Politics & Government

Did slavery cause Civil War? Many Americans don’t think so

The Slave Quarters: The four buildings at Horton Grove once were home to nearly 100 people enslaved at Stagville, N.C.
The Slave Quarters: The four buildings at Horton Grove once were home to nearly 100 people enslaved at Stagville, N.C. The News & Observer

A century and a half after the war ended, Americans still fundamentally disagree about slavery’s role in the Civil War and what to teach schoolchildren about it, according to a new McClatchy-Marist Poll.

Some 54 percent of respondents think slavery was the main reason for the Civil War. A sizable minority, 41 percent, do not think slavery was the main reason, the national survey found.

Echoing that divide, they also are split over what to teach children. A majority, 54 percent, believe schools should teach that slavery was the main reason for the war; 38 percent think they should not teach that.

How Americans view this, particularly in the wake of bipartisan movements to take down Confederate flags after a horrific mass murder inside an historically black church in South Carolina, underscores how much these basic opinions of slavery and race still split the country.

“These are not issues that America has apparently come to grips with in overwhelming numbers,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, which conducts the poll. “This is still, to some degree, a nation divided.”

Faced with questions about the role of slavery, Americans don’t just divide overall. They view it differently based on where they live, what political party they like and, of course, their race.

Narrow majority of Americans think slavery was the main cause for the Civil War

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SOURCE: McClatchy-Marist poll of 1,249 adults, July 22 to 28, 2015, margin of error: +/-2.8 percentage points

Rodney Fox, 31, a postal carrier from Boise, Idaho, who describes himself as a Democrat, is among those who thinks slavery was the main cause of the Civil War and that it should be taught that way in textbooks.

He said he felt like his school in Washington state “breezed” by the issue when he was growing up. Fox added that many aspects of America’s history with Native Americans is also missing from textbooks.

“We cherry-pick and shape what we want to put in our textbooks to show how we want to be perceived to our children,” he said.

In each geographic region but the South, poll respondents say slavery was the main reason for the war:

– By a large percentage, respondents in the West say slavery was the main reason, 67-27 percent.

– In the Midwest, 56-39 percent say slavery was the main reason.

– In the Northeast, 50-43 percent say slavery was the main reason.

But the response changes for Southerners, who say slavery wasn’t the main reason for the Civil War, 49-45 percent.

People of different party affiliations also responded differently to the question.

Democrats by 62-33 percent say slavery was the main reason for the war. Independents nearly reflected the national average, 53-43 percent. Republicans were more divided, 49-45 percent, that slavery was the main reason.

And a majority of tea party supporters do not think slavery was the main reason for the Civil War. Of those who said they support the tea party movement, 52 percent said slavery was not the main reason for the Civil War and 43 percent said it was.

“That’s a fairly sizable group of people who don’t think slavery was the primary reason,” Miringoff said.

Retired teacher Tom Laney, 63, of Odessa, Texas, is among those who say slavery was not the main reason for the Civil War. Laney is a tea party supporter.

“Slavery was a reality, both in the North and the South. But states’ rights, the right to secede, was the reason for the Civil War,” Laney said. “And the North’s reason was really economic. They couldn’t afford to lose the Southern states.”

Schools should not teach students that slavery was the reason for the war, Laney said. He said teaching the war that way is “a falsehood.”

“Rewriting of history is all too common nowadays in our school history textbooks and I’m totally opposed,” he said.

Those who wish to take down Confederate symbols like flags and statues say those symbols are tied to slavery, or a defense of slavery, said Theresa Runstedtler, an associate history professor at American University in Washington.

She said that those who celebrate the Confederacy say they are respecting their heritage, not advocating for hate or racism.

“And the crux of the disagreement has to do with these competing narratives of slavery in the Civil War,” Runstedtler said. “One version that places slavery at the center of the history of the Civil War, and the other which erases slavery as the cause of the Civil War.”

Poll respondents by 51-42 percent favor taking down Confederate flags from government buildings.

Those most in favor of taking it down include minorities over whites, women over men, those age 45 and older, college graduates over nongraduates, Democrats over Republicans, and those making more than $50,000 a year.

The Midwest and the South are more opposed than the West and the Northeast.

And the respondents are divided over race relations, with 47 percent saying race relations are getting worse, 35 percent thinking they’re staying about the same, and 16 percent saying they’re getting better.

METHODOLOGY

This survey of 1,249 adults was conducted July 22-28 by The Marist Poll sponsored and funded in partnership with McClatchy. Adults 18 years of age and older living in the continental United States were interviewed in English or Spanish by telephone using live interviewers. Landline telephone numbers were randomly selected based upon a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation from ASDE Survey Sampler, Inc. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. Respondents in the household were selected by asking for the youngest male. To increase coverage, this landline sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cellphone numbers from Survey Sampling International. The two samples were then combined and balanced to reflect the 2013 American Community Survey one-year estimates for age, gender, income, race, and region. Results are statistically significant within plus or minus 2.8 percentage points. There are 964 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. There are 345 Republicans and Republican leaning independents and 450 Democrats and Democratic leaning independents. The results for these subsets are statistically significant within plus or minus 5.3 percentage points and plus or minus 4.6 percentage points, respectively. The error margin was not adjusted for sample weights and increases for cross-tabulations.

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