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As we speak, the town of Dover, Pennsylvania, is debating whether intelligent design theory ought to be mentioned in public school science classes. I find it somewhat ironic that we’re discussing how to teach the origins of life when we can’t even straighten out how to teach what happened after it began. Forget about science. Let’s talk about the most one-sided, whitewashed subject in all of education: The War of Northern Aggression. Or as the kids call it, the American Civil War.
When I was younger, I was constantly reminded of how important the Civil War was. Yet until I got to college and minored in history (by my own volition, I might add; seek and ye shall find), I never met a teacher who thought it was important enough to actually investigate both sides of the story in the classroom. The official line was simply this: The South owned slaves, so Lincoln freed ‘em. Case closed. End of story. Yet somehow, in spite of making such a long story short, my teachers managed to teach and re-teach the Civil War over and over again—pounding it home several times a year, every year, between the ages of eight and eighteen (which, i.e., was really hard to sit through).
On top of this repetitive Civil War coverage, I was subjected to what could only be called Lincoln Worship. Every February, cardboard cutouts of our 16th President’s somber face would adorn classroom walls for President’s Day. We’d hear about how kind and gentle he was. He was brilliant, they’d tell me. And word on the street was he even liked cats. Eventually, it got to the point where we learned that Lincoln could fly. Soon thereafter, dads started sacrificing their sons atop altars covered with five dollars bills. Lincoln was THE GREATEST GODDAM PRESIDENT EVER, they said (sans the “goddam” and without the Caps Lock). I owed my freedom to him. All of us did. You were with him, or you were with the slave owners.
I lived under the impression that Lincoln was a step down from God for many years. If I’d been hit by a big yellow school bus and killed my last day of high school, I would’ve died safe in the knowledge that Honest Abe walked on water, breathed life into blacks, and let loose bolts of thunder from his perch atop Mount Olympus. The only thing missing from Lincoln mythology was how Native Americans believed the whole world was really just a giant Abe Lincoln, who sat on the top hat of a larger Abe Lincoln, who sat on the top hat of a larger Abe Lincoln, infinity. But I suppose that’s because Lincoln killed all the Native Americans to make way for his choo-choo trains, so there wasn’t anyone left to tell the story.
A funny thing happened when I got to college, though. Actually, a lot of funny things happened when I got to college, but let’s stick with our Lincoln narrative here. Basically, when I got to college, I met a teacher who, like, totally attempted to teach American history. He wasn’t a Lincoln basher, this guy. He wasn’t a player hater. He didn’t sympathize with the South. The only thing he did, quite honestly, was bore me to the point where I considered killing myself right there in the classroom, like that kid from the Pearl Jam video. However, this professor happened to mention something I’d never heard before. In plain English, he swam against the stream of all common knowledge. Lincoln’s main objective wasn’t freeing the slaves, he said. It was saving the Union. As Lincoln himself once put it: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Now, wait a minute, I thought. How was that possible?
The reason for my disbelief was clear. All my life, I’d been taught that Abe Lincoln’s righteousness was immutable, and that his war was a war against racist Southern idiots. This was pounded home, over and over, again and again—made true—to the point where I was unable to wrap my mind around the idea that Lincoln was anything other than Lord and Savior of Black People. For that reason, I was also unable to entertain the notion that, yeah, maybe there really were two sides to the Civil War. It would be like somebody telling an 80-year-old, “Listen, before you croak, there’s something we’ve been meaning to tell you. The sky isn’t blue. It’s magenta. Yeah, sorry about that.” I’d been taught that Lincoln’s motives were to set free the Negroes, and I rejected my professor’s argument—his utter objectivity—like a transplanted body part.
Over the years, though, through personal research, I’ve come to think differently. The Civil War was about slavery, yes. But it was about more than slavery. And slavery was about more than racism. It was about economy. Lincoln represented certain Northern industrial interests, which were at odds with the Southern agrarian system. The South seceded not out of sheer hatred for coloreds, but to protect their economy (built, though it was, on the backs of coerced black laborers). Lincoln wasn’t really entitled to wage war on the South, but he did it anyway—revoking states’ rights and setting the precedent for unchecked federal power, which remains in place today. Some might call that fighting for freedom. Others might call it establishing tyranny.
Now, we can argue all day about whether the North or South was right. I happen to think the South was, but with certain misgivings. Slavery was the norm in the world back then. That doesn’t make it right; it just makes it the norm. All the same, though, the practice of slavery faded into peaceful obscurity everywhere else on the planet except America, where we love freedom so much that we apparently have to kill for it at least once every 20 years. To me, this is simply unnecessary. America could’ve waited for slavery to fade away. It could’ve come up with an economic transition fair to both Southern farmers as well as their slaves. But no. No, carpetbaggers just had to have jobs.
That’s why public schools should include a Southern perspective in their Civil War curriculums. Not because the South was necessarily right, or because the North was necessarily wrong, but because the singular Northern perspective skews what actually happened. A lot of people didn’t think a war was needed to end the practice of slavery. A lot of those people happened to live in the North. But you’d never know it, the way they glorify the high and mighty—and, incidentally, racist—Union when teaching the abridged history of America’s Civil War.
If you want to believe Lincoln’s goal was to free the slaves—fine. If you think he had to suspend habeas corpus, imprison rival politicians, and shut down dissenting papers because, for freedom to live, it had to be killed—great. Think whatever you want to think. I honestly don’t care. Six-hundred thousand lives were wasted in that war, but hell, they’re dead now, so there’s no use crying over spilled milk. All I’m saying is, in war, there are always two sides to the story. Always. Even in our current war. And if you don’t teach both sides to school kids, they’ll never be able to critically pick one. That kind of lopsided thinking gets us precisely nowhere in this world. It’s a great way to trick kids into staying on your side of a conflict. But it’s also a driving force behind most conflicts to begin with.
Take it from me. I was 25 by the time I learned Abe Lincoln wasn’t the one swapping quarters for teeth under my pillow. Teach both sides of the Civil War.