Tyler Cowen on Civil War "revisionism"

Here is his post.  I am not exactly sure – from the post – how Professor Cowen defines revisionism.  It appears that he would call anyone a revisionist if that person believes that Southern's were believers in states' rights.  Further, it appears he is calling people revisionists for believing that any  southerners supported states' rights.

This is an odd claim for an economist to make.  Surely some southerners supported states' rights, no?  Not even one?  The fact that things ultimately didn't work out for states' rights in the south after years of war is hardly evidence to the contrary.  Can't people be wrong?

I would suggest that the statement "no Northerners were fighting to free the slaves" is just as historically accurate as the statement "no Southerners were fighting for states' rights."  (Actually if push came to shove, I'd prefer to argue that there were more southerners fighting for what they believed to be states' rights than there were northerners fighting for 100% emancipation.)

The problem with Professor Cowen's statement is that the current mainstream understanding of the Civil War is yesterday's revisionist understanding.  Today, we are taught (I was taught in college 8 years ago, for example) a very one-sided version of the war.

To get a better understanding of the original mainstream view, may I suggest this work.  It's by this dude, whose pro-North credentials are way better than Professor Cowen's or mine, since he actually fought for the North in the war.  Mr Adams (our author) spends a lot of time arguing that Virginia went to war for different reasons than South Carolina, for example.  This distinction is lost on today's mainstream historians, and apparently Professor Cowen.  As I summarized Mr Adams argument:

Then Adams tries to make a distinction between Virginia's decision to secede and other Cotton States' decisions to secede.  The latter states seceded when Lincoln won the election.  Virginia did not.  Virginia believed in secession (as did everyone who ratified the Constitution, according to Mr Adams).  Virginia was willing to let the other states peacefully secede, but did not wish to secede with them.  Only after the US government tried to re-supply Sumter, an act of war against a sovereign state (i.e. South Carolina), according to the logic of Virginia and the original understanding of the Constitution, did Virginia rebel.  According to Virginia, the North had effectively changed the Constitution at that point and Virginia seceded to defend the original Constitution.  Mr Adams understands this argument but sees it as hopeless[ly] outdated and out-of-touch.  Nevertheless, he sees it as [logically] consistent.

This, more nuanced view, is almost certainly more accurate than Professor Cowen's more modern revisionism of this older and more accurate view.  As one more piece of evidence for this claim, I'd point out that Professor Cowen's view is more Manichean than the dude's who actually fought in the war against the south!  I find this odd and I am still looking for an explanation as to how mainstream understanding can get worse over time even though obvious evidence to the contrary is available for free at the click of a button.

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