The study, and teaching, of history has been the larger part of my career since entering the job market way back in 1979. In preparation for teaching, and during the course of my classroom career, I have developed an expertise in American Military history, particularly that related to the Second World War. My personal interest, and passion in history, a subject in which I have written enough papers to author a book (and may eventually do that at some point), however, is the American Civil War.
As a result of my research and study, it is frustrating to engage in conversation, or see people make comments which rely more on popular culture or political correctness than on historical fact, especially when it comes to the Civil War, and especially when it relates to the Confederacy. We don’t like unpleasant realities, and the Civil War is perhaps the one period of American history which gets glossed over, turned into legend, or completely ignored above any other. That’s the main reason why the Confederate flag has remained as some kind of “symbol” of “southern identity”. People have forgotten, or choose not to remember, what the Confederacy represented, in the words of its own founding fathers, represented by its flag.
The Principles on which the Confederacy Rested
Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America, provided the most concise and clear statement of principles upon which the government of the Confederacy rested:
“The “cornerstone” of the new government rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth”.
Stephens, along with Jefferson Davis, clearly placed this statement as the philosophical pillar of secession from the Union, declaring it to be the founding fabric of their nation. They justified secession and the formation of their nation with rhetoric drawn from America’s founding fathers, regarding the constitution and government as an “experiment” in democracy. From the position of the Southern leaders, the formation of the Confederacy was simply the result of the “failure” of the experiment. The issue of states’ rights, with the single exception of how it related to slavery, was clearly not a consideration.
The states which seceded, for the most part, provided a formal list of reasons for their doing so, with the threat to slavery from the federal government being the most mentioned reason for their departure. Georgia complained that the federal government favored Northern over Southern “economic interests.” Texas listed the “failure” of the federal government to provide protection for territory it took from Mexico following its war for independence (a treaty that had not been recognized by the United States government), along with asserting that the equal civil rights applicable to white people did not extend to the inferior “African” race. Two states, Florida and Louisiana, simply declared their autonomy and severed their relationship with the federal government, not citing a reason.
Ultimately, it was the election of Abraham Lincoln that set in motion the political chain of events leading to the secession of eleven states. Though the ballot box provides citizens with a voice every time they use it, that wasn’t good enough for Southern politicians. There was, and currently still is, no provision in the constitution for dissolving a union simply because you don’t like the people who hold elective office, but the key term here is “elective.” The voters can stage a peaceful revolution every two years if they choose. The fear of the politicians of the South was that Lincoln, a known abolitionist, would ruin their economy by abolishing slavery. That exhibited a very poor understanding of the way government worked, and a very skewed perspective of reality. But if the secession, and subsequent war, were over the nebulous and undefined concept of “states’ rights,” the founders of the confederacy didn’t articulate it.
There would have been no Confederate States of America if it were not for the issue of slavery. The idea of one person owning another for economic exploitation was an old European imperialist one, and it was the only legacy of the South that is wrapped up in the flag.
The “American” Factor
The Civil War, and its outcome, is uniquely American. There’s no denying it was a long, and very brutal and bloody war, by any standard of measurement. It was a test of national temperament and emotion from which few other nations would have recovered. The outcome was the result of sheer determination, and a commitment to preservation of a union that was remarkable given the relatively young age of the country, and the fragile but firm nature of the democratic republic.
Even though there was a strong inclination to punish the former Confederacy for the rebellion, and there was some of that which did occur in spite of the expressed will not to do so, the way history has handled the event has been uniquely American, and exceptionally forgiving. The lost cause has been generously allowed to retain its cultural and historical identification, maintain its symbols, including the flag, and the states were restored to their former position in the republic long before such action would have been allowed anywhere else in the world, if it ever would have been. The economic restoration would have also been as lavish and complete as any reconstruction anywhere else, had it not been for the resistance of the Southerners themselves, who still chafed under laws that, in theory, gave former Negro slaves equal rights and status as citizens, and allowed for their participation in the electoral process. As much as possible, Southern politicians, using the power of the states, resisted this more than anything else, and were willing to sacrifice the benefits of reconstruction and economic recovery to maintain this particular principle. And they did.
It would have been very easy, and completely justifiable, for the federal government to simply ban the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery and racial prejudice, and of rebellion and treason, and enforce such a law. Whether Southerners associate it with slavery and racial inequality or not, secession was an act of both treason and rebellion, as was attacking and firing upon federal troops at Ft. Sumter. That didn’t happen because of our confidence in the principle of free speech and expression that runs so deep in our democracy. Those who understand and value this principle also understand that respecting it requires restraint, self-control and discernment when it comes to self-expression. It is a reasonable expectation that people know what’s behind a symbol before they wave it in someone else’s face, or, before they fly it from a pole on the property of the state capitol, which belongs to all of the people.
A Nebulous Claim
When the Confederate flag is characterized as representing nothing more than history, and “heritage,” the characterization is leaving out definitive terms regarding what principles are couched in those terms. Regardless of what some people might think, the flag cannot be separated from the racial inequality articulated by the Confederacy’s founders, leading to the cruel and inhumane practice of slavery, nor can it be separated from the outright denial of the foundational principles of American democracy by the leaders of the Confederate states, resulting in treasonous rebellion and a bloody Civil War.
It should not have required the mass murder of nine people inside a church, attending a prayer meeting, by a self-proclaimed white supremacist, to prod the collective conscience of the citizens of the state, and particularly that of their elected representatives, to take the flag down from a pole on property owned by all of the state’s citizens, and put it where it belongs. The fact that it did says an awful lot about the collective conscience of the residents of South Carolina, particularly given the kind of Christian influences that exist within the state.
The removal of the flag will not end racial prejudice or hatred. Such an action is, in and of itself, as much of a symbol as a piece of cloth colored to make a symbol called a flag. It will not ease the pain of the families who were visited with the tragedy of death by murder, or the shock of such an event occurring inside of a building built on Christ’s foundational principles of loving God with all your heart, and loving your neighbor as yourself. But it did give people the opportunity to demonstrate that kind of love in their response, and it gave others, in a position of power and ability, the opportunity to take a stand and demonstrate their solidarity with their fellow man, regardless of their racial background.
Perhaps, in gathering the courage to take a stand, our union has been strengthened by those who have stood up for its principles, and who are leading us down a more productive path than the one which leads to rebellion, destruction, and death.