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Mica Soellner
By Mica Soellner April 24, 2020

Wis. GOP official's claim that 'Confederacy was more about states’ rights than slavery' combusts

If Your Time is short

  • Wisconsin GOP official says “The Confederacy was more about states’ rights than slavery.” 
  • PolitiFact has explored similar claims in the past -- and has found them lacking.
  • Experts and historians cited in previous fact-check said the Civil War’s central conflict revolved around slavery. 

It’s a debate you’ve probably heard before. 

Was it slavery or states’ rights that played the central role in America’s bloodiest battle?

Amid an ongoing push to lift Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order, a series of protests have been held -- including one April 19, 2020, in Brookfield, in which one protester waved a Confederate flag. Multiple groups held a similar, larger, set of protests April 24, 2020, at the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison. 

An April 23, 2020, story in the New York Times cited a post in a Facebook group in which Brian Westrate, state Republican Party treasurer, urged those coming to the Capitol to protest to leave Confederate flags and large guns at home "to try to control the optics."

That is, the media coverage.

The post was made in a private Facebook group titled #Reopen Wisconsin Liberty, Community, Rally and Action. Westrate did not respond to a request for comment from PolitiFact Wisconsin, but confirmed to the New York Times he authored the post.

In the post, Westrate went on to say:

"I well understand that the Confederacy was more about states’ rights than slavery." 

PolitiFact has explored similar claims in the past -- and has found them lacking, to say the least.

Debunked searches

In a June 25, 2015 fact-check, PolitiFact National rated Pants on Fire a claim made in a tweet by Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Vice media and frequent Fox News guest, that "The Civil War wasn't about slavery."

In a companion tweet, McInnes said anyone, like Northerners, who think the Civil War was about slavery should go to Google and "Look it up."

When PolitiFact National did, it found the top Google search results -- History.net, PBS and its History Detectives and Americanhistoryabout.com -- all said the Civil War was around the issue of slavery. 

One example, from the earlier fact-check:

Featured Fact-check

No. 3 on the Google hit parade was Americanhistoryabout.com. That page offered five main reasons and the first one was "Economic and social differences between the North and the South." And what were those differences?

Well, slavery.

"With Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793, cotton became very profitable. This machine was able to reduce the time it took to separate seeds from the cotton. However, at the same time the increase in the number of plantations willing to move from other crops to cotton meant the greater need for a large amount of cheap labor, i.e. slaves. Thus, the southern economy became a one crop economy, depending on cotton and therefore on slavery."

In fact, most of the causes listed on that page, four out of five, revolved around slavery, including the growth of the abolition movement, the fight over allowing slavery in new states, and the election of Abraham Lincoln, who was seen as anti-slavery.

The item also included quotes from various experts, including Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University, who referred PolitiFact to South Carolina’s declaration of the causes of secession

"It is all about protecting slavery," Foner said of the secessionists’ words.

Historian Stephanie McCurry from the University of Pennsylvania pointed to Mississippi’s declaration of secession. In the beginning passage, the declaration reads "our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery."

Westrate’s claim was a little different than the one from McInnes, in that it referenced states’ rights as being more significnt than slavery in terms of the Confederacy.

Arguments about states’ rights typically revolves around whether there is too much federal reach into the affairs of state governments. It often is cited in connection with the Civil War. 

With that said, in an April 12, 2011, interview with NPR, historian Adam Goodheart of Washington College, who has written books about the Civil War, said the only significant states’ rights matter being fought over during the war was the ability to own slaves.

"It's clear that this was really about slavery in almost every significant way," Goodheart said.

Our rating

In a Facebook post, Westrate said "the Confederacy was more about states’ rights than slavery." 

Experts and historians cited in our previous fact-check, and others, strongly disagree. The Civil War’s central conflict revolved around slavery. 

We rate this claim Pants on Fire. 

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More by Mica Soellner

Wis. GOP official's claim that 'Confederacy was more about states’ rights than slavery' combusts

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