This past Thursday’s Disunion in the New York Times has an interesting but disturbing piece by Edward L. Ayers, President of the University of Richmond, and noted historian of the Civil War and the American South, entitled “The Causes of the Civil War, 2.o.” In it, Ayers highlights an apparent disconnect between academic historians and the public over Civil War causes. While academic historians since the late 1960s generally have agreed that slavery was the principal cause of the war, Ed Ayers, citing a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, notes that 48 percent of the public believe the war’s main cause was states’ rights, while only 38 percent believe it was mainly about slavery.
Hence, the Pew poll reveals that the last generation of scholarship has yet to have influenced a majority of Americans when it comes to their view of the Civil War’s causes. “Of course, there’s no denying that states’ rights played an important role as the language of secession,” writes Ed Ayers diplomatically. “But how might historians convey a more precise, comparative sense of the role slavery played in the states’ decision to secede?”
Ayers asks a good question. Unfortunately, his answer helps highlight why academic historians have had relatively little influence on public understanding of the Civil War. Rather than deal with Civil War causes in an appealing way, he instead uses the platform of Disunion in the New York Times to showcase his and his colleagues’ rather technical scholarly work to the public. He provides a description of their computer-assisted textual analysis of the language used by delegates to Virginia’s 1861 secession convention, which reveals (not surprisingly) preserving slavery was by far their main concern. There is much to recommend about this analysis by University of Richmond faculty especially for the scholarly inclined, but it is not likely to impress a public that mostly likes their history in story form and/or through the prism of biography.
The Civil War Sesquicentennial is a golden opportunity to reach the public, as their attention has turned to the conflict in a manner that has not been seen since Ken Burns’ The Civil War hit the television airwaves in Fall 1990. Ken Burns’ series on PBS was popular precisely because he is such a good storyteller. So it is incumbent on professional historians to communicate with lay people in a way they find appealing, not just to share the findings of their academic research and hope it has a popular impact.
A good example of an approach professional historians should be taking in writing for the public to show them the centrality of slavery to the causes of the Civil War is exemplified by the columnist Richard Cohen in his recent op-ed in the Washington Post, “Dispelling the Myth of Robert E. Lee.” As the title implies, Cohen attacks the heroic reputation of the Marble Man. He writes of Lee:
Whatever his personal or military virtues, he offered himself and his sword to the cause of slavery. He owned slaves himself and fought tenaciously in the courts to keep them. He commanded a vast army that, had it won, would have secured the independence of a nation dedicated to the proposition that white people could own black people and sell them off, husband from wife, child from parent, as the owner saw fit. Such a man cannot be admired.
Later Cohen continues:
After the war, the South embraced a mythology of victimhood. An important feature was the assertion that the war had been not about slavery at all but about state’s rights. The secessionists themselves were not so shy. In their various declarations, they announced they were leaving the Union to preserve slavery. Lee not only accepted the Lost Cause myth, he propagated it and came to embody it.
So if academic historians are to influence public opinion during the Sesquicentennial, they must resist the temptation to promote their own scholarly work in popular publications, especially when it is rather dry and technical, and write more pieces like Richard Cohen taking on the heroes and symbols that help camouflage the fact the Confederacy went to war to preserve an inhumane institution. Especially when they call attention to the problem of popular perceptions of why there was an American Civil War.
Personal Note: I hope the readers of Civil War Emancipation will not take this post as a personal attack on Edward L. Ayers. I am critical of his piece in Disunion, but I have nothing but the highest regard for his scholarly work, especially his Valley of the Shadow website, which is a pioneer in using the web as a scholarly resource on the Civil War and which Ayers developed at considerable personal sacrifice. My point is if academic historians want to change public opinion on why the Civil War occurred, we should be trying more to write for the public in a way they will find appealing as well as convincing. Professional historians have something to learn from journalists in that regard.