Confederate Textbooks Essay

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Opposition to the use of school textbooks written by Northern authors—which to a large degree reflected a set of values and beliefs that were specific to the North— became a particularly prominent issue in the years immediately prior to the Civil War. This entry looks at the history of that conflict and at the creation of alternative textbooks by the Confederacy that were more consistent with their political and ideological values.

A Northern Bias

Throughout the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, the writing and publication of textbooks in the United Stares was dominated by the North. With the exception of William Holmes McGuffey (1800–1873), the principal textbook authors prior to the Civil War were from New England. Noah Webster, Jediah Morse, S. G. Goodrich, C. A. Goodrich, S. Augustus Mitchell, Jesse Olney, and Emma Willard were all from Connecticut; Lyman Cobb, William Woodbridge, Richard Parker, and Salem Town were from Massachusetts; while John Frost was from Maine, and Benjamin D. Emerson from New Hampshire.

The South’s dependence upon the North for textbooks reflected an important difference in the economy of the two cultures. During the nineteenth century, the manufacture of textbooks was a complicated and expensive process. Because of the widespread use of illustrations, major investments had to be made not only in engravings, but in the physical plants required to produce such works.

Southerners’ resentment over their dependence upon Northern textbooks, authors, and publishers was very strong. Many popular writers, as well as educators, questioned the appropriateness of the information included in the texts brought down from the North. Prior to the Civil War, Southern authors argued that the textbooks produced by the Northern publishers had the earmarks of sectionalism and were clearly biased against Southern values and traditions.

In addition, textbooks produced in the North were often highly inaccurate when used in a Southern context. Northern textbooks, for example, often discussed towns and counties, when parish divisions were used in places like Louisiana. Northern crops were used to describe agriculture, but not Southern products such as cotton. Most objectionable to Southerners was the frequent criticism of slavery by abolitionist-oriented textbook authors. In the great majority of Northern textbooks, slavery was attacked as a corrupt institution that had to be eliminated at all costs.

The Southern Response

Protests over abolitionist content in textbooks written and manufactured in the North were widespread in the South during the 1850s. Popular journals such as DeBow’s Review ran a series of articles criticizing Northern textbook content, while also calling for the establishment of a Southern textbook industry. The importance of the textbook issue was also reflected in the actions taken by the various Southern commercial conventions. The commercial convention which met in Charleston in 1854, for example, supported the publication of textbooks in the South, as did the convention in New Orleans in 1855.

Economic factors also played an important part in the South’s opposition to Northern textbooks. Numerous authors argued that by buying their textbooks from the North, the South was in fact paying an indirect tax to the North, in which Southern capital was being expended on an inferior product. Many Southerners came to believe that there was no reason that the South could not write and manufacture its own textbooks. The need for the South to manufacture its own textbooks became increasingly significant as the sectional conflict grew. Yet despite the passage of numerous resolutions and the organization of various committees at the Southern commercial conventions, little progress was made by the South prior to the Civil War in developing its own textbook industry.

With the advent of the Civil War, the South could no longer avoid the problem of manufacturing and producing its own textbooks. Various states throughout the Confederacy put forward legislation to promote the adoption of Southern texts and to eliminate any Northern materials from use in the education of their children. Georgia, for example, established a textbook competition to encourage the creation of a spelling book that could be used in the “common schools” throughout the Confederacy.

Within a relatively short period of time, numerous Southern texts were written and manufactured. A careful examination of these works shows them to be highly dependent upon Northern textbooks for much of their material. Typically, they were poorly printed and relatively brief in their content. It is unfair in many respects to use them as examples of what the South could potentially produce, since the priorities imposed by the war, as well as the shortage of materials necessary to manufacture books, precluded the production of higher quality works.

Lessons Of The Conflict

The content of the Confederate textbooks can provide us with important insights into the South’s perception of the North. While heroes of Southern origin such as George Washington figure prominently in Confederate texts, there is no mention of New Englanders such as Joseph Warren and John Adams. In works such as Marinda Branson Moore’s First Dixie Reader (1863), comparisons are made between the life of the Black slave laborer and the free White laborer in the North that clearly suggest that the conditions of life are superior for the Black worker.

Both the North and the South were acutely aware of a textbook’s potential to establish the values and norms of the children who read it. The conflict over textbooks in the years prior to the Civil War, and the eventual creation of distinctively Southern textbooks during the Civil War, was a reflection of the two profoundly different cultures that had emerged in the North and the South by the time of the Civil War.

Following the Civil War, there was a conscious attempt on the part of the North to develop textbooks by authors who were acceptable to the South. While the Civil War had removed the issue of slavery and abolition from American textbooks, it also forced Northern textbook authors and publishers to take into account the distinctiveness of the South as a region, its economy, geography, and traditional culture. In doing so, the textbooks published after the Civil War began to reflect not simply the regional interests and needs of the North but also those of the South, and of a previously divided nation intent upon reuniting itself and developing a more unified national consciousness.

Bibliography:

  1. Davis, O. L., Jr. (2001). Textbooks for confederate school children: Pursuit of national identity during the American Civil War. American Educational History Journal, 28, 13–19.
  2. Knight, E. (1947). An early case of opposition in the South to Northern textbooks. Journal of Southern History, 13(2), 245–264.
  3. Moore, M. B. (1864). The first Dixie reader. Raleigh, NC: Branson and Farrar.
  4. Weeks, S. (1900). Confederate textbooks, 1861–1865: A preliminary bibliography. In the Report of the United States Commissioner of Education for 1898–1899 (pp. 1139–1155). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

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