Steven Lubet: Haley Barbour, Slavery and the Citizenship Test

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Steven Lubet is the Williams Memorial Professor of Law at Northwestern. He is the author of "Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial."]

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour recently acknowledged that the Civil War was fought over slavery. As reported by Politico, Barbour recognized that "Slavery was the primary, central cause of secession." That may not seem like news, but many Southerners have insisted that the "War of Northern Aggression," as they call it, was fought over more palatable issues, such as states' rights or economic autonomy. That is nonsense, but it still took some courage for Barbour, in an interview with professor Robert S. McElvaine of Millsaps College, to repudiate a long-held myth about the nobility of the "Lost Cause."

Of course, Barbour's repudiation of secession is no doubt prompted, at least in part, by his all-but-declared candidacy for president. As a national candidate he will have to appeal beyond his Southern base, and that means rejecting Confederate apologia in favor of, well, actual history.

Now, if only the federal government would do the same thing.

Unbelievably, the official study guide for the U.S. citizenship test still lists three acceptable answers for the question about the causes of the Civil War: slavery, economic reasons and states' rights. The latter two answers, as Gov. Barbour now freely admits, are simply wrong. In fact, they are worse than wrong, because they obscure a central fact about American history. As Barbour put it, "the Civil War was necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery. Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary, and it's regrettable that it took the Civil War to do it. But it did."

Needless to say, the Civil War, with its 600,000 casualties, would hardly have been necessary if it had been about nothing more than the division of power between the central government and the states, let alone some amorphous "economic reasons." And yet, that is precisely the lesson that will be learned by any aspiring citizen who diligently studies the government-provided model answers to the naturalization test....

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