While the North “won the Civil War, the white South...won the subsequent peace,” Donald Yacovone notes in Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity. That is, America’s only civil war (or its only such conflict so far, it now seems prudent to add) ended slavery and crushed the Confederacy, only to have many generations of Americans taught a version of events that might have pleased Robert E. Lee. The real story was unrecognizably distorted in nearly every aspect—from the nature of slavery to the causes of the war itself. As this exhaustively researched, eye-opening, profoundly sobering new book makes clear, that mangling of history has served to reinforce racism at the most fundamental level: through the stories and ideas we have passed on to our children.
Yacovone, an associate at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and the author (with Henry Louis Gates Jr.) of The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, did not originally set out to write this book. Rather, as he recalls in his introduction, he wanted to learn how “the ‘collective’ or ‘popular’ memory of the original freedom struggle [i.e. the Civil War] helped create the modern civil rights movement.” As part of that project, he imagined looking through a handful of K–12 textbooks to get a sense of how abolitionism had been presented. Instead, he came across nearly three thousand textbooks—including one he remembered reading as a schoolboy—in which abolitionists, when mentioned at all, were often portrayed as the villains. “I found myself,” Yacovone writes, “immersed in a study of how slavery, race, abolitionism, and the Civil War and Reconstruction have been taught in our nation’s K–12 schoolbooks from about 1832 to the present.”
Yacovone’s narrative highlights many influential developments and figures along the way. Citing the work of historians before him, Yacovone identifies the nineteenth-century statesman John C. Calhoun as having “more than anyone” borne “responsibility for the pro-slavery ideology that the South came to adopt.” Indeed, it was Calhoun who bolstered the idea that the “peculiar institution” had been “ordained by God.” Then there was the writer and publisher John H. Van Evrie, whom Yacovone singles out as “the father of white supremacy”—Van Evrie even popularized that phrase—and as “the nation’s first professional racist,” the one who “laid the white supremacist foundations of American democracy.” In a testament (a highly unfortunate one, in this case) to the power of a single person’s ideas, Van Evrie wrote and edited books, newspapers, and pamphlets that sought to reconcile America’s ideals of freedom and its practice of slavery. Van Evrie’s thesis was that slavery was necessary to ensure democracy among white people, whose freedom from toil allowed them to enjoy equality with one another. (Many nineteenth-century opponents of slavery, including the young Abraham Lincoln, favored colonization—sending African Africans elsewhere—over Black equality.)
The conclusion of the Civil War brought Reconstruction, the dozen-year period in which federal troops occupied the South to ensure Blacks’ rights and Blacks themselves worked hard and served as legislators. Following Reconstruction’s collapse—part of the deal worked out to resolve the contested 1876 presidential election—conditions for African Americans, who were again at the mercy of Southern whites, were little better than they had been during slavery. It will surprise many, Yacovone notes, to learn that a number of textbook writers of that era recorded the history of the war, slavery, and Reconstruction accurately and sympathetically, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Hezekiah Butterworth, Elisha Mulford, Charles Carleton Coffin, and the Englishwoman Mary Botham Howitt. From the 1870s until the first years of the twentieth century, their works enjoyed popularity.