Alexandria Letter: Constructing History

Alexandria Letter: Constructing History

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

History books – and instructors – are not infallible. For example, although our Massachusetts President John F. Kennedy’s Thanksgiving Proclamations issued more than 50 years ago acknowledged Virginia’s Berkeley Hundred Thanksgiving celebration on Dec. 4, 1619, American history texts and teachers still credit the Pilgrims’ 1621 event as the first on these shores by the English. Why do the texts mostly written and edited in Boston and N.Y. not credit Virginia’s preeminence? Why should we care?

Because our texts misrepresent an easily determinable fact as noted above, how can we trust those same writers and editors to convey truthful and complete information about a complex subject like the reasons for one of our most divisive conflicts: The War Between the States — and not to demean Southerners and their history covertly if not overtly? Whence rose the propaganda that the racist and evil Southerners fought only to preserve slavery, and the noble cause for which the Northerners fought with God’s blessing was to eradicate it? Did God earlier bless slaveship owners and their hugely profitable enterprise?

All the high school and college American history texts I have seen omit other important information, e.g., Southern states paid their costs for the Revolution when it ended, but Northern ones did not. Bailing out those debtor states was a paramount goal of Northern politicians like Alexander Hamilton who advocated a National Bank for that purpose, among others. He declared paying off a common debt would help unify the states. That stratagem meant the Southern states would also pay the Northern states’ debts. Southerners protested in vain. Resentments for this and other reasons continued to fester.

Congress required Southern but not Northern states to pay tariffs that funded most expenses for the growing federal government and internal improvements almost entirely in the North. Southern resentments increased. The agricultural South was generally wealthier than the North, which relied on hardscrabble farming, fishing and its most lucrative business, importing slaves from Africa who were sold in the North but much more widely in the South. Northerners made impressive fortunes in the slave trade.

By 1860, 87 percent of the costs of the federal government were paid by four Southern states: Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Kentucky. After the first three seceded, Lincoln resolved to compel the seceded states back into the Union. He maneuvered to have Southern forces fire the first shot at Fort Sumter to justify his invasion. He said he had been elected President of all the states and intended to be so. There were other causes of the War, but money and power were key concerns for him. He did not mention abolishing slavery as a reason for his invasion; in fact, abolition was then an unpopular cause in the North.

Ellen Latane Tabb