“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, the greatest material interest of the world . . . [A] blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization . . . There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union …” — Mississippi Declaration of Secession, January 9, 1861.

Working with the American public to understand the causes of the Civil War can be an exercise in frustration. Confederate leaders themselves made it plain that slavery was the key issue sparking secession. And yet, four of five Americans—including many teachers—hold basic misconceptions about the era, revolving around a vague, abstract concept of “states’ rights.” Questions about why the South seceded, what the Confederacy was about, and the nature of its symbols and ideology usually give rise to flatly wrong “answers.” Because the states’ rights perspective on the...

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