Mill on the American Civil War

In nearly four decades of life as an American, I’ve heard a whole lot of conflicting things about the Civil War. Probably the most contentious point is about what slavery had to do with it. My own elementary education made clear that the principal issue in the war was slavery, but that this issue was mixed up with more general disputes about states’ rights and federal authority. That same education made it clear that the North fought the war primarily in order to end slavery, but also to “preserve the Union.” It was only in early adulthood that I learned that this is apparently not how the Civil War is presented to many young Americans and that there is a lot of disagreement about it. Evidently many, maybe most, kids are taught that the war was primarily about states’ rights and that slavery was a secondary issue. People — including historians who actually have some claim to know what they’re talking about — disagree about exactly what combination of factors motivated the North to fight. But a fair number of people I’ve encountered, mainly people without any historical credentials but a few with some, have barked at me about how the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery at all, but was entirely about economics; slaves mattered for that reason, but for that reason only.

I’m not about to enter into this dispute. I do, however, find it worth noting what J.S. Mill — yep, him again — thought about the war and his report of English opinion about it. No doubt historical causation is complicated, but it is interesting that, to an outside observer at least, this war was very definitely about slavery, and immensely important.

Before this [the publication of Utilitarianism] however the state of public affairs had become extremely critical, by the commencement of the American civil war. My strongest feelings were engaged in this struggle, which, I felt from the beginning, was destined to be a turning point, for good or evil, of the course of human affairs for an indefinite duration. Having been a deeply interested observer of the Slavery quarrel in America, during the many years that preceded the open breach, I knew that it was in all its stages an aggressive enterprise of the slave owners to extend the territory of slavery; under the combined influence of pecuniary interest, domineering temper, and the fanaticism of a class for its class privileges, influences so fully and powerfully depicted in the admirable work of my friend Professor Cairnes, The Slave Power. Their success, if they succeeded, would be a victory of the powers of evil which would give courage to the enemies of progress and damp the spirits of its friends all over the civilised world, while it would create a formidable military power grounded on the worst and most anti-social form of tyranny of men over men, and by destroying for a long time the prestige of the great democratic republic would give to all the privileged classes of Europe a false confidence, probably only to be extinguished by blood. On the other hand, if the spirit of the North was sufficiently roused to carry the war to a successful termination, and if that termination did not come too soon and too easily, I foresaw, from the laws of human nature and the experience of revolutions, that when it did come it would in all probability be thorough: that the bulk of the Northern population, whose conscience had as yet been awakened only to the point of resisting further extension of slavery, but whose fidelity to the Constitution of the United States made them disapprove of any attempt by the Federal Government to interfere with slavery in the States where it already existed, would acquire feelings of another kind when the Constitution had been shaken off by armed rebellion, would determine to have done for ever with the accursed thing, and would join their banner with that of the noble body of Abolitionists, of whom Garrison was the courageous and single minded apostle, Wendell Phillips the eloquent orator, and John Brown the martyr. Then, too, the whole mind of the United States would be let loose from its bonds, no longer corrupted by the supposed necessity of apologising to foreigners for the most flagrant of all possible violations of the free principles of their Constitution, while the tendency of a fixed state of society to stereotype a set of national opinions would be at least temporarily checked and the national mind would become more open to the recognition of whatever was bad in either the institutions or the customs of the people. These hopes, so far as related to Slavery, have been completely, and in other respects are in course of being progressively realized. Foreseeing from the first this double set of consequences from the success or failure of the rebellion, it may be imagined with what feelings I contemplated the rush of nearly the whole upper and middle classes of my own country, even those who passed for Liberals, into a furious pro-Southern partisanship: the working classes, and some of the literary and scientific men, being almost the sole exceptions to the general frenzy. I have never before felt so keenly how little permanent improvement had reached the minds of our influential classes and of what small value were the liberal opinions they had got into the habit of professing. None of the Continental Liberals committed the same frightful mistake. But the generation which had extorted negro emancipation from our West India planters had passed away; another had succeeded which had not learnt by many years of discussion and exposure to feel strongly the enormities of slavery; and the inattention habitual with Englishmen to whatever is going on in the world outside their own island, made them profoundly ignorant of all the antecedents of the struggle, insomuch that it was not generally believed in England, for the first year or two of the war, that the quarrel was one of slavery. There were men of high principle and unquestionable liberality of opinion who thought it a dispute about tariffs, or assimilated it to cases in which they were accustomed to sympathise, of a people struggling for independence.

Autobiography of John Stuart Mill (1873)

Notice not only that Mill thinks that slavery was certainly the main issue, at least so far as what mattered was concerned, but that he appeals to all the other main considerations that people usually bandy about in discussions of the Civil War: economic motives, political independence, states’ rights. There’s probably no single answer to questions like ‘what caused the Civil War?’ or ‘Why did the North fight the war?’ But never let it be said that only later generations invented the notion that slavery was the thing that mattered. We didn’t need Mill’s testimony to refute that piece of revisionism, but his perspective as an interested outsider is intriguing. I’m not sure all his hopes were in fact realized, but it’s remarkable that he thought that so much rested on the outcome of that conflict.

19 thoughts on “Mill on the American Civil War

  1. I’ve read a couple of Lincoln biographies geared more towards an understanding of his psychopathology; none of them are in dispute that he thought slavery to be a great evil, and a primary motivator for entering into the war was the elimination of slavery. There may have been other factors, but the notion that slavery was NOT a factor seems misleading to me. I tend to hear this only from those who are strong advocates of states’ rights, and seem to have something of an ax to grind in this respect. I’m not expert, but that’s my impression.


    • This comment got swallowed up by the software, too. Hence my delay in responding to it.

      The first person who told me that the civil war was not about slavery was the instructor in my African American History class at Ohio University in 2001. He was black and understandably rather irritable about much of the history he was teaching. The more immediately striking thing about his personality, however, was that he had been a drill sergeant in the military, and he lectured a lot like a drill sergeant — he was, let’s say, authoritative. I don’t recall the details, but his line about the civil war was something like: the civil war was not fought to free blacks from slavery; there were of course many Northerners who opposed slavery, and some who supported the war for that reason, but the leading motives, the ones that actually determined the political decision, were economic: the North wanted to “preserve the union” because it wanted the economic benefits of the southern states belonging to that union and wanted to prevent those states from retaining the competitive economic advantages that slavery provided. At the time, I gave rather more credence to reductive economic explanations of history and culture, and in any case I was not going to question the drill sergeant’s account. But even then I suspected that the account was too simple. In any case, this fella was by no means an advocate of states’ rights, so he didn’t have that axe to grind. I’ve since heard similar things from left-wing folks. It’s different in emphasis from the conservative states’ rights narrative, since it focuses on the North’s motivations rather than those of the South, but the two stories complement each other rather well.

      I think this question is different from the question of what Lincoln’s motives were. Lincoln played a crucial role, of course, but the North wouldn’t have fought, or continued to fight, simply because he said so. I don’t think my professor, or many of the other people I’ve heard offer up one or another version of the “it wasn’t about slavery” story, deny that Lincoln cared about slavery and wanted to abolish it. They just deny that the real explanation of the war is: the North wanted to abolish slavery, the South didn’t, and they were both willing to fight over it.


  2. If you’re ever in the mood to feel deep and abiding disgust, read Acton’s (sorry, I mean John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, First Baron Acton’s) essays on the American Civil War, contemporaneous with the Civil War and roughly contemporaneous with Mill’s work. They’re collected in his Essays in the History of Liberty in the Liberty Classics series, edited by J. Rufus Fears. I don’t have time to summarize them right now (the preceding link goes to a book review that does), so I’ll just leave you with the advice to read them.

    I first read Acton maybe twenty years ago, when I got a free copy of Acton’s Selected Writings through some Liberty Fund junket. I was under the naive impression that “Acton was a defender of liberty,” so I assumed that he’d have interesting things to say about the American Civil War. And he did. I just didn’t expect him to be an unreconstructed (so to speak) defender of the Confederacy, which is what he turned out to be–in the name of “liberty,” no less.

    Contemporary attitudes like Acton’s, I suppose, are what induced Tim Sandefur to write his much-praised and much-derided paper for Reason Papers, “How Libertarians Ought to Think about the U.S. Civil War,” which I highly recommend, if you haven’t read it yet.

    Though it’s not a part of Marx I’ve read very carefully, it probably goes without saying that Marx is another important outsider to comment on the U.S. Civil War.

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    • Interesting. Somehow it just never occurred to me that important European thinkers would obviously have had interesting things to say about the civil war. Marx’s stuff is probably interesting in a different way, since it was written during the conflict, whereas Mill in the Autobiography is reflecting on it after the fact.

      The most bizarre things I’ve heard about the civil war that have not been said by merely ignorant fools of the sort who fly Confederate flags have come from libertarians. But the narrative that the North didn’t really care about slavery as such and went to war strictly in order to retain the economic benefits of union with the South has mainly made its way to my ears from far left progressive types. In that case it seems more like an expression of pseudo-sophisticated, quasi-Marxist economic determinism, but at least there’s no argument that the North shouldn’t have fought the war, or did some sort of injustice thereby. The libertarian cases that I’ve encountered usually take that stance.

      I’m reminded of a story I heard from some fairly traditional Catholic friends years ago who had a fraught relationship with one of their employers (ostensibly an even more traditional Catholic), who was very generous to them but a somewhat difficult woman. At some dinner she’d invited them to, somehow or other one of them made casual reference to Lincoln, at which point the woman became very serious, almost alarmed, and said, in a hushed but stern voice, “Please do not speak of him. Abraham Lincoln is a very controversial figure in this household.” That year for Christmas we bought them a tree ornament that was a miniature portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

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      • “Please do not speak of him. Abraham Lincoln is a very controversial figure in this household.” That year for Christmas we bought them a tree ornament that was a miniature portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

        In the interests of decorum, I hope you didn’t speak of him.


        • Luckily, I never met this woman. I just got to hear about her from my friends. It was my friends who got the Lincoln ornament, not the states’ rights ‘Catholic’ lady.


  3. It occurs to me that the set of relevant motivations/intentions at the time (complicated, no doubt) and the (laudable, anti-slavery) meaning that we give the event now are related but distinct. Mill, as usual, is inspiring.


    • Oh, absolutely. I think Mill’s remarks are interesting in part because they suggest, if not show, that the set of motivations and intentions at the time may be distinct from the meaning given to the event at the time. I think everybody, no matter what else they think, agrees that at least some people at the time thought of the war as important primarily for how it would affect slavery; some people want to downplay that as very minor, but they concede that the thought was in some people’s heads. As far as reality goes, it seems clear that motivations and intentions at the time differed among different people, with different considerations weighing differently. Whatever exactly the combination and weight of different considerations would look like if we could magically collect them and tally them all up, that’d be consistent with the main significance of the war actually being what Mill says it was. Part of his view, after all, is that he seems to think that most or many Northerners supported the war initially not simply because they opposed slavery — since they were, according to Mill, willing to permit it in the southern states prior to secession on constitutional grounds — but for a more complex set of reasons, and that it would be only if the war was not too easy or quick that their attitudes would come to align generally with the staunch abolitionists. Whatever the merits or flaws of Mill’s take on things here, it’s interesting precisely because he takes account of many of the nuances and competing factors that usually take center stage in the rhetoric of people who oppose the narrative of the war as being about slavery.

      In general, I find the whole dispute really bizarre, like many other contentious debates concerning other parts of American history. I’ve come to appreciate that my early education was unusual in that it didn’t present American history in any sort of radical, revisionist way or in a confrontational, Howard-Zinn-for-fourth-graders fashion, but it did manage to make that history look morally complex and ambivalent, even when there was no doubt about whose side we were supposed to be on. I was surprised to learn later, for instance, that apparently many American school kids are presented with a whitewashed and celebratory version of Christopher Columbus, or not taught about the continually brutal treatment of native people well after the revolution; as far back as third grade I remember learning that Columbus was something of a scoundrel and that the overall treatment of native people from Columbus onward was horrendous. But we also imbibed quasi-heroic narratives about Columbus’ voyage, celebrated Thanksgiving with the usual narrative of “pilgrims and Indians” coming together in friendship and all that jazz, and were given to believe that the United States is a great country. I suppose some would say that it was just an incoherent picture, but in hindsight I credit it for my ability to appreciate moral complexity at an earlier age than most can. In any case, most of the popular uproar about the inadequacies of the ‘official’ version of American history has always struck me as odd, because it never succeeds in bringing up any points that conflict with the picture of American history that I was given as a kid. I don’t think I came away with a superior understanding of the details of that history, but if what most kids are or were being presented with is as simple-minded as some people say it is, then I certainly came away with a superior grasp of its complexities.

      That was grade school, though. High school was a different story…

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      • The best database for figuring out what kids are taught in school, about U.S. history or anything else, is the Sample Questions Tool for the relevant test by the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Here’s a link that goes to a sample of the grade 4 questions, including one on Christopher Columbus:

        And here is a question on the causes of the U.S. Civil War (for fourth graders):

        What was a major cause of the Civil War?
        A. People in the North and in the South had different religions.
        B. People in the North and in the South disagreed over slavery.
        C. People in the North wanted control of the country when they found out that gold had been discovered in the South.
        D. People in the South wanted control of the country when they found out that oil had been discovered in the North.

        I used to work for NAEP (back in the 1990s),* and actually did some fact-checking for U.S. history items. Indeed, I remember being sent to Firestone Library at Princeton one day on a special errand to fact check a question at the request of none other than Diane Ravitch, who was sure that a candidate item on slavery involved some false factual assumptions. (It didn’t. I wish I could remember the specifics. A costly errand for NAEP and the American people, but very rewarding for me to luxuriate in a university library on the public dime.)

        For better or worse, the general expectation at NAEP was (and I assume is) that U.S. history is taught in just the way you were taught it–in a critical, but not radical leftist fashion (a la Chomsky or Zinn or even Foner). That’s the expectation that shows up in NAEP’s assessments, sample questions, and published reports.

        Concealed from public view are the backroom fights (and wheeling and dealing) about what material was permitted to end up in the tests and in the reports. NAEP had (and I assume has) a whole division of employees dedicated to handling complaints and criticism from the public. It also has a National Assessment Governing Board answerable to (and in theory representative of) the public. The volume of criticism NAEP got was amazing, as were some of the criticisms themselves. I didn’t deal directly with this part of operations, but people I knew who did described almost all of the anti-NAEP criticism as coming from right-wing sources, criticizing NAEP for its anti-American, leftist biases. (I’m tempted to ask some of those people to blog a bit here about their travails, but I doubt they’d accept the invitation.)

        That item up there aside, I’d be curious to know how Christopher Columbus is handled at NAEP (or in schools generally). I suspect that’s because there is a powerful pro-Columbus lobby, Columbus is handled with kid gloves. But the Trail of Tears regularly shows up, and students are expected to know a lot about the run-up to slavery, the Civil War, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement. I’m not sure whether (or how) Reconstruction is covered, though I’d be surprised if the KKK or lynchings weren’t mentioned. In some ways, that’s all “safe” history, uncontroversial to everyone this side of the Alt-Right. But note how carefully the Civil War question up there is worded. Slavery is regarded as “a major cause,” not the fundamental cause of the war, and slavery is contrasted not with tariffs and the like but with the totally irrelevant issue of the gold rush. I don’t happen to know who wrote that question, but the circumspection is obviously deliberate.

        Incidentally, Sandefur aside, the locus classicus of libertarian thinking on the civil war is Jeffrey Rogers Hummell’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, now in its second edition (2013). I read the first edition, but was unconvinced by the argument. Haven’t read the second but probably should.

        *It’s an indication of the fallibility of memory that I couldn’t get the dates straight. I worked there 1999-2005.


        • Interestingly enough — I think I’ve mentioned this before in our various Columbus discussions — I got the ambivalent-at-best message about Columbus in a Catholic grade school that received various sorts of funding from the Knights of Columbus. My school was not a traditionalist Catholic school by any means, and was maybe even somewhat progressive by Catholic standards; very little of our education, even in our religion classes, could not have been presented in exactly the same way by atheists. Certainly our teachers and textbooks didn’t paint a picture of Columbus that chimed with your excellent commentary in your Columbus Day posts, but nothing in our education was contrary to that either, and it was made clear to us both that Columbus as an individual was a morally dubious character and that what his people did to the natives was mostly unjust exploitation or worse. I think it was third or fourth grade when that began to become apparent; my memory is vague, but I remember very definitely thinking that what we were learning about Columbus that year was different than what we’d learned about him in previous years. In some ways I think the general attitude that the school inculcated was distinctively, though of course not uniquely, Catholic, in that while it was by no means radical or anti-American, it was never beholden to any kind of special reverence towards the United States, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, or any of that business; America was seen as special in some respects, but not as superior to the rest of human history and culture in every respect. Our education had what I now recognize as a less parochial, more universal and even cosmopolitan conception of humanity as in all times and places somewhat good and somewhat bad in various combinations. By contrast, the biblical fundamentalist high school I attended was guilty of what a Catholic could only consider idolatry toward the United States, or rather its vision of what the United States was supposed to be; there were definite heroes and villains, America was very definitely the greatest country ever and flawed only by the influence of anti-Christian forces, and anything bad that had happened in its history was either ignored or explained as an exceptional phenomenon due to fundamentally anti-American causes, mainly secularism, atheism, communism and the like, but never racism. I don’t remember how the civil war was presented; I definitely don’t recall any southern sympathies, but I don’t think any strong views were presented about it at all. But I’ve always known that my high school experience was very unusual; it was only much later that I began to see that my experience in Catholic school was not more or less just a slightly Catholic-tinged version of what most decent schools offer. For a while I thought that this was a generational thing, and it was mostly people a decade or more older than me got some whitewashed version of American history. But the way people talk about it makes it seem as though it’s still quite common. I imagine it not only differs a good deal from state to state and district to district, but that what shows up in textbooks is not always the same thing as the message people take away from school, parents, and broader communities.

          I won’t be teaching any American history soon (thankfully, since I’m so unqualified for it) but it will be interesting to see how it’s taught at my new school. Given the school’s general emphasis on reading primary sources and on critical analysis and discussion of sources, and independent thinking more generally, I suspect there’s not much of an ‘official line’ about things like the cause of the civil war or whether Columbus was a great heroic man or an evil butcher. But it will be one among many interesting things I’ll keep a look out for.


      • I suppose some would say that it was just an incoherent picture, but in hindsight I credit it for my ability to appreciate moral complexity at an earlier age than most can. In any case, most of the popular uproar about the inadequacies of the ‘official’ version of American history has always struck me as odd, because it never succeeds in bringing up any points that conflict with the picture of American history that I was given as a kid.

        The conflict isn’t so much about what happened, as about matters of emphasis. What deserves to be central, and what ought to be relegated to the margins in the teaching of history? It’s also about how explicitly moral judgment ought to figure into pedagogy, i.e., to what extent (when, where, how) history ought to be presented as a morality play rather than as a succession of morally neutral events. And of course, what those judgments should be, whether implicit or explicit.

        Most conventional school-age pedagogy in the U.S. presents the issue of slavery unapologetically in morality-play mode: first we committed the sin of bringing slaves here; then, abolitionist moral reformers forced the sinful character of the sin on our notice; then a storm began to brew over slavery; then Lincoln came along and presided over the war that ended it; Reconstruction arose in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, faltered under Rutherford Hayes, and led to Jim Crow; Jim Crow persisted until it was dealt an ideological death blow with Brown vs. Board of Education; it was dealt a practical death blow with the Civil Rights legislation of the 60s, thanks to Martin Luther King, Jr; but the struggle goes on.

        That’s relatively uncontroversial, but far more controversial is whether we ought to tell the history of the rise of, say, American capitalism (or, for that matter, the labor movement) in something like the same way. And if so, how would we do that? Or what about the treatment of Native Americans? What’s the relevant narrative arc of that story? You could do the same for almost any topic in American history, down to things like the origin of our public parks. (Pronouns are the key to historical pedagogy, by the way, and the first person plural is the key to every controversy about historical pedagogy.) Two people could agree on all of the facts narrowly construed, but differ a lot on how to structure a narrative around them, and more specifically, how to do so for fourth, eighth, or twelfth graders.

        Incidentally, the parallel debates taking place in foreign countries–France, Israel, Pakistan, and India come to mind–offer some interesting comparisons and contrasts with the ones about our own. The value of cross-national perspective is, in a sense, one of the most interesting implications of the Mill quote in the original post.


        • The main thought that comes to my mind is: why are the alternatives here neutrality and morality play? Much of my early education fit the morality play mould, but not in a reductive way; even in fifth and sixth grade we weren’t being asked to see the parties on one or the other side of major conflicts in U.S. history as good guys or bad guys, or at least not merely as good guys or bad guys; Lincoln was definitely a hero and a martyr, and Booth was definitely a murderer and not a tyrannicide, but we learned what “sic semper tyrannis” meant and why Booth thought he was doing something other than sheer evil. It wasn’t that Northerners were the good guys and Southerners the bad guys, nor was it that Settlers were wicked murderers and Natives mere victims. I don’t want to overstate the moral complexity involved; there was rarely if ever any doubt about who was right about what. But even though I don’t remember much explicit discussion of it, the message that I came away with was definitely that individual people, to say nothing of whole groups of people, are a morally mixed bag; with precious few exceptions, they all do some good things and some bad things, all have some good motives and some bad motives, all have some virtues and some vices. It’s possible that this is a message that I took away even though it wasn’t part of the explicit content or design; but while there was certainly no hesitation among teachers to tell us that some person or some action was awful, I wouldn’t describe my history classes as morality plays, because they weren’t simplistic enough for that.

          In any case, there’s certainly difficult questions about how moral judgments should enter into pedagogy, especially for students at a younger age who really aren’t (or shouldn’t be) in a position to contemplate genuine moral complexity. So too, there’s difficult questions about how to structure narratives and the like. I suppose the complaints about the inadequacy of history pedagogy that I have in mind could just be simplified versions of complaints about these problems, but I’m not inclined to think so. The kind of complaints I’m thinking of are expressed in claims to the effect that the history books just lie or strategically omit details that systematically distort reality in a pro-American way. Those kinds of complaints can’t be justly made of the education I received. Even if this or that issue was presented in a mistaken way, neither the narrative nor the values we were encouraged to buy into did anything to prevent us from accepting an alternative upon being presented with good reasons and evidence. Maybe the best way to put it is this: many people talk about what they learned in school as something that they later had to learn was an ideological farce; I have never been given any reason to think that, and I don’t think I’d be given good reason to think that even if I were to come to accept some Manichean anti-capitalist worldview. Sure, my education did nothing to encourage me to accept such a worldview, but even from the perspective of that worldview, it didn’t present falsehoods or ideological mystification either, it just didn’t tell the full story in the right way. Perhaps the folks I’ve heard from about these things just don’t care for distinctions of that sort, but unless their complaint is simply that history class didn’t put on the right morality play, I don’t think the criticisms apply to my grade school history education.

          Then again, this was the same Catholic school that, in eighth grade, presented us with a transparently anti-abortion video and then let us spend an hour discussing almost entirely amongst ourselves whether we should oppose legalized abortion, with no signs of discontent when most of us said that no, we should not oppose legalized abortion. So maybe it was just an unusual place.


          • The main thought that comes to my mind is: why are the alternatives here neutrality and morality play?

            I would put the question somewhat differently: why is there a persistent tendency (in pedagogical contexts) to treat history as a morality play, particularly in the early grades, whether that tendency is a departure from neutrality or from some other, more nuanced approach?

            I think the answer is that narratives are easier to learn and easier to teach than the alternatives, and in principle can be taught without a very significant sacrifice of accuracy. The “sacrifice of accuracy” involved is really a matter of omitting complexity, and once the foundation is laid, the complexity can be treated as a superstructure to be added to it at a later date. In the usual case–the case unlike your Catholic school–there’s a high premium on teaching history in a simple, uncluttered, easy-to-remember style. There’s also a premium on teaching it in a way that will motivate students to learn it.

            Narrative serves both purposes. Whatever epistemic costs one incurs in teaching history via narrative can either be discounted as inevitable or as something to be “remedied” at a later date. (I’m not even sure “remedy” is the right word, since it implies a defect. Not every lacuna is a defect, after all, and a proponent of the “morality play” approach to historical pedagogy could regard the loss of complexity as a lacuna to be filled rather than a defect to be remedied.)

            That explains why narrative might be the preferred approach, but why morality play? Maybe because weighty moral issues are involved, teaching them serves a civic function, and morality plays serve that function. Indeed, historical topics are chosen for inclusion in a curriculum precisely because they do involve such issues. We want kids to learn the history of slavery and its abolition, and not, say, the vicissitudes of sartorial fashion over time. That’s because the study of history (like that of literature) has a specifically moral/civic function: religious instruction aside, history and literature are where students come to learn how to apply “everyday morality” (don’t push, don’t hit, don’t speak out of turn…) to larger social issues and contexts (school, neighborhood, community, nation, world).

            By “specifically moral/civic function” I mean two different things.

            (1) Most teachers want (unapologetically) to inculcate some basic moral lessons in their students: racism is wrong, slavery is wrong, genocide is wrong, exploitation is wrong, equality is good, people have equal rights, etc. etc. And historiography is the main instrument of inculcation.

            Relatedly, the teaching of one’s own national history is intended to get the audience to identify with the well-being of the country itself (i.e., the well-being of its denizens and institutions): that’s part of what I meant in my previous comment about the function of pronouns in the teaching of history. Slavery is taught as a morality play because the story of slavery is in some sense our national struggle, and the story it involves is our (continuing) story.

            In the latter case, the model is implicitly (maybe explicitly) the Book of Exodus from the Hebrew Bible, and the way in which it functions as a communal text for Jews. The history of slavery in the U.S. is told as though “we” were one people in solidarity with “our” forbears who were once in bondage: by repeated telling of the story, we come to identify with them, so as not to forget our continuity with them (maybe our confabulated continuity), and to carry on the project they began. It’s a familiar theme at Passover seders that while “we” are no longer in bondage under the Pharoah, we’re still not out of the woods (sorry to mix metaphors). The history of American slavery is taught with similar considerations in mind. In other words: Yes, slavery was abolished in 1865, but there’s…uh, still room for improvement.

            (2) As a very distant secondary or tertiary consideration, the teaching of history is used to sharpen students’ capacity for moral discernment, and to get them to recognize and grapple with moral complexity. Very few students ever get around to that, and most teachers of history know it. The David Riesbecks of the world are a tiny, tiny, tiny minority of the American school-going population, and the Catholic grade school you’ve described is very unusual–almost sui generis.

            But even here, as your comment suggests, the morality play format facilitates a certain valuable sort of understanding. Yes, morality plays can be reductive, and can therefore descend into mythology. But your grade school experience suggests that the alternative to a reductive morality play is not the rejection of the morality play format, but its replacement by non-reductive morality plays. And a non-reductive morality play is still a morality play; it’s just a complicated one. (Perhaps “morality play” is the wrong phrase; I guess it sounds inherently pejorative to some ears, though not to mine.)

            Even if you were taught that there was moral complexity in the history of American slavery, there was no doubt in the end that the North was right and the South was wrong, that Southern victory would have been a moral tragedy worse than war + Northern victory, and (though you don’t quite say this) that there is a certain narrative arc to American history from the benightedness of slavery to the enlightenment of liberation, and likewise from liberation to reform. In other words, add all the complexity you want; there is something irresistible about presenting the history of slavery in teleological fashion to illustrate Martin Luther King Jr’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s entirely plausible to think that the teleology is really there (or was there), and is not a mere retrospective construction or projection devised for purely ideological purposes (in the Marxist sense). And if the way things really happened is the easiest way of teaching the subject, and any epistemic costs can be made up later by more nuanced instruction, where’s the downside?

            The history of race relations in America (until 2016?) is a clear exemplification of King’s precept. The morality play format is justified in part as a way of taking advantage of that fact for entirely defensible moral purposes: besides teaching students that racism or slavery is wrong, you want to teach them that sometimes, justice wins out, not just in fiction, but in the real world. Not everything can be taught this way, or need be taught this way, but some things can, and perhaps some things ought to be.

            It would take a kind of fanatical pedagogical austerity or love of complexity for its own sake (or misguided pedantry) to ditch the morality play format altogether from the teaching of history. I can see a certain kind of historical pedant insisting that we ought to present the history of American race relations (including slavery, the Civil War, etc.) so as to confute King’s precept:

            Actually, the most recent findings in the Journal of Really Obtuse Historiography suggests that if you scrutinize American history from 1817 to 2017 under a methodological microscope, it becomes clear that we really haven’t made moral progress on race relations at all; ‘progress’ is just a late capitalist construct intended to socialize and domesticate American schoolchildren…

            But that kind of pedantry really is obtuse. In most cases, you can’t introduce complexity until you’ve covered the basics. Everybody recognizes that when it comes to teaching math, arithmetic precedes algebra, which both precede calculus. By analogy, I’d say: (non-reductive) morality play history precedes other modes of historical pedagogy.


          • Ok, if that counts as ‘morality play,’ I’m on board with that. It’s inevitable that teaching history in that way will require making some controversial choices and perhaps taking a side in some live debates, but I don’t see that as much of a problem. For one thing, the older students get the more room opens up for considering controversies and alternative points of view. For another, presenting younger students, or even older ones, with a ‘partisan’ narrative need not be akin to indoctrinating them in the negative sense of inculcating in them some ideology that renders them incapable of adopting alternative views; students who are taught that the Civil War was mainly caused by disagreements about slavery are not thereby left unable to assess arguments to the contrary and accept them if they deem them sufficient. If the pedagogy demands that teachers make some controversial choices, so be it; we’ve all got to make some controversial decisions about what to believe and do, so teachers should just focus on making the choices they deem most defensible and be prepared to defend them. No doubt the problem would be exacerbated by a movement to standardize curricula through state and federal requirements; but that’s just a reason to oppose standardization of curricula through state and federal requirements, not a reason to adopt a supposedly neutral pedagogical approach.

            Obviously (to me), the best approach will also have students reading primary sources and debating alternative interpretations of those sources, as well. But I gather at this point in many of our schools we’re still struggling to get students up to a level of reading ability that would make it possible for them to read those sources with any comprehension. So one thing at a time.


            • Ok, if that counts as ‘morality play,’ I’m on board with that.

              There really ought to be a better term for the thing I have in mind than “morality play.” At a minimum, we need a term that distinguishes morality play historiography in the good sense from morality play historiography in the pejorative sense. On the general topic of the American Civil War, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom strikes me as an instance of the first category; Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Abraham Lincoln is an instance of the second. And that’s not just because I happen to agree with McPherson and disagree with DiLorenzo. There’s a subtlety to McPherson’s account that makes it real historiography. Whereas DiLorenzo’s book is propagandistic rubbish masquerading as historiography. But both have a “moralistic” or morality-driven agenda (“moralistic” needs a replacement, too, or at least some clarification).

              In On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, Nietzsche distinguishes three kinds of historiography:

              However, the fact that living requires the services of history must be just as clearly understood as the principle, which will be demonstrated later, that an excess of history harms the living person. In three respects history belongs to the living person: it belongs to him as an active and striving person; it belongs to him as a person who preserves and admires; it belongs to him as a suffering person in need of emancipation. This trinity of relationships corresponds to a trinity of methods for history, to the extent that one may make the distinctions, a monumental method, an antiquarian method, and a critical method.

              In my sense, all three of Nietzsche’s methods are (in a sense) morality-play methods of historiography (including the potentially misleading “antiquarian method”).

              Problems with Nietzsche’s “taxonomy”: the methods aren’t really exclusive of one another (or need not be); the three methods aren’t exhaustive of the relevant possibilities; the taxonomy doesn’t explicitly make clear that each method has “deviant” versions (he’s focused on the ideal versions); and it doesn’t name the genus to which all three methods belong, as distinguished from the genera to which none of the three belong. He may or may not make these points later in the text–I don’t quite remember–but my point is that he doesn’t integrate them into the taxonomy.

              Put another way, however, only the monumental method is really morality play historiography. All three methods are driven by a moral agenda (in a very broad sense of “moral”), but only the monumental does that in a specifically narrative form:

              The greatest moments in the struggle of single individuals make up a chain, in which a range of mountains of humanity are joined over thousands of years. For me the loftiest thing of such a moment from the distant past is bright and great—that is the basic idea of the faith in humanity which expresses itself in the demand for a monumental history.

              But even “monumental history” is just a species of narrative-driven moralistic historiographies, the species that offers narratives of historical greatness focused on particular individuals (“Great Man History”). The category of narrative-driven moralistic historiographies is obviously broader than Nietzsche’s monumental method.

              So Nietzsche’s account, though stimulating, is in its stated form a bit of a mess. Obviously, it would take more work than I can do in a blog comment to get the conceptual relations straight and choose the right terminology for all of the relevant terms. Someone ought to do that in their spare time.


          • The kind of complaints I’m thinking of are expressed in claims to the effect that the history books just lie or strategically omit details that systematically distort reality in a pro-American way. Those kinds of complaints can’t be justly made of the education I received.

            I don’t have much to say about outright lying (except that I suspect that it’s rare, and wrong when it happens), but I think the claim about strategic omission can be understood in terms of what I said in the preceding comment about narrative and morality plays. Think of the objection as saying something like this:

            Why is it that the only topic that gets treated unequivocally as a morality play in the teaching of American history is the history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement? When it comes to teach that privileged topic, we tolerate a morality play treatment. But what about other topics amenable to morality play treatment? What about them? Why are they dealt with in such a morally anemic fashion? Why not a morality play treatment of the plight of poor whites? Why not a morality play treatment of the achievements of American capitalism? Why not a morality play treatment of the crucial role of Christianity in the formation of our most vital national institutions?

            But noooo. Poor whites get left out, and relegated to the margins to make way for “people of color.” The American capitalists are only discussed as robber barons, not as exemplars of virtue or to induce gratitude for the plenty we now enjoy because of their efforts. The narrative role of Christianity is just left out altogether, so as to spare the tender, easily offended sensibilities of non-Christians.

            Either all narratives should be included in the Grand Narrative, or the whole morality play approach should be trashed. Or: let us each run our own schools so that we can each teach our own narrative, in which case, don’t force us to subsidize the other guys’ schools, which forces us to sacrifice the inculcation of our narrative to theirs.

            Make the objection cruder, and you get a rationale for a certain kind of Trump voter and supporter of Betsy DeVos.

            I don’t mean to suggest that claims about strategic omission can only be understood in terms of the preceding claims about narrative; I just mean that it’s common for them to be couched that way.

            Strategic omission is a common phenomenon in the discussion of history in contexts where the stakes are high but the facts are complicated, and the person presenting the history has a strong incentive to cut through the complications to make a very specific ideological point. No historiographical account can include every fact. Some selectivity is required. But it’s very easy to slide from “some selectivity is required” to the adoption of a criterion of selection that downgrades every fact that might prove problematic for one’s ideological views.

            This article on the 1967 Arab-Israeli war is a classic of the genre. The author, Bret Stephens, accuses his opponents of offering “truncated history,” then offers a “history” of the 1967 War that begins in…June 1967, as though the war had no antecedent conditions. Doesn’t that omit the fact that Israel started the preceding Arab-Israeli war, in 1956? Doesn’t it also omit everything that happened between 1956 and 1967? Going further back, is it fair to excoriate Palestinian terrorism while omitting any mention of events like the Lavon Affair (1954)? My answers: yes, yes, and no. But given his aims, none of that matters to Stephens. That sort of complexity would just clutter the moral landscape he’s painting and detract from the moral dogma he wants to defend.

            Naturally, he doesn’t mention the fact that the UN peacekeepers removed by Egypt were on Egyptian soil, that it’s conceded by all hands that the Egyptians had every right to remove them, and that if Israel had wanted to, it could have requested that the same peacekeepers be stationed on its soil (but didn’t). He doesn’t mention that the peacekeepers were there precisely because of Israel’s prior aggression in the Sinai.

            He refers obliquely to “any Egyptian blockade of the Israeli port of Eilat,” but doesn’t alert you to the oblique nature of the statement: he means a hypothetical blockade of Eilat; strictly speaking, the Egyptians closed the Straits of Tiran, which blocked Eilat’s access to the sea as a consequence. They didn’t directly “blockade” Eilat, and in any case, they left open Israel’s access to the Mediterranean Sea via its coast (so that they can’t be said to have blockaded Israel in the act of closing the Straits). He doesn’t mention that the Straits of Tiran were arguably (and in geographic terms are obviously) within Egyptian waters. And he deftly avoids mentioning the fact that it was the Israelis who fired the first shot in the war. By fast-forwarding from the war itself to the peace process, he mentions the Israeli settlements but never manages to explain how a war in 1967 justifies the expropriation of Palestinians in 2017. The latter issue, though central to his argument, gets lost in the shuffle of rhetorical distractions.

            I belabor that example to show how easy and tempting it is to engage in strategic omission when recounting controversial historical events. The same thing happens in the teaching of American history. It’s something of an inevitability, I’d say. That’s why students need to learn history in the first place.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I can across a book that published what Southern politicians prior to the war wrote about the union and why they needed to secede. They saw their power in Washington threatened by the admission of slave-free states and hence the peculiar institution as well. And they were adamantly opposed to states’ rights. Lower class southerners saw blacks as economic competition and did not want them emancipated. (I can also imagine that encountering a more prosperous ex-slave would be a terrible hit to many fragile egos.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed. The southern states’ declarations of secession are also instructive in that regard:

      Slavery is prominent, states’ rights aren’t, and occasionally there’s even opposition to states’ rights, at least on the issue of slavery.

      One worthwhile distinction we can draw here is between the states’ official public reasoning and the motives that led people to endorse that reasoning. The latter would no doubt be far more complex and difficult to determine; the former is available for us in documents like the declarations of secession. It seems likely that plenty of things only indirectly related to slavery entered into people’s motives, but slavery seems to be paramount in the documents.


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