Every year, at least one of my students asks me this question; however, there is no way to answer it because the question is illogical. The problem is that the question presumes that states’ rights and slavery were two separate issues, which they were not. Until the Constitution was amended at the end of the Civil War, slavery was a states’ right, and for the leaders of the Confederate government, it was the states’ right worth fighting over. Until the ratification of 13th Amendment, states could decide for themselves whether to allow or prohibit slavery. States could also regulate slavery as they pleased, and slave codes varied a lot from state to state. For example, New York allowed slavery for over 200 years but abolished it in 1828. In Maryland, my home state, there were both free blacks and slaves. Strangely, it was legal in Maryland for free blacks to own black slaves, and some did. When I was a kid growing up in Baltimore, I knew people who lived in houses that had slave quarters on the premises. The slave quarters were usually small buildings behind the main house that the current homeowners were, more often than not, using for storage. In Alabama, on the other hand, there were no free blacks. All black people in Alabama were slaves. If a slave in Alabama was given his freedom by his owner, he had to leave the state within 30 days. If he didn’t leave within that time, he would be arrested and sold back into slavery at public auction. This was called remancipation. So it is pointless to debate whether the Civil War was fought over states’ rights or slavery. They were not separate issues. Nevertheless, I hear white Southern politicians arguing about this question on TV all the time. It seems that for most Southern politicians, there is no question as to what the Civil War was all about. They all seem to think that it was all about states’ rights and that slavery had nothing to do with it. Why do so many Southerners believe that? I think it is because white Southerners would like to believe that their ancestors fought and died for a good cause, something more noble than simply the perpetuation of slavery.
Gunpowder is a mixture of 3 ingredients: sulphur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, which is also known as niter or saltpeter. The South had plenty of sulphur, and it is easy to make charcoal. However, the South didn’t have much potassium nitrate. Potassium nitrate is a basic ingredient in gunpowder, and there is no substitute. You can’t make gunpowder without it. The LeConte brothers conducted experiments trying to find a practical way of producing potassium nitrate from materials commonly available in the South. Their experiments were successful, and as a result, they wrote pamphlets which were distributed to Southern farmers explaining how they could extract potassium nitrate from the urine of farm animals. Because of the LeConte brothers, the Confederacy never ran out of gunpowder during the Civil War.
Now What? O.K. California has banned ‘redskins’. So what should we do now about the heroes of the Confederacy? My own opinion is that, at the very minimum, we shouldn’t name anything else for the LeContes. They have more than enough stuff named for them scattered around town already. Admittedly, the LeConte brothers held obnoxious racial views, but their views were common among wealthy white men in America 150 years ago, both in the North and the South. If we rename everything in Berkeley that is now named for the LeConte brothers, then what do we do about all the other stuff in town that is named for other slave owners and racists. For example, Berkeley has both a Washington and a Jefferson elementary school. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both major slave owners.
Jack London. And what should the city of Oakland do about all the stuff there that is named for Jack London? Jack London was very racist. His 1904 essay ‘The Yellow Peril’ is full of ugly anti-Chinese stereotypes. Even worse is Jack London’s ‘The Unparalleled Invasion’, a science fiction novel in which the author gives his approval to a plan to exterminate of the bulk of the population of China by biological warfare as the “only possible solution to the Chinese problem” and then resettling the country with Westerners. Renaming everything in Oakland that is currently named for Jack London would cost a ton of money. There is a lot of stuff in Oakland named for Jack London. So what do you think Berkeley and Oakland should do?
I teach American history at Orinda Intermediate School one day a week. I have been doing this for a long time. I like to tell stories to my students about improbable people and unlikely historical events. These stories get and keep their attention.