As you have probably seen by now, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has signed another bill that limits classroom instruction on racism and racial inequality. This one applies to colleges and universities, banning so-called divisive concepts from general education courses. I mentioned all this in my Friday column, tying it to the broader Republican effort to give public institutions the freedom to censor.
As it happens, I’m reading the historian Donald Yacovone’s most recent book, “Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity,” on the relationship between history education and the construction of white supremacist ideologies in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s an interesting book, filled with compelling information about the racism that has shaped the teaching of American history. But I mention it here because, in one section on Southern textbook writers and the demand for pro-slavery pedagogy, Yacovone relays a voice that might sound awfully familiar to modern ears.
As Yacovone explains, pre-Civil War textbook production was dominated by writers from New England. Some southerners had, by the 1850s, become “increasingly frustrated with the ‘Yankee-centric’ quality of the historical narratives.” They wanted texts “specifically designed for Southern students and readers.” In particular, Southern critics wanted textbooks that gave what they considered a fair and favorable view to the “subject of the weightiest import to us of the South … I mean the institution of Negro slavery,” as one critic put it.
Part of the reason for Southern elite frustration, and the reason they wanted history textbooks tailored to their views, was the rise of pro-slavery ideology among slaveholders whose lives and livelihoods were tied to the institution. It helped as well that slavery had become — against the expectations of many Americans, including the nation’s founders — incredibly lucrative in the first decades of the 19th century. By the time Yacovone begins his narrative, Southern slaveholders had moved from the regretful acceptance of slavery that characterized earlier generations of slaveholding elites to an embrace of slavery as a “positive good” — in John C. Calhoun’s infamous words — and the only basis on which to build a functional and prosperous society.
It was in this context that J.W. Morgan, a Virginian contributor to the southern journal De Bow’s Review, excoriated northern history textbooks and called for censorship of anything that hinted of antislavery belief.