Friday’s Stupid Question

Again, I can’t believe that a professionally-trained PhD-bearing historian asked this, but here it goes:

Why insist that slavery was the only cause of the war?

I don’t know of any reputable historian who believes this, or who adopts such a simplistic (simple-minded?) framing of the issue.  And, of course, we call this “begging the question,” because it assumes something not in evidence, and it can easily be answered by the usual desire to see history as an expression of one’s personal views and nothing more.

Here’s my question:  Why ask such a stupid question?

After all, it’s evidently poorly-framed, and attempting to answer bad questions leads to worse arguments.

Now, it is apparent that some people need to believe this notion, whether it’s this old retired professor or a certain Canadian poet who we’ve encountered here.  Given that it’s such a warped understanding of the scholarly debate, we can only speculate as to why some people present the argument this way.  I venture that it’s another example of constructing something somewhere between an Other and a strawman (or strawperson): it seems to me to be important to some people to assert that some people believe this in order to “prove” them wrong.

I’ve always agreed with Ulysses S. Grant’s observation that if one removed slavery from the equation, there would have been no secession, no civil war.  So I see the presence of slavery as necessary but by no means sufficient in constructing an explanation of how and why secession and war came.  Moreover, the presence of slavery by itself did not cause secession and war.  And no one believes that … so why claim that “they” do?

Whatever the reason, those discussions are not ones about history or scholarship.  Nor is it likely that those people who make these claims will forward evidence demonstrating that their targets actually believe what the questioners say they believe.  That both sources cited above have in the past demonstrated that they are smug and condescending only adds to the fun.  That one actually has an advanced degree is incredible.

One of the best ways to guarantee a fruitful historical discussion is to ask the right question.  It’s also an essential part of good research and can lead to advancements in historical understanding.  Asking the wrong question or a poorly-framed one (let alone these loaded statements) is to provide fodder for flame wars.  But then the questioners don’t seek understanding in the first place, do they?

11 thoughts on “Friday’s Stupid Question

  1. Terry Walbert July 29, 2011 / 11:56 am

    The question to ask is why did the war take place in 1861 instead of earlier. Slavery is certainly the necessary ingredient, but there were other factors in 1860 that weren’t present in 1820, 1833, 1848, or 1850. The most important, i believe, was a Northern-based Republican party against a divided Democratic party.

  2. Brooks D. Simpson July 29, 2011 / 12:11 pm

    That’s one of the questions to ask (Mike Holt likes to ask it, and he did when I was his undergraduate student). There are others. Asking those questions leads to a much better discussion and a far better understanding of how and why things happened as they did. The stupid question I’ve highlighted leads to a version of “garbage questions get garbage answers.”

    And yes, there are stupid questions.

  3. Terry Walbert July 29, 2011 / 12:36 pm

    I’m amused when I hear descendants of Confederates argue that the war wasn’t about slavery. Perhaps they’re embarrassed to admit that their ancestors were fighting to preserve a slaveholding government.

    Of course, the reasons why a man fought for the South were many. There is the case of the Shriver family in Union Mills, Maryland. The slaveholding family sent men to fight for the Union, while the non-slaveholding part of the family supported the Confederacy. And not every Union soldier wanted to free the slaves. I suspect that at first most didn’t.

    It’s really a damn shame that we can’t get our ancestors pure and have to settle for pure whisky instead.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 29, 2011 / 12:53 pm

      Most historians would emphasize that few Union soldiers joined in 1861 to destroy slavery. It was all about preserving the Union. And many Confederates were afraid on the consequences of emancipation.

  4. Al Mackey July 29, 2011 / 12:59 pm

    I harken back to Edward Ayers’ essay, “What Caused the Civil War?” He says if you want to give a one-word answer, then that answer will have to be slavery. But one-word answers are necessarily limited, and when you’re giving that one-word answer you need to know all that’s involved behind it. For example, let’s say the secessionists can convince the deep south to secede midway through Buchanan’s term, saying they knew it was just a matter of time before an antislavery president was elected and they may as well go now. Given what I’ve read of Buchanan, I don’t think that leads to war. Lincoln is elected, arrives in office, and secession is a fait accompli and has been for two years. Not much he can do about it then.

    • Al Mackey July 29, 2011 / 1:02 pm

      Too fast on the submit. To finish, slavery itself isn’t sufficient, but it’s very clearly the central issue involved.

  5. Al Mackey July 29, 2011 / 1:08 pm

    I dimly recall there’s a book (probably several) that discusses asking questions for historical inquiry. I think D. H. Fischer gets into a little of it in his book, “Historians’ Fallacies.”

  6. Lyle Smith July 29, 2011 / 7:19 pm

    I think sometimes people mix up why there was a war and why individuals went to war. It’s two separate points. And sometimes when trying to articulate the latter point they in fact make a statement about the former.

  7. Helga Ross July 30, 2011 / 11:37 am

    Moreover, the presence of slavery by itself did not cause secession and war. And no one believes that … so why claim that “they” do?

    Do tell. (?)

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 30, 2011 / 3:03 pm

      I see no need to explain your position. Are you having trouble explaining it?

      Update: Apparently Ms. Ross is unable to explain her claim that there exists a school of argument that it was all about slavery and that I’m a prime example of that sort of explanation. So she has retreated back into her little discussion group, where the best she can do is to quote Brag Bowling on Virginia’s secession … which has nothing to do with her claims about a so-called Slavery School of Thought.

      As I’ve said before, Ms. Ross can’t follow her own train of thought. Instead, it’s another derailment.

  8. Ray O'Hara July 30, 2011 / 4:29 pm

    the presence of slavery brought about the Abolitionist Movement.
    and fear of abolition drove the Slave-o-crats to secession..

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