by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage
There’s a lot being said, ad populum, in defense of how American society views what it popularly refers to as the “Confederate flag”. An outstanding characteristic of these arguments is how removed from recorded history they are, as if it never occurred to anyone to bother looking anything up. It is often said, and I agree, that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. As such, if an individual feels that they need a Confederate flag hanging from their porch, or emblazoned on their bikini, beer coozie, hat, license plate frame or cell phone cover, so be it. But there are some distinct reasons why said symbol should not recieve official recognition at any level of government.
Slavery and Secession
There’s a lot of criticism circulating over the way that the United States remembers the Civil War. What led to it, what it was about and whether or not slavery had anything to do with it (surprise, it did… and how). There are popular historians, like Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States) and James W. Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me) who have tackled the Civil War-era handedly.
There are also other sources which add insight and provide answers to the questions society has as it wakes up in the morning, cloaked in a sleepy state of blankness about what happened the day before, ready to attribute all the perceived wrongs of the country to pure correlation (i.e. economy sucks, black guy in the White House, black guy’s fault). Historians call these primary sources; sources that are direct links to the past, like the journals of past presidents or numerous articles drafted by seceding states which clearly outline the reasons why they chose to do so.
Articles like the Declaration of Immediate Causes drafted by Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Among these, Georgia would go on to argue:
The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.
Well, okay. But it still says “causes” in there, implying that there’s more than one. But what it devolves into is a gripe over the dominance of non-slave states in government, how they forced their views onto the South via their influence and how dependent the North always was on the federal government (“the South not at all” except the whole military thing).
The declaration goes on to add:
A brief history of the rise, progress, and policy of anti-slavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the Federal Government has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia. The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state. The question of slavery was the great difficulty in the way of the formation of the Constitution.
Yes, the Republican Party of the day was a coalition party. The Whigs, the Know Nothings (who were far more interested in persecuting Catholics and promoting nativism) the Free Soilers. The party was supportive of industry, which put it at direct odds with the economic base of the South — which was agricultural and highly profitable due to the fact that they didn’t pay wages. That’s the thing about slavery. No wages. Nonexistent pension. Being someone’s property.
In one of history’s sadder moments of irony, Georgia’s declaration even mentions the acquisition of land from Mexico through war and laments the political battle to promote “equity and justice” in the new territories. Equity and justice of course meaning slavery. This is real.
Furthermore, let’s highlight elsewhere in Georgia’s declaration she mentions slavery and deduce objectively that in no way did Georgia have a problem with abolition:
- The South with great unanimity declared her purpose to resist the principle of prohibition to the last extremity.
- Immediately after this result (election of 1852) the anti-slavery portion of the defeated party resolved to unite all the elements in the North opposed to slavery an to stake their future political fortunes upon their hostility to slavery everywhere.
- The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers.
Mississippi’s declaration offers its “prominent reasons”:
- Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.
- [The federal government] has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.
- [The federal government] refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.
- [The federal government] has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.
- [The federal government] advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.
- [The federal government] has made combinations and formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation in the States and wherever else slavery exists.
- Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.
South Carolina’s own declaration pursues a bit of a different course which seems to establish the tradition of gotcha-isms, the thinly-veiled and myopic argument for states rights and ALL CAPS:
- In the year 1765, that portion of the British Empire embracing Great Britain, undertook to make laws for the government of that portion composed of the thirteen American Colonies. A struggle for the right of self-government ensued, which resulted, on the 4th of July, 1776, in a Declaration, by the Colonies, “that they are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; and that, as free and independent States, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.”
- Under this Confederation the war of the Revolution was carried on, and on the 3rd of September, 1783, the contest ended, and a definite Treaty was signed by Great Britain, in which she acknowledged the independence of the Colonies in the following terms: “ARTICLE 1– His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz: New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be FREE, SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that he treats with them as such; and for himself, his heirs and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.”
- Thus were established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted. And concurrent with the establishment of these principles, was the fact, that each Colony became and was recognized by the mother Country a FREE, SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATE.
South Carolina’s declaration would be heavily weighted on their interpretation of state’s rights — in direct reference to the issue of slavery whilst bemoaning the 1788 decision to “conform herself to the obligations she had undertaken” upon ratifying and accepting the US Constitution as her own.
Perhaps the scariest part of South Carolina’s declaration is the consistent wording which strips any humanity from slaves that one might mistakenly appropriate them. The support for slavery was less blatant than, say, Mississippi, but it is no less intended and afforded to slavery the same basic treatment as any non-human institution. It is entirely referenced as an economic entity only, highlighting the Southern indignation that the North could possibly condone recognizing slaves as equal beings and thus solidifies the deliberate cause of white supremacy.
- We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
- A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
- This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
- Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.
Moving on to Texas:
- [Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy.
- In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
And if you’ve ever thought that the accusations of racism being cast at those who point it out sounded stale, here’s an ideological ancestor to that point:
- For years past this abolition organization has been actively sowing the seeds of discord through the Union, and has rendered the federal congress the arena for spreading firebrands and hatred between the slave-holding and non-slave-holding States.
Yes. Abolition is all about hatred. Anyway, here’s more not-hate:
- We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
- That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.
Texas closes its argument with something about being oppressed. Not the slaves, but the slaveholders. They were crying victim. In Texas. In South Carolina. In the South. The lasting impression here is that a lot of the same logic applies to contemporary arguments crafted around who can be served their shitty chicken sandwich at a chain restaurant or why others are called out for talking like a prick.
The Confederacy really liked that oppression narrative. If they were oppressed, then what were the slaves? That a hierarchy existed which attributed more worth to the perceived injustices done to whites is not far-fetched. It was 1861 after all.
What is far-fetched is the revisionist delusion that secession had nothing to do with slavery. On the contrary, it very clearly had a lot to do with slavery. Not only is slavery defended, but the agreived parties refer to themselves often as the “slaveholding states”. Not the South. Not the Confederacy. The most important distinction between the two sides was slavery, plain and simple.
But what about Florida and Tennessee? Alabama? The rest of them?
The notices of remaining seceding states was more brief, committing to ordinances of secession which were issued by each of the thirteen seceding states. A bit less damning, but common themes persisted, as we can see with Virginia:
- The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.
Again, a seceeding state chooses the term “slaveholding” to distinguish itself from the Union, or “non-slave states”. In any case, most states that were set on secession only laid out their case within their state legislatures. This guy saved me a lot of time by doing his homework and compiling a series of comments from Southern politicians and lawmakers are then the base by which we gauge their intent:
- Alabama: “Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republican party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as a change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new principles, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions — nothing less than an open declaration of war.” – Commissioner Stephen Hale
- Arkansas: “Is it to be the Union without slavery,” he asked, “or slavery without the Union?”
“In answer to your requisition for troops from Arkansas to subjugate the Southern States, I have to that none will be furnished. The demand is only adding insult to injury. The people of this commonwealth are freemen, not slaves, and will defend, to the last extremity, their honor, lives and property against Northern mendacity and usurpation.” – Governor Henry Rector
- Florida: “A President has recently been elected, an obscure and illiterate man without experience in public affairs or any general reputation mainly if not exclusively on account of a settled and often proclaimed hostility to our institutions and a fixed purpose to abolish them. It is denied that it is the purpose of the party soon to enter into the possession of the powers of the Federal Government to abolish slavery by any direct legislative act. This has never been charged by any one. But it has been announced by all the leading men and presses of the party that the ultimate accomplishment of this result is its settled purpose and great central principle.” – Governor Madison Starke Perry
- Louisiana: “I do not think it comports with the honor and respect of Louisiana, as a slaveholding state, to live under the government of a black Republican.” – Governor Thomas Moore
- North Carolina: “Such, gentlemen, are the parties to the contest. The issue between them should be clearly understood, especially here at the South. I assert, and shall maintain it with the proofs, that this issue is, whether African slavery shall be abolished here in the States, where it now exists? Let us not be deceived upon this point. Men may talk about our rights in the territories, but depend upon it they are not the questions now in issue. The abolition of slavery here at home is the design of our opponents. This is the bond that cements all the anti-slavery elements in one solid column against us.” – Governor John Ellis
- Tennessee: “The systematic, wanton, and long continued agitation of the slavery question, with the actual and threatened aggressions of the Northern States and a portion of their people, upon the well-defined constitutional rights of the Southern citizen; the rapid growth and increase, in all the elements of power, of a purely sectional party, whose bond of union is uncompromising hostility to the rights and institutions of the fifteen Southern States, have produced a crisis in the affairs of the country, unparalleled in the history of the past, resulting already in the withdrawal from the Confederacy of one of the sovereignties which composed it.” – Governor Isham Harris
- Virginia: “The Northern States must strike from their statute books their personal liberty bills, and fulfill their consitutional obligations in regard to fugitive slaves and fugitives from justice. If our slaves escape into non-slaveholding states, they must be delivered up.” – Governor John Letcher
Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, also wanted to make it clear:
- “[O]ur Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable, for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men.”
- “In twelve out of the thirteen States negro slavery existed, and the right of property in slaves was protected by law. This property was recognized in the Constitution, and provision was made against its loss by the escape of the slave.”
- “The straw that broke the Southern camel’s back was the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican and avowed opponent of slavery who was supported by many vocal abolitionists. Fearful that the North, which was richer, more populous, and industrial, would even more insistently impose its will against them, the Southern states felt they had no recourse but to pull away from the Union and form their own nation.”
That people choose to argue the false point that the reason for the South’s secession was something other than slavery is utterly indefensible. Not only was it documented and dictated, but not one slaveholding state chose to stay within the Union (Kentucky and what would become West Virginia are the only arguable exceptions as Kentucky’s legislature did not vote for secession, and what became West Virginia was part of a larger Virginia at the time and only became a state after those western counties broke away from Virginia).
On that documentation part, it’s amazing that people choose to dismiss primary sources. Human civilization can be attributed to two massive pillars: fire and writing. The first bears little relevance to the argument, but the latter is everything. Humans have been keeping written records for several thousand years. From trade manifests and beer recipes in Sumeria, to Roman scrolls held by Irish monks which launched the Renaissance, to newspapers that were circulated widely in the American Colonies, human societies have been keeping records. As such, the reasons for Southern secession, being a priority among issues in the United States at the time, were extensively recorded for posterity.
To merely base one’s opinion on their standing knowledge, without a spark of curiosity to actually fact check, would be hilarious if so many people didn’t think it was the truth. Again, ad populum.
Historically inaccurate. Logically false.
Another favorite line of rhetoric among Confederate sympathizers is the issue of states’ rights. On the surface, this argument is more palpable than the blatantly false presumption that slavery had nothing to do with secession.
Indeed, states’ rights were an issue at the time, and the South did have a host of grievances listed among their ordinances and declarations of secession. Texas was miffed that it had spilt Texan blood in stealing land from Mexico without much government assistance.
South Carolina was most vocal about the lack of recognition in the North over fugitive slave laws. Those Yankee bastards weren’t fulfilling their federal mandates of returning runaway slaves.
And there were other mentions of abolitionist-led uprisings which were seen as invasions and acts of aggression.
On one side of this, the North broke a federal statute in defiance of an unjust institution. Slavery was, and remains, abhorrent in concept and practice. It is indefensible and not all laws are just. So what blame have we to appropriate, then, to agents which defy unjust law?
Godwin’s law be damned, are we also to consider Oskar Schindler an outlaw? Gandhi broke laws. Civil disobedience has a long history in the United States and we owe more to civil disbodience for our rights than any other force. Slavery is tyranny in full. Any individual who preaches liberty and freedom has no purpose equating actions subversive to slavery to law breaking. And while that is rhetorical, there are examples of proposed policies by the South which betray little concern for state’s rights at all.
In South Carolina, specifically, there was widespread indignance over the Northern development of refusing “slavery transit”, that is a person from a slaveholding state being able to bring their slaves to a non-slaveholding state. Was this not an example of a state asserting its own rights on slavery?
Furthermore, Southerners were aggrieved that some places in the North already let black men vote. Many Southerners were also disgusted that abolition groups were tolerated in the North. It comes back to South Carolina again when it is examined that delegates and persons of that state opposed states’ rights on the issue of allowing free speech if that free speech advocated emancipation and hostility to slavery.
The Southern concern for states’ rights only extended to their borders, not beyond. States’ rights for them, not all. There was no great defense of “all men” from the over-reaching power of the federal government.
Heritage, Not Hate
Now we come to what is widely referred to as the “Confederate flag”. And while our popular image of the symbol wasn’t the official flag of the Confederate States of America, it was designed for that purpose, was later incorporated into newer flag concepts and was depicted as representative of the Confederacy at the time in murals and paintings.
There were three incarnations of the official Confederate flag. The first Confederate flag, the actual ‘Stars and Bars’, bore a resemblence to the flag of the Austrian Empire. A white bar sandwiched between two of red with a blue square in the top left with a circle of stars representing seceded states. It was later changed due to opposition stemming from its resemblance to the US flag (and the confusion at the Battle of Bull Run for that reason).
Today’s popular Confederate flag (henceforth referred to as the ‘Southern Cross’) was designed by William Porcher Miles, a South Carolinian and chair of the Committee on the Flag and Seal. Passed over as the official flag of the Confederacy, his design was adopted by the Army of Northern Virginia as a battle flag and would later be added in the corner of the proceding flags of the Confederate states.
The second official flag, ‘The Stainless Banner’, was white (for the white race, its causes and liberties) with the Southern Cross adorning its top left corner.
The third and final official flag is known as ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’, designed by William T. Thompson. It mostly borrowed from The Stainless Banner save for a rectangle of red encompassing the right quarter of the flag. In describing his creation and what it symbolized, Thompson had this to say:
As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause. … Such a flag…would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG. … As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism. Another merit in the new flag is, that it bears no resemblance to the now infamous banner of the Yankee vandals.
As it turns out, it’s not just “PC liberal hate speech” that seeks to spin the meaning of the Southern Cross into something malicious. That has been handled by declarations and ordinances given by seceding states as well as the creators of the flags which represent the Confederacy.
The sentiment of preserving slavery was so strong, in fact, that despite President Lincoln both stating and writing privately that he did not personally which to abolish slavery as policy, the South still chose to leave the Union. There is simply no hiding any of this. No dressing it up with euphemisms or flowery talk of liberty.
The Southern heritage and Confederate legacy can be mutually exclusive, but it is difficult. While most Southerners did not own slaves, it was not via some great opposition to slavery, but rather their lack of financial resources to acquire human capital. Slavery was a gigantic boon to slaveholders which made them extremely wealthy. Poorer white Southerners, just as their ancestors do today, would cling more to the notion of someday joining the elites than to proposing institutional changes which threatened the accumulation of wealth.
Preservation of the institution of slavery, as highlighted many times over in preceding paragraphs, and outright indignation to the notion of not only freeing slaves, but granting them political rights as well is deeply rooted in white political control.
Prior to the Civil War, the South had dominated the federal government. With a sentiment very similar to that of many white Americans today, the prospect of shrinking influence society sparked reactionary protest claiming to defend the causes and freedoms of that former political majority. And while the United States eventually did overturn slavery, the attempts to limit the political impact of non-whites, and both preserve and elevate that of whites, has persisted in the form of Jim Crow, gerrymandering and the Drug War.
The fear of being irrelevant, of being replaced has got to be the guiding principle of white supremacy. The fear that if the monopoly on force is lost, nothing but extermination awaits. And while demographic trends do predict that whites in the United States will become a minority in just a few generations, such a forecast does not validate the continued efforts to subjugate minorities.
There’s a responsibility that comes with authority which puts the onus of compassion on those who have that power. This is how we decide whether a given authority is legitimate or not, and if not then to pursue avenues of enacting change. Abusive authority debases itself. It sews seeds of discord beneath it, and since nothing lasts forever, abusive institutions left to the mercy of those they once oppressed can likely be expected to receive like treatment. This has been seen throughout history, and was certainly seen in slave revolts (as well as the very reason there were revolts to begin with).
While our current political systems still encourage a great deal of hierarchy, and our economic systems permit and encourage smaller, private tyrannies, it could be important to remember that rivals for power and influence today become a conduit for your heritage tomorrow.