Americans in former Confederate states more likely to say violent protest against government is justified, 160 years after Gettysburg

Over the July Fourth long weekend, people will pour into the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the 160th anniversary of one of the deadliest battles in U.S. history.

The three-day battle left over 50,000 Union and Confederate soldiers dead, wounded or missing and cemented Gettysburg’s place in American history as the turning point of the Civil War.

A few months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln visited the town for the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery. There, he delivered his famed Gettysburg Address. Lincoln called on Americans to dedicate themselves to the “unfinished work” for which so many at Gettysburg had died: the preservation of the United States and a “new birth of freedom” for the nation.

I have researched Americans’ support for political violence in my work as a political scientist at Northeastern and Harvard Universities. As an incoming professor at Gettysburg College, which was attacked by Confederate soldiers and served as a makeshift hospital during the battle, I wanted to see whether the legacies of the Civil War still affected Americans’ support for political violence today.

I found that, overall, Americans living in the Confederate states that violently rebelled against the United States during the Civil War express significantly greater support for the notion that it can be justifiable to violently protest against the government.

Residents of what are known as the Border States, the slave states that did not secede from the Union, are also more likely than residents of Union states to say it can be justifiable to violently protest against the government. Confederate and Border State support are not statistically different from each other.

Residents of states belonging to the Confederacy are also significantly more likely than Americans living in Union or Border States to say it is justifiable to engage in violent protest against the government right now.

‘Greater support for political violence’

From Dec. 22, 2022, to Jan. 17, 2023, my colleagues and I at The COVID States Project, a multi-university team polling Americans in all 50 U.S. states, surveyed over 20,000 Americans about their support for violent protest against the U.S. government. Our survey asked whether they felt violence is ever justifiable, and whether violence is justifiable right now.

I then analyzed the responses by state residence, grouping survey respondents by their state’s allegiance in the Civil War: Union, Confederacy or Border State. Americans living in states that did not exist during the Civil War are excluded from the analysis.

Confederate state residents are about 2 percentage points more likely than Union state residents to say it is “definitely” or “probably” justifiable to engage in violent protest against the government. Border State residents are about 3 points more likely than Union residents to say violence can be justified.

When asked whether it is justifiable to engage in violent protest against the government right now, 12% of Confederate state residents say “yes” – which is 2 percentage points higher than the share who say “yes” in Border States and 3 points higher than those in Union states.

To ensure that these results do not reflect underlying social and demographic differences in the residents of these states, I used a statistical technique known as multiple regression. This technique allows researchers to determine the effect of a variable – in this case state residency – on an outcome – support for political violence – after accounting for differences attributable to other factors.

This analysis reveals that even after accounting for partisanship, race, gender, education, age, income, ideology and attitudes toward Black people, residents of Confederate states still express significantly greater support for political violence than do residents of Union or Border states.

Before you start fortifying your homes against a second Civil War, keep in mind that support for political violence – even among residents of the old Confederacy – remains low.

Nowhere close to a majority of Americans are ready to take up arms to overthrow the government. However, as the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol demonstrated, even a small minority of people intent on violence can cause serious harm to the nation.

History matters

Overall, these results point to the importance of historical factors in understanding modern support for political violence.

Political scientists have traced the importance of slavery on modern political attitudes, demonstrating that institutions long since eradicated still shape politics today.

Research has also shown that Southern myths about the Civil War, including the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Confederacy – which casts the Confederate cause as glorious and honorable rather than aimed at maintaining slavery – dominated history textbooks after 1877.

Three cannons in front of a stone monument topped with a bronze figure sitting on a horse. A monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee mounted on his horse sits atop a ridge held by Confederate troops in Gettysburg, Pa. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

These distortions affect how modern Americans think about history. As recently as 2017, polling by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that just 8% of American 12th graders could correctly identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.

Distorted portrayals of the Civil War as a glorious fight for independence by Southern states may contribute to the significantly greater support for political violence among these states’ residents today. The current political debate over how history can be taught in public schools highlights the importance of such decisions.

Lincoln: ‘These dead shall not have died in vain’

On this grim anniversary, perhaps Americans can spend time contemplating Lincoln’s famous words to “take increased devotion to that cause” for which these honored dead “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

The Civil War was essentially the largest instance of homegrown violence against the government in U.S. history. Now, at a time of increasing political violence in the nation, I believe it is more important than ever to reflect on the Battle of Gettysburg – and the terrible toll wrought by the violence there.

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