University of Richmond President Edward Ayers spoke to students about the emancipation of slaves and the Civil War, which he described as “two great mysteries that lie in the heart of U.S. history,” in Taper Gymnasium Oct. 30.
Slavery was so economically desirable that some states were unwilling to give it up, Ayers told students. He also explained that slavery might not have ended for another century had the Civil War not occured.
“It’s not progress,” Ayers said. “It’s not the natural course of American history. It’s by the skin of our teeth.”
Ultimately, slavery caused the Civil War, Ayers said, not conflict over constitutional rights.
Ayers started his presentation by speaking about the factions of American politics before the Civil War.
He showed voting trends via an interactive website designed by University of Richmond students, called “The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War,” and used the graphic to explain to students how a civil war that would permanently abolish slavery was completely unanticipated as late as 1852.
He also argued that Gettysburg wasn’t the decisive point in the war and that more people died after that battle than before.
He discussed more pragmatic and gradual alternatives to abolishing slavery that were championed by the Republican Party at the time.
One of these, an effort to simply stop the spread of slavery, would have weakened the institution and brought it to an end by the mid-20th century, Ayers said.
Aware of the North’s economic dependence on it, the South rejected these proposals in favor of secession.
“The South was drunk on its own power,” Ayers said.
Ayers ended his speech by advising students to expect the unexpected, as seen in the Civil War.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” he said. “Anybody who solemnly tells you this or that’s going to happen, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
After his speech, Ayers took questions from students and faculty. He answered one student’s question about getting into history by saying, “follow your heart.”
Interdisciplinary Studies department head and history teacher Larry Klein, a former student of Ayers, introduced him and described his undergraduate history class as “magic,” citing Ayers as the reason he became a history teather.
Ayers has written 10 books on American history and co-hosts a radio show called “Backstory,” which links history to current events. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and recipient of the National Humanities Medal, awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2013.
“I thought the speaker was very insightful on his thoughts about the Civil War,” Astrid Garay ’15 said. “I learned a lot about the time period and the motives and results of the war, which will really help me in the future in my AP United States History class when we talk about this era.”