This article was originally printed in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of Confederate Veteran Magazine.
In June 2015, after the depraved shootings in a Charleston, South Carolina, black church, a frenzied hue and cry went up and any number of accusations and attacks were made against historic Confederate symbols, in particular, the Confederate Battle Flag. Monuments, markers, flags, plaques, street and school names, everything memorializing anything associated with the Confederacy have come under severe attack. Even grave sites and cemeteries have not been exempt from this onslaught. It is, as one writer wrote, “a new Reconstruction,” and, in fact, an attempt to eradicate the very existence of Confederate heritage.
Let us briefly examine these attacks and offer some responses.
First, the demand was made that the Battle Flag must come down. In South Carolina, Alabama, and other states, governmental authorities, reacting to loud voices and the pressures of political correctness, have removed flags from places of prominence and from public property. They declare that the flag needs to be banned and suppressed because it is a “symbol of hate” and “was carried by racists,” that it “flew over a racist country.”
This argument ignores much of the history of that banner. The Battle Flag, with its familiar Cross of St. Andrew, was a square ensign carried by Southern troops during the War Between the States. It was not the national flag of the Confederacy, but, rather, was carried by Southern soldiers, a large majority of whom came from non-slaveholding families. And of those soldiers from slaveholding families, the overwhelming number came from families with half a dozen or fewer slaves who lived and worked with their families, attended the same churches and were treated by the same doctors. (Interestingly, regiments of the Union army from Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri included slave holding soldiers in their ranks; indeed, General Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant, owned slaves throughout the war).
As Professor James McPherson—certainly no defender of the Confederacy–has carefully documented in his study, For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1997), the vast majority of Confederate soldiers—-men who carried the Battle Flag—believed they were fighting for liberty. After examining 574 manuscript collections and nearly 30,000 letters, diaries, and journals in twenty-two archival repositories, he wrote: “Southern recruits waxed most eloquently about their intention to fight against slavery than for it…that is, against their own enslavement to the North.” (pp. 19-20) “Confederates professed to fight for liberty and independence from a tyrannical government.” (p. 104)
By contrast, the American flag, the “Stars and Stripes,” not only flew over slavery for seventy-eight years, it flew over the brutal importation, the selling and the purchase of slaves, and the breaking up of slave families. Additionally, the Stars and Stripes flew over the infamous “Trail of Tears,” at the Sand Creek massacre of innocent Native Americans, later at the Wounded Knee massacre, and over the harsh internment of thousands of Nisei Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during World War II.
Although there are some zealots who suggest doing away with the American flag because of these connections, it is highly unlikely that most of the inside-the-Washington-Beltway pundits, including many on Fox News, and several Southern Republican governors who have clamored for banning the Battle Flag, would join them in that demand. Yet, if the history of both banners is closely examined from the radically changing contexts that are used to attack the one, should not there be a focus on the history of other, as well? And, if only a particular snap shot context is used to judge such symbols, is any symbol of America’s diverse history safe from the hands of those who may dislike or despise this or that symbol?
Second, a comparison has been made between the Battle Flag and the Nazi flag (red background, with a white circle and a black swastika centered). Again, this comparison demonstrates a lack of historical acumen on the part of those making it: the Nazi flag was created precisely to represent the Nazi Party and its ideology. The Battle Flag bears a traditional Christian “saltire,” the St. Andrew’s Cross, that has deep historical roots in Scotland, Spain, Burgundy, and Russia, and in Christian iconography.
Third, the charge has been made that Confederate symbols must be banned because they represent “treason against the Federal government.” That is, those Southerners who took up arms in 1861 to defend their states, their homes, and their families, were engaged in “rebellion” and were “traitors” under Federal law.
Again, such arguments fail on all counts. Some writers have suggested that Robert E. Lee, in particular, was a “traitor” because he violated his solemn military oath to uphold and defend the Constitution by taking up arms against the Union. But what those writers fail to note is that Lee had formally resigned from the US Army and had relinquished his commission before undertaking his new assignment to defend his home state of Virginia, which by then had seceded and re-vindicated its original independence.
And that brings us to point four: the right of secession and whether the actions of the Southern states, December 1860-May 1861, could be justified under the US Constitution.
One of the better summaries of the prevalent Constitutional theory at that time has been made by black scholar, professor, and prolific author Dr. Walter Williams. Here is what he writes in one his columns:
“During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, a proposal was made that would allow the federal government to suppress a seceding state. James Madison rejected it, saying, ‘A union of the states containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a state would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.’
In fact, the ratification documents of Virginia, New York and Rhode Island explicitly said they held the right to resume powers delegated should the federal government become abusive of those powers. The Constitution never would have been ratified if states thought they could not regain their sovereignty — in a word, secede.
On March 2, 1861, after seven states seceded and two days before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, Sen. James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin proposed a constitutional amendment that read, “No state or any part thereof, heretofore admitted or hereafter admitted into the union, shall have the power to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the United States.”
Several months earlier, Reps. Daniel E. Sickles of New York, Thomas B. Florence of Pennsylvania and Otis S. Ferry of Connecticut proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit secession. Here’s a question for the reader: Would there have been any point to offering these amendments if secession were already unconstitutional?” [my emphasis added]
An examination of the ratification processes for Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina in the late 1780s, reveal very similar discussions: it was the independent states themselves that had created a Federal government (and not the reverse, as Abe Lincoln erroneously suggested), and it was the various states that granted the Federal government certain very limited and specifically enumerated powers, reserving the vast remainder for themselves (see Professor Mel Bradford, Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution. University of Georgia Press, 1993). As any number of the Founders indicated, there simply would not have been any United States if the states, both north and south, had believed that they could not leave it for just cause.
During the Antebellum period there was little political support for denying the right of secession or for the Constitutional right to suppress it. Of the pre-war presidents, it is true, Andrew Jackson threatened South Carolina in 1833 over Nullification of the “Tariff of Abominations,” but that crisis was resolved through compromise. Even staunch anti-slavery unionist President John Quincy Adams advocated secession over the annexation of Texas, and in his April 30, 1839, speech “The Jubilee of the Constitution,” commemorating the 50th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as the first American president, he affirmed:
“…if the day should ever come, (may Heaven avert it) when the affections of the people of these states shall be alienated from each other; when the fraternal spirit shall give away to cold indifference, or collisions of interest shall fester into hatred, the bands of political association will not long hold together the parties no longer attracted by the magnetism of conciliated interests and kindly sympathies; and far better will it be for the people of the disunited states, to part in friendship from each other, than to be held together by constraint.”
In his address to Congress in January of 1861, lame duck President James Buchanan, while deploring secession, stated frankly that he had no right to prevent it: “I certainly had no right to make aggressive war upon any State, and I am perfectly satisfied that the Constitution has wisely withheld that power even from Congress.” Former President John Tyler served in the Confederate Congress, and former President Franklin Pierce, in his famous Concord, New Hampshire, address, July 4, 1863, joined Buchanan in decrying the efforts to suppress the secession of the Southern states:
“Do we not all know that the cause of our casualties is the vicious intermeddling of too many of the citizens of the Northern States with the constitutional rights of the Southern States, cooperating with the discontents of the people of those states? Do we not know that the disregard of the Constitution, and of the security that it affords to the rights of States and of individuals, has been the cause of the calamity which our country is called to undergo?”
More, during the antebellum period William Rawle’s pro-secession text on Constitutional law, A View of the Constitution of the United States (1825,) was used at West Point as the standard text on the US Constitution. And on several occasions the Supreme Court, itself, affirmed this view. In The Bank of Augusta v. Earl (1839), the Court wrote in an 8-1 decision:
“The States…are distinct separate sovereignties, except so far as they have parted with some of the attributes of sovereignty by the Constitution. They continue to be nations, with all their rights, and under all their national obligations, and with all the rights of nations in every particular; except in the surrender by each to the common purposes and object of the Union, under the Constitution. The rights of each State, when not so yielded up, remain absolute.”
A review of the Northern press at the time of the Secession conventions finds, perhaps surprisingly to those who wish to read back into the past their own statist ideas, a similar view. As historian William Marvel explains in his volume, Mr. Lincoln Goes to War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers, 2006, pp. 19-20), few Northern newspapers took the position that the Federal government had the constitutional right to invade and suppress states that had decided to secede. Many favored peaceful separation. Indeed, were it not the New England states in 1814-1815 who made the first serious effort at secession during the War of 1812, to the point that they gathered in Hartford to discuss actively pursuing it? And during the pre-war period various states asserted in one form or another similar rights.
One last comment regarding the accusation of “treason”: after the conclusion of the War, the Southern states were put under military authority, their civil governments dissolved, and each state had to be re-admitted to the Union. But, logically, a state could not be “re-admitted” to the Union unless it had been out of it. And if it were out of it, legally and constitutionally, as the Southern states maintained (and some Northern writers acknowledged), then it could not be in any way guilty of “treason.”
The major point that opponents of Confederate symbols assert is that the panoply of those monuments, flags, plaques, and other reminders honoring Confederate veterans represent a defense of historical slavery. Slavery was the cause of the war, they say, and since American society has supposedly advanced progressively in understanding, it is both inappropriate and hurtful to continue to display such memorials.
Again, there are various levels of response. Historically, despite the best efforts of the ideologically-driven Marxist historical school (e.g., Eric Foner) to make slavery the only underlying cause for the War Between the States, there is considerable evidence—while not ignoring the significance of slavery—to indicate more varied and profound economic and political reasons why that war occurred (cf. writers Thomas DiLorenzo, Charles Adams, David Gordon, Jeffrey Hummel, William Marvel, Thomas Fleming, et al). Indeed, it goes without saying that when hostilities began, anti-slavery was not a major reason at all in the North for prosecuting the war; indeed, it never was a major reason. Lincoln made this explicit to editor Horace Greeley of The New York Tribune a short time prior to the Emancipation Proclamation (which only applied to states in the South where the Federal government had no authority, but not to the states such as Maryland and Kentucky, where slavery existed, but were safely under Union control).
Here is what he wrote to Greeley on August 22, 1862:
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
The Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), issued just three months after Lincoln’s communication to Greeley, was a desperate political ploy by Lincoln to churn up sagging support for a war that appeared stale-mated at the time. Indeed, Old Abe had previously called for sending blacks back to Africa and the enforcement of laws that made Jim Crow look benign. He knew fully well that “freeing the slaves” had little support in the North and was not the reason for the conflict.
In the Southern states, the issue of slavery as the raison d’etre for secession (and for war) is more complex. Clearly, the secession of North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee (and the attempted secession of Kentucky and Missouri) was chiefly a response to Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the states of the Deep South and incursions by Federal troops (e.g. the Federal occupation of St. Louis and invasion of Missouri, and the tyrannical suppression of habeas corpus in Maryland). The overwhelming view in those states, as elsewhere in many areas of the Union, was that the Federal government did not have the right to coerce a state that had seceded, and that such action was a flagrant violation of the Constitution.
In January of 1861 North Carolina voted by a healthy margin to remain in the Union. The other states in the northern tier where slavery existed initially resolved to do the same thing. However, the demand by the Lincoln administration that the states supply troops to participate in an attack on South Carolina was met by widespread revulsion. Tar Heel Governor John W. Ellis’s famously replied to this summons: “You can get no troops from North Carolina!” Zebulon Vance, a leader of the state’s Whigs and an adamant unionist, and future war-time governor, recounted that he was on the stump when the news of the Federal demand came: “When during my oration my hand went up I was a staunch Unionist, but when it came down, I was a diehard secessionist.” In the North Carolina debates over secession in early May 1861 slavery was hardly mentioned, and the state’s representatives voted unanimously in convention to secede on May 20, 1861.
In several of the Deep South states, declarations of grievances did mention slavery as a reason for severing connection with the Federal union. And it is true that a defense of the “peculiar institution” forms one of several justifications for the secession of Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia. The Federal government appeared increasingly incapable or unwilling to secure property rights and insure civil order for those states. Still, for them slavery was subsumed in the overriding question of constitutionality and the perceived impression that the Federal government could no longer be depended upon to defend the Founders’ Constitution.
But as an issue slavery was overshadowed by the severe and immediate hit that Southerners were threatened with economically through the imposition of the Morrill Tariff, which raised the average tariff rate from 15% to 37.5% (and eventually to 47.5%) and greatly expanded the list of taxable items. Abraham Lincoln had campaigned vigorously on a platform of strong support for the Morrill Tariff and increased economic protectionism—extreme protectionism that threatened to completely cripple the economies of the import-dependent Southern states. As noted economist Frank Taussig detailed in his classic study, Tariff History of the United States (Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1967 edition), the tariff was the chief revenue source for the Federal government, and the South would be paying nearly 80 % of the tariff, while most of the revenues were spent in the North.
In his famous “cornerstone speech” to the Georgia legislature, November 13, 1860, Senator Robert Toombs, laid bare these Southern grievances and explained why they would provoke secession and war:
“…the Northern States evinced a general desire and purpose to use it [the Constitution] for their own benefit, and to pervert its powers for sectional advantage, and they have steadily pursued that policy to this day. They demanded a monopoly of the business of ship-building, and got a prohibition against the sale of foreign ships to citizens of the United States, which exists to this day.
They demanded a monopoly of the coasting trade, in order to get higher freights than they could get in open competition with the carriers of the world. Congress gave it to them, and they yet hold this monopoly. And now, to-day, if a foreign vessel in Savannah offer[s] to take your rice, cotton, grain or lumber to New-York, or any other American port, for nothing, your laws prohibit it, in order that Northern ship-owners may get enhanced prices for doing your carrying.
This same shipping interest, with cormorant rapacity, have steadily burrowed their way through your legislative halls, until they have saddled the agricultural classes with a large portion of the legitimate expenses of their own business. We pay a million of dollars per annum for the lights which guide them into and out of your ports.
The North, at the very first Congress, demanded and received bounties under the name of protection, for every trade, craft, and calling which they pursue, and there is not an artisan . . . in all of the Northern or Middle States, who has not received what he calls the protection of his government on his industry to the extent of from fifteen to two hundred per cent from the year 1791 to this day. They will not strike a blow, or stretch a muscle, without bounties from the government.
No wonder they cry aloud for the glorious Union . . . by it they got their wealth; by it they levy tribute on honest labor. Thus stands the account between the North and the South. Under its . . . most favorable action . . . the treasury [is] a perpetual fertilizing stream to them and their industry, and a suction-pump to drain away our substance and parch up our lands.
They will [under Lincoln] have possession of the Federal executive with its vast power, patronage, prestige of legality, its army, its navy, and its revenue on the fourth of March next. Hitherto it has been on the side of the Constitution and the right; after the fourth of March it will be in the hands of your enemy. What more can you get from them under this Government?” [emphasis added]
In his first inaugural address, delivered Monday, March 4, 1861, Lincoln threw down the gauntlet. After declaring that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery where it exists…I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so,” he warned: “The power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts.” [emphasis added]
Professor Thomas DiLorenzo sums up this volatile economic and constitutional tinderbox:
“Whatever other reasons some of the Southern states might have given for secession are irrelevant to the question of why there was a war. Secession does not necessitate war. Lincoln promised war over tax collection in his first inaugural address. When the Southern states refused to pay his beloved Morrill Tariff at the Southern ports [monies that supplied a major portion of Federal revenues], he kept his promise of ‘invasion and bloodshed’ and waged war on the Southern states.”
The inability to find compromise in late 1860 and early 1861 must be laid squarely at the door of the Lincoln administration, as William Marvel has detailed. Various attempts at finding a compromise (e.g., Crittenden Compromise) and avoiding war were repeatedly undermined by the administration. “It was Lincoln, however, who finally eschewed diplomacy and sparked a confrontation,” writes Marvel. “[H]e backed himself into a corner from which he could escape only by mobilizing a national army, and thereby fanning the flames of Fort Sumter into full-scale conflagration.” (p. xvii)
Thus, it was the intransigence of the Lincoln administration that literally provoked war, and not the cause of “freeing the slaves.”
In fact, in the Southern states during the years previous to the outbreak of war there had been discussion about “the institution,” its future, and its continuing role in the American nation. Even in South Carolina, probably the most famous and brilliant theologian of the antebellum South, James Henley Thornwell, struggled with the issue for years. While staunchly defending the institution of slavery biblically with solid arguments, he, nevertheless, continued to search for an all-encompassing and just solution to the question, but a solution that the South, working by itself without outside interference, might find. The late Professor Eugene Genovese, perhaps the finest recent historian of the antebellum South, has written that Thornwell attempted “to envision a Christian society that could reconcile–so far as possible in a world haunted by evil–the conflicting claims of a social order with social justice and both with the freedom and dignity of the individual.” The outbreak of war abruptly halted such discussion, making a peaceful solution practically impossible.
Late in the conflict (March 13, 1865) the Confederate government authorized the formation of black military units to fight for the Confederacy, with manumission to accompany such service. According to several research studies (see Ervin Jordan, Jr. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia. University of Virginia Press, 1995; Charles Kelly Barrow, J. H. Segars, and R. B. Rosenburg, Black Confederates, Pelican Publishing, 2001), thousands of black men fought for the Confederacy, perhaps as many as 30,000. Despite the earlier declarations of some Deep South states, would a society ideologically committed to preserving in toto the peculiar institution as the reason for war, even in such dire straits, have enacted such a measure? Did the thousands of black men who fought for the Confederacy believe they were fighting for slavery?
It is, of course, easy to read back into a complex context then what appears so right and natural to us now; but it does a disservice to history. Understanding the intellectual struggle in which many Southerners engaged over the issue of slavery, Professor Genovese cautioned readers about rash judgments based on politically correct presentist ideas of justice and right, and in several books and numerous essays defended those leaders of the Old South who were faced with difficult decisions and a nearly intractable context. And more, he understood as too many writers fail to do today, that selecting this or that symbol of our collective history, singling it out for our smug disapprobation and condemnation, may make us feel good temporarily, but does nothing to address the deeper problems afflicting our benighted society.
For an overwhelming majority of contemporary Southerners the Battle Flag is a symbol of regional pride and an honorable heritage. In recent years it has been used universally as a symbol of liberty against oppression, including atop the Berlin Wall in 1989 and by the ethnic Russian freedom fighters in eastern Ukraine; it has nothing to do intrinsically with “hate” or “prejudice.” Concerning Dylann Roof, the disturbed lone gunman responsible for the Charleston shootings, the proper response should be: if a lone rabid fox comes out of the woods and bites someone, you don’t burn the woods down, you stop the fox.
But in the United States today we live in a country characterized by what historian Thomas Fleming has written afflicted this nation in 1860—“a disease in the public mind,” that is, a collective madness, lacking in both reflection and prudential understanding of our history. Too many authors advance willy-nilly down the slippery slope—thus, if we ban the Battle Flag, why not destroy all those monuments to Lee and Jackson? And why stop there? Washington and Jefferson were slave holders, were they not? Obliterate and erase those names from our lexicon, tear down their monuments, also! Fort Hood, Fort Bragg, Fort Gordon? Change those names, for they remind us of Confederate generals! Nathan Bedford Forest lies buried in Memphis? Dig him up and move him to obscurity! Amazon sells “Gone with Wind?” Well, to quote a writer (June 2015) at the supposedly “conservative,” Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, it should be banned, too!
It is a slippery slope, but an incline that in fact represents a not-so-hidden agenda, a cultural Marxism that seeks to take advantage of tragedy to advance its own designs which are nothing less than the remaking completely of what little remains of the Founders’ Old Republic. And, since it is the South that has been most resistant to such impositions and radicalization, it is the South, the historic South, which enters the cross hairs as the most tempting target. And it is the Battle Flag—true, it has been misused on occasion—which is not just the symbol of Southern pride, but becomes the target of a broad, vicious, and zealous attack on Western Christian tradition, itself. Those attacks, then, are only the opening salvo in this renewed cleansing effort, this new Reconstruction, and those who collaborate with them, good intentions or not, collaborate with the destruction of our historic civilization. For that they deserve our scorn and our most vigorous and steadfast opposition.