide search for anyone willing to teach history in the city’s public schools, I’ve taken my place at the head of a history class.
I landed the job after a lot of the school’s history teachers quit in protest of the curriculum changes the State Board of Education ordered in May 2010. These changes made a lot of liberals — and people across the political spectrum from President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan to George W. Bush’s first Education secretary, Rod Paige — cry foul.
But where they saw catastrophe, I see opportunity.
Among other things, the Texas board wants students to be taught about the inaugural addresses that both U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave on the eve of the Civil War. Its motive was to give credence to the South’s case for seceding from the union. I think the board’s change opens up another possibility. It unwittingly gives teachers an opening to prove that the Civil War’s root cause was slavery.
So, motivated by a desire to end the long-running attempt by those who want to cleanse the South of the awful stain of slavery and the bloody war Southerners fought to preserve it, I launch into this discussion of Davis’ and Lincoln’s inaugural addresses on the first day of class.
Davis gave his speech two weeks before Lincoln took office, I tell my students, and those remarks leave little doubt what cause created the Confederacy. It was, Davis said, “actuated solely by the desire to preserve our own rights, and promote our own welfare.”
What rights was he talking about, a student asks?
I pull out a copy of the Confederate constitution, which differed only slightly from that of the United States, and pointed to two provisions.
One, I tell my students, makes unconstitutional the enactment of any law “denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.” The other says “negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress” in any new states or territories that might be acquired by the Confederacy.
Slavery, I tell my students, was the primary reason 11 Southern states tried to leave the Union. The states’ rights argument was about the right of these states to maintain that peculiar institution. The term “sectional conflict” that some suggest as another reason for the war is a veiled way of describing Southern discontent with the North over whether slavery would be permitted in new states.
Lincoln acknowledged as much in his inaugural address. “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended,” he said, “while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.”
Despite Lincoln’s promise not to “directly or indirectly” interfere with slavery, the rebellious states plunged the nation into a Civil War that took 610,000 lives and inflicted nearly one million casualties, I tell my students.
Of course, it’s not likely that I’ll really ever get a chance to teach that history lesson to Texas schoolchildren. Not as long as the revisionists who now dominate the state’s 15-member education board are in power. The history they want taught is based not in fact, but in ideology.
It is the product of political zealotry, not an honest reading of an inaugural address that reveals Lincoln as a reluctant patriot — and Davis as a rebel.