Blogs > Jim Loewen > Time to De-Confederatize the Textbook, "The American Journey": An Open Letter to James McPherson

Jul 31, 2015

Time to De-Confederatize the Textbook, "The American Journey": An Open Letter to James McPherson

tags: textbooks,Confederate Monuments

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.


Why doesn't James McPherson's textbook (left) say the same things about secession and Civil War that his famed history of the war does (right)? Maybe he never wrote it?

Dear Jim McPherson:

On May 13, 2015, I heard you at Politics & Prose, the independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. Perhaps you saw me in the audience and later in the question line. (We have met several times, most recently two years ago, when we walked together from one part of Arlington Cemetery to another for the burial with military honors of two bodies recovered from the wreckage of Monitor.) Eventually I abandoned the question line, however, because my question was going to be critical, even embarrassing, and it wasn't appropriate to embarrass you in front of your book-tour audience.

Recent events have convinced me, however, that I must ask you more than one question, not about your most recent book, but about your middle-school textbook, The American Journey. I shall ask them here, in this letter sent to you and to History News Network, HNN, where at least some of the historical profession comes to learn about itself.

Maybe you won't be embarrassed. Let's see.

Let me start with the exact opposite of criticism. Decades ago, I bought your one-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, in hardbound. It is my "go to" book on the war — indeed, for years I have filed all my other general histories of the war next to it, under "McPher," no matter who wrote them. That way I don't have to remember those other authors' names; I just remember yours.

About secession and the Confederacy, you said at Politics & Prose as well as in Battle Cry that the Southern states seceded over slavery and its extension, not for states' rights. I didn't take notes in the bookstore, but in Battle Cry (p. 214) you write:

The Alabama Democratic convention [instructed] its delegates to walk out of the national convention if the party refused to adopt a platform pledging a federal slave code for the territories. Other lower-South Democratic organizations followed suit. In February, Jefferson Davis presented the substance of southern demands to the Senate in resolutions affirming that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature could 'impair the constitutional right of any citizen of the United States to take his slave property into the common territories....'

Thus you set the stage, noting that Southern politicians did not favor states' rights on the matter of slavery. Instead, they insisted that the federal government require slavery in the territories, even if the citizens of a territory felt and voted otherwise.[1]

The rest of your chapter on secession in Battle Cry tells how secessionist rhetoric was not only proslavery but also rested on white supremacy. You quote (p. 243) a South Carolina minister, "Abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands." And of course you quote (p. 244) Alexander Stephens's famous "Cornerstone Speech," given shortly after he had become vice-president of the confederacy:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery ... is his natural and normal condition.[2]

You also note (p. 245) that the initial seven states seceded well before central government had done anything against slavery anywhere — "indeed," you point out, "several months before Lincoln even took office." Thus Confederates could have no complaint with the central government, and in their documents explaining secession, they make none.

In your textbook, however, which has shaped the views of secession, the Confederacy, and the Civil War of millions of middle-school children, you tell quite a different story. The American Journey is perhaps the largest single book ever inflicted upon a middle-school child. I included it as one of six new textbooks I reviewed for the second and current edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, even though it is intended for middle school rather than high school, because of the prominence of its authors: Joyce Appleby, Alan Brinkley, and you.[3] Your names are on the cover and on the title page.

To my sorrow, of all six of the new histories, all written after 2000, your book, The American Journey, is substantially the worst in its treatment of why the South seceded. Indeed, it shows the clear influence of neo-Confederates, rather than historical evidence. This astonished me, because I know your biography as a historian, beginning with your initial focus on African Americans and abolitionists during the Civil War era. Blurbs on Journey's copyright page describe Appleby as focusing on the 17th and 18th centuries and Brinkley as a scholar of the Depression and New Deal, while you are described as "author of 11 books about the Civil War era." Surely I am justified in concluding that you — not Appleby nor Brinkley — are responsible for "Unit 6: Civil War and Reconstruction." So I must ask you a total of ten questions about The American Journey.

Here is Journey's main treatment of secession:             

The South Secedes Lincoln and the Republicans had promised not to disturb slavery where it already existed. Nevertheless, many people in the South mistrusted the party, fearing that the Republican government would not protect Southern rights and liberties. On December 20, 1860, the South's long-standing threat to leave the Union became a reality when South Carolina held a special convention and voted to secede.

From that passage most readers infer — and I know, because I have asked some of them — that slavery was not the reason for secession. (See this chart, which reports the results of a survey of several thousand K-12 teachers.) After all, "Republicans had promised not to disturb slavery." Instead, the reason is, [white] Southerners feared for their "rights and liberties." What might this mean?

In Battle Cry of Freedom (p. 241), you ask precisely this question: "What were these rights and liberties for which Confederates contended?" There, you answer immediately: "The right to own slaves; the liberty to take this property into the territories...."[4]

Question #1: Why don't you say this in The American Journey? You leave it vague to the point of mystification.  On Journey's next page, however, you do say why Southerners seceded. Here is your "because" sentence:

Now because the national government had violated that contract — by refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and by denying the Southern states equal rights in the territories — the states were justified in leaving the Union.[5]

Question #2: When and where had "the national government" ever been "refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act?" I did not know that it had ever refused. I thought that the United States under James Buchanan and earlier under Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore had robustly tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the most draconian national law passed in the United States to that time. Certainly no Southern state claims that the national government refused to enforce it in any secession document (see The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader). On the contrary, South Carolina takes pains to point out that it had no quarrel with "the national government": 

 The general government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations .... For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery has led to a disregard of their obligations....

Indeed, some Northern states and cities had failed to meet the fugitive slave act's requirements, which infuriated the seceding states, as document after document in our collection makes clear, but the federal government? South Carolina voiced no complaint with any anti-slavery policy of the federal government. Why would it? Lincoln had not even taken office, and Southern slaveowners dominated the Buchanan administration. The South also enjoyed a majority on the Supreme Court.

Question #3: When and where had "the national government" ever been "denying the Southern states equal rights in the territories?" Of course, "states" don't have any rights in territories; presumably you meant to say "Southerners" rather than "Southern states." But beyond that, did this ever happen?

            Let me give you my take on white slaveowning Southerners' changing positions about equal rights in the territories.

             ●  1820: Missouri Compromise: slaveowners accept a law dividing the western territories of the United States along the latitude of the Missouri/Arkansas border, south to be slave, north to be free.

             ●  1850: Texas restricts its land claim to accord with the Missouri Compromise line, but slavery might be allowed north of that line in Utah Territory, if residents of that territory so desired. Certainly some African Americans lived enslaved in Utah and nothing was done to free them.

             ● 1854: slaveowners get the Kansas-Nebraska Act, specifically repealing the Missouri Compromise and letting white male settlers in Kansas and Nebraska decide whether to allow slavery.

             ● 1857: slaveowners now get a ruling that denies free states equal rights in the territories. Dred Scott, supported by the Buchanan administration, requires the federal government to guarantee slaveowners the right to take slaves into any territory, regardless of the views of its residents.[6]

             ● 1860: slaveowners now demand (in their wing of the Democratic Party) a slave code for the territories, spelling out how the federal government will guarantee slavery as required by Dred Scott. This demand helped split the Democratic convention that year. The Douglas wing of the Party favored giving [white] Southerners equal rights to win majorities in the territorial legislatures to make territories slave or free. By 1860, however, as you point out in your Battle Cry passage quoting Jefferson Davis, equal rights was not enough for Southern slave owners. The Buchanan administration was part of the radical proslavery wing of the Party and did everything it could to guarantee slavery in Kansas, including condoning vote fraud and violence.

Isn't the above pretty much correct, Jim? But in your textbook, you claim "the national government" was "denying the Southern states equal rights in the territories!" Again, please tell me when and where! Again, no Southern state makes this claim in any secession document in The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader

Your next chapter, on the war itself, obfuscates secession yet again. There, after telling how "Jefferson Davis had "suspend[ed] habeas corpus," you say "Davis's action outraged Southerners who feared that they would lose the liberties for which they had gone to war." 

Question #4: When and where had Southerners said they were going to war for civil liberties? Again, this is news to me. I cannot find in any secession document a statement that the South was seceding to secure individual liberties like habeas corpus. The only civil liberty I find mentioned is the liberty to take one's slaves into any territory of the United States, even any state (at least temporarily), and have them protected by the U.S. government. About civil liberties, surely South Carolina took the opposite tack: by 1860 it had become life-threatening in that state to advocate racial equality or even to receive abolitionist material in the mail.

This brings me to my fifth question. You don't quote a single document as to why South Carolina or any other state seceded.

Question #5: The states make perfectly clear that they are seceding for slavery and against states' rights. Why not quote them? 

When South Carolina seceded, for example, its convention said why. On Christmas Eve, 1860, they passed "Declaration Of The Immediate Causes Which Induce And Justify The Secession Of South Carolina From The Federal Union." A key sentence cites "an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery." At some length, the delegates complain about what Northern states have done, such as no longer allowing temporary slavery ("slave transit"), refusing to return fugitive slaves to their owners, and allowing anti-slavery societies to exist and to publish literature. That last might seem to be protected under the First Amendment, but not to South Carolinians, not if the free speech in question opposes slavery. No one reading The American Journey gets any hint of the above. Why not?

South Carolina secedes because it is against states' rights, whenever Northern states have tried to exercise those rights in ways that undermined slavery. The delegates even name the states and the states' rights that offend them:

The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the acts of Congress, or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from the service of labor claimed ....

Your textbook has plenty of room to include this passage. Adjacent to your discussion of secession, Journey devotes 40 percdent of p. 455 to a silly box, "From Hardtack to Unmeltable Chocolate," that leads only to the study question, "Why is it important for modern soldiers to have dehydrated foods?" This box isn't even in the right chapter! (It belongs in the next chapter, which treats the war.) Why not put some primary source on secession in that box instead? Don't students need to see primary sources? Why not show them Stephens's "Cornerstone Speech," as well? 

Maybe your answer to the above will be that you had nothing to do with deciding what goes into the various boxes, the "Time Line Activities," "Assessments," etc. Well, why not? Who better than you to select readings and formulate questions for students about secession and Civil War? But my next question is more basic. 

Question #6: Did you write the basic narrative on the Civil War and Reconstruction in The American Journey? In my discussion of your textbook in my recent Washington Post article, "Why Do People Believe Myths About The Confederacy? Because Our Textbooks And Monuments Are Wrong," I don't mention your name, because I cannot believe you wrote it. Did you?

If you did not, Question #7 then is: Who did? And, what do you think of their qualifications? A veteran editor of U.S. history textbooks put it this way to me about when the 2007 edition of your textbook was being written: "Here's $3,000 for a free-lance writer.... They pick things up pretty quickly, and in a couple of days, they're up on the Civil War." Do you agree?

Question #8: If you did not write it, did you even read "your" material on the Civil War and Reconstruction in Journey? In my discussion of your textbook in The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, I assumed you did not:

This paragraph in Journey is not what we would expect from America's premiere Civil War historian. It is hard to believe that McPherson even read it and impossible to believe that he wrote it.

But if you did not, again, I ask, why not? Don't you think it's important to get it right, since it has influenced and will influence the minds of millions of Americans?

If you did read it, then why does the 2007 edition say exactly what the original 2000 edition said? After all, in 2000, the same year your textbook came out, you published "What Caused the Civil War?" in North & South magazine (11/2000). There, discussing the various possible causes, you wrote, "Of all these interpretations, the state's-rights [sic] argument is perhaps the weakest." Ironically, in 2007 you republished this essay in This Mighty Scourge; clearly you still believe it. Should not schoolchildren learn this too?

Question #9: Do you think it makes any difference, what schoolchildren learn about secession, the Confederacy, and the Civil War? At Politics & Prose, and again the next day on National Public Radio, you said that it is important for Americans to understand the Civil War, including secession. Indeed, you have spent much of your professional life in the service of this cause. I agree that it's important; that's why I co-edited The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader and wrote the introductions to each selection. Moreover, recent events in Charleston, South Carolina, have underlined some of the costs we all bear resulting from misunderstanding secession and glorifying the Confederacy.

Surely teaching or implying that the Confederate states seceded for states' rights is not accurate history. It is white supremacist history. It bends — even breaks — the facts of what happened. It rationalizes and defends the white South. It valorizes the Confederate cause. It makes us all stupid, because we learn something that isn't so. It encourages everyone — black children, white children, Hmong children, everyone — to believe that African Americans showed no agency, not even when it came to their own freedom. This estranges students of color from school, especially in history and social studies, which in turn widens the gap between white (and Asian) performance vis-a-vis black (and Native American) performance. As I show in Lies My Teacher Told Me, this gap is smallest in math, larger in English, but by far largest in history and social studies. Could this be because history is harder than, say, Faulkner? Trigonometry? Or might the usual way we teach history alienate nonwhite children?

Certainly neo-Confederates have long deemed it important to mystify secession and valorize the Confederate cause. You noted this in 2004 in "The Southern Textbook Crusade," your chapter in The Memory of the Civil War. There you cited Mildred Rutherford, Historian General of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who in 1919 published A Measuring Rod to Test Textbooks.... One of her requirements was, "Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves." You then noted that "every one" of her requirements "was false."[7] Now, almost a century after she published it, your textbook falsifies history to meet her requirement!

Of course, publishers, then and now, don't want to offend neo-Confederates. Editors and marketers imagine that the South is still so backward that textbooks still must lie about secession and the Confederate cause to get adopted. That may be the case in Texas, whose state board recently passed standards for textbooks that list the causes of the Civil War as " 'sectionalism, states' rights, and slavery' — written deliberately in that order," according to journalist Emma Brown.[8] Certainly that was the case in 1975, when we had to sue the Mississippi State Textbook Board to reverse their rejection of Mississippi: Conflict and Change. But we won that case (Loewen et al. v. Turnipseed et al.[9]). Publishers can use that precedent on behalf of accurate books today. Moreover, the South and the nation are changing. The reactions to the Charleston murders prove that. There is no excuse for pandering to Mildred Rutherford in 2015. Recently I was on NPR's Diane Rehm Show. Her producer had phoned the American Historical Association seeking someone to balance me, some reputable historian who would claim the Southern states seceded for states' rights. The AHA spokesperson said he could not come up with anyone; that would be like asking earth scientists to supply a "reputable climate denier."

If you agree that this history is important to get right, then I must ask one more question.

Question #10: What will you do about it? You have a great deal of influence. If you tell Glencoe/McGraw-Hill that the secession and Civil War sections of The American Journey have to be fixed, they'll fix them! Surely that is a minimal response, going forward.

Might I ask you to do something else to help make up for the harm that mystifying secession has done to all the children (and their teachers) who have read The American Journey over the last fifteen years? I don't know what to suggest. An op-ed by you about how this came to pass? An article for Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies? Trouble is, those teachers who simply teach the textbook, rather than using the textbook as a tool (among others) for teaching history, aren't often members of NCSS. Nor do they read the New York Times or wherever you might place an op-ed. Maybe you have better ideas about what to do?

Finally, feel free to phone or email me about this letter. I pledge not to quote what you might say or write to me without your permission. I have long respected your intellect and your integrity and look forward to learning from your response.


James W. Loewen

PS: I wrote Prof. McPherson on 7/15/2015. He replied two days later, saying he could see why I was so concerned about the treatment of secession and the Confederacy in the passages I quoted. He implied that the treatment of these subjects was better in the first edition and implied he had written that edition, though he was not sure. Like Gerald Danzer with The Americans (see here), McPherson confirmed he had not had much to do with American Journey "for at least the last ten years." I suspect he may not have written even the first edition, and I shall find that edition and report later.

Like Danzer, McPherson did not offer to make any effort to improve the textbook now. Nor did either author express any interest in doing anything to remedy the harm that their textbooks had done over the past years to students who thereby mislearned the history of secession and the Civil War.

    [1]I realize that a state is not a territory, but the principle — federal control over local rights — is the same.

    [2]James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta, eds., The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader (Jackson: U. of MS Press, 2011), 187-90.

    [3]The current edition (2011) lists five authors, including Albert Broussard and Donald Ritchie. Broussard focuses on race relations in California, Ritchie on twentieth-century political history, so I doubt they had anything to do with what American Journey says about secession and the Civil War.

    [4]In Battle Cry you add a third cause: "freedom from the coercive powers of a centralized government." I differ with that point, which contradicts your own analysis quoted above, where you note that secessionists demanded that the "centralized government" use its "coercive powers" to prevent local liberty in the territories. On reflection, you might agree with me, for you go on to argue (p. 241) that the key problem was not the central government itself, which of course was still under James Buchanan, a member of the proslavery wing of the Democratic Party, when the first seven states left the nation. Rather, it was that after March 4, 1861, Southerners would no longer control that central government.

    [5]I did leave out the first half of the paragraph. In it, you state: "Southerners justified secession with the theory of states' rights. The states, they argued, had voluntarily chosen to enter the Union. They defined the Constitution as a contract among the independent states." This is, of course, the "compact theory" of the nation's formation. Some Confederates did claim it, although Jefferson Davis did not, on at least one important occasion. Some Northerners agreed. Some, on both sides, did not think it was valid. But this compact theory says nothing about why the South seceded. It only speaks to mechanism, claiming Southern states had the right to secede.

            Thus, in a literal and minimalist sense, the passage quoted above is accurate. In its "Declaration Of The Immediate Causes Which Induce And Justify The Secession Of South Carolina From The Federal Union," South Carolina does point out that the original thirteen states had voluntarily chosen to enter the Union and does claim secession as a state's right.

    [6]By late 1857 the Buchanan administration's newspaper, the Washington Union, favored extending Dred Scott to the free states! "What is recognized as property by the constitution of the United States, by a provision which applies equally to all the states, has an inalienable right to be protected in all the states." If Buchanan or Taney had accomplished this goal, free states would cease to exist, at least legally, although the article does suggest that local "sentiment" might still suffice to make slave owners feel unwelcome. The article goes on to denounce the ending of slavery in Northern states, which had mostly happened decades before, as "a gross outrage on the rights of property." (---, "Free-Soilism," (11/17/1857) Buchanan's was indeed a pro-Southern administration.

    [7]James McPherson, "The Southern Textbook Crusade," in Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds., The Memory of the Civil War (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c2004.), 64-78, reprinted as "Long-Legged Yankee Lies: The Lost Cause Textbook Crusade," in McPherson, This Mighty Scourge (NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 102-03.

    [8]Emma Brown, "150 Years Later, Schools Are Still A Battlefield For Interpreting Civil War," Washington Post, 7/6/2015,

    [9]488 F. Supp. 1138.

Copyright James W. Loewen

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