What really caused the Civil War?

Education, Politics

Note: This article is a response to comments posted in the blog post “Is Texas trying to rewrite history?”

In a recent NakedLaw blog post, I wrote that the state of Texas was ignoring historical facts by downplaying the role of slavery as the primary cause of the American Civil War.  That blog incited a rash of commentary, almost all of it taking me to task for ignoring the real cause of the war, which, according to most of the comment writers, was the battle to preserve states’ rights.

In response, I thought I might discuss the nature of historical facts and the processes that guide our acceptance or rejection of them.

The ideological battle to frame the Civil War has gone through a number of phases, with historians from opposing sides trading the upper hand in controlling the narrative. From the 1920’s to the 1940’s, revisionists argued that the war could’ve been avoided but for blundering politicians and rigid abolitionists who were unable to compromise over key issues tied to the rights of Southern states. Civil Rights-era historians, meanwhile, made slavery the cornerstone of the Southern cause, a narrative that has become dominant in both the American education system and popular culture.

Dominant but by no means universal: According to an August McClatchy-Marist poll, 53% of Americans say slavery led the nation into civil war, while 41% disagree.

But if both sides claim to represent a true interpretation of history, then which one is correct?

Historical vs. scientific fact

In science, a fact is “an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for most practical purposes accepted as ‘true.’’’ The scientific method is the process by which one makes observations and weighs evidence to try to determine facts. To claim that a scientific “fact” is actually false, you must find convincing and repeatable evidence to prove the contrary.

Thus, when the scientific process confirms in study after study that humans evolved from more primitive primates, that vaccines do not cause autism, and that climate change is real and caused by humans, then these observations should be accepted as fact unless it can be reliably proved otherwise.

A historian, on the other hand, uses evidence from the past to form a hypothesis or interpretation about the meaning and significance of historical events. But this process is less certain than the scientific method. Historical events only happen once, and historians can’t travel back in time to observe the past. Counterfactuals of historical events, or what “could have been,” are thus merely thought exercises. Historical facts may be well-argued and sensible interpretations, but the viewpoints they report are closer to opinions than to “facts” in the scientific sense of the word.

The result is that this process of historical interpretation is open-ended and fundamentally uncertain. Historians, like the rest of us, are individuals who view the world through a set of biases. Two academics can examine the same documents and draw entirely different conclusions.

So does this mean that all historical interpretations are equally valid and every school district should have the choice to teach whatever they want? In a word: no.

The Heavy Weight of Scholarly Consensus

Even if historians are confined to their subjective perspectives, we should give weight to their interpretations because they have spent a good portion of their lives synthesizing and analyzing the best available evidence on a topic. And when there is a consensus view among the experts on a specific topic, we should give that view even more weight.

As I wrote in my previous post on this subject, there is a long established scholarly consensus among credible historians that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. This may not constitute a scientific “fact,” but it’s probably as close as we can get in the field of history.


Perhaps the more relevant question is how individuals form ideologies and value systems that make them more open to or closed off from established knowledge, whether it is in the form of scientific facts or historical interpretations. Epistemology—the study of how we accept certain ideas as “truth”—describes a few approaches, including “aesthetic resonance, divine revelation, tribal affiliations, [and the] scientific method.”

In the end, our epistemological orientation sorts out the imperfect knowledge we accumulate over the course of our lives, helping us understand reality as best as we can. Deciphering how one’s epistemological understanding affects his or her views may open up room for more fruitful debate than our current thundering echo chambers of public discourse.

Maybe new evidence will come to light that conclusively proves (or at least proves better than existing evidence) that the Civil War was not primarily about slavery. If that happens, scholars will go through another stage of revisionism, as paradigms shift again.

But until that day, we are left with the current truth. Everything else is simply opinion.

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