The South has always had to defend itself, first in the halls of Congress, then militarily on the battlefield, but since 1865 in the annals of history. For surely today we are seen as the most defensive region in the country but that’s because we are the most attacked and maligned region in the country. The smears and denigrations have greatly increased in recent months with the latest campaign to erase our past with the destruction of Confederate monuments and memorials.
It’s unfortunate that we’ve been forced to defend ourselves, our region, our history, and most particularly the “Lost Cause” against attacks from without but, sadly, also from assaults by those who might be in sympathy with us. Clearly I’m talking about conservatives and right-leaning Republicans but now that emotions have been greatly ratcheted up with the Charlottesville rally and its aftermath, almost no one will defend the South and the cause of the Confederacy. These days they are running from it like the plague.
Last week on “Hannity,” Newt Gingrich, who holds a Ph.D. in history and who might be seen as one who understands the true history of the South, said that the Confederate flag represented those who “defended slavery and slave trading.” I was stunned, to say the least. Obviously one could make a halfway acceptable argument on the slavery issue, but slave trading?
Since he gave no explanation, we can only assume what he intended. If he meant the domestic slave trade, that practice had been ongoing since colonial days and involved every slave state in the Union, even those that remained loyal during the war but also the Northern colonies, and later states, when the institution was still legal in that region.
The international slave trade, by far the worst, came to an end in 1808 by an act of the US Congress. In fact, the Confederate Constitution outlawed the foreign slave trade, and the first bill vetoed by Jefferson Davis involved that detestable exchange. The President of the Confederacy had no desire to re-open the international slave trade.
Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, wrote last week in an article entitled “Mothball the Confederate Monuments,” that there is “no reason to honor Jefferson Davis, the blessedly incompetent president of the Confederacy. New Orleans just sent a statue of him to storage — good riddance.” I guess we should expect as much from a man who wrote a book in praise of Lincoln and credited him for “saving the American Dream.”
There is no good reason to denigrate President Davis over these current issues, especially by one who clearly has no understanding of the man or his presidency and the enormous difficulties he faced in trying to win independence for the South. It is only because of the slavery issue that Lowry made such inappropriate remarks.
Jefferson Davis was a man greatly respected in the United States before the war, far more than Lincoln. If a nationwide poll could have been taken in 1860, the vast majority of Americans would have recognized Mr. Davis, but Mr. Lincoln not so much. Davis had tremendous experience in government – West Point graduate, military service, both houses of Congress, and US secretary of war, a stint that has been praised by many historians as one of the best in American history. His restructuring and modernizing of the US army created the nucleus that Lincoln later built up to the largest army in the world. So Davis was an obvious choice to lead the new Southern nation and to be able to hold it together for four exhausting years against overwhelming odds is a feat worthy of praise, not derision.
As for slavery, it was legal and protected in the Confederacy; this much is true. But it was also legal in the United States and had been in America since Jamestown, including the four years of “civil war,” and remained so throughout Lincoln’s life. In fact, Lincoln did more to protect slavery – by pushing for the Corwin Amendment – than he ever did to abolish it. Slavery was only abolished in December 1865 with ratification of the 13th Amendment, which Lincoln had very little to do with, coming eight months after his assassination. In short, the US flag flew over legalized slavery, and the international slave trade, far longer than did the Confederate flag.
But in our current hypersensitive, politically correct society, it is becoming nearly impossible, as well as undesirable, for anyone to defend the Confederate States of America. The very minute anyone says anything remotely positive about the Confederacy, they are immediately attacked with two of the biggest and sharpest arrows in the PC quiver: the race card and the slave card. How can we have a reasoned argument with someone who, just minutes into the discussion, hits us with accusations of racism? So now people on our side of the political spectrum are running in sheer terror and distancing themselves from any association with the Confederacy, so as to not be linked in any way with the despicable racists and white supremacists in Charlottesville.
Those who are so critical of the South and the Confederacy, whether on the political Left or the Right, are guilty of what historians term “presentism,” the application of modern thoughts and attitudes to interpret the past. In other words, judging past generations with current thinking. Yes slavery is abhorrent to rational people today but in the mid-nineteenth century it was not seen in so negative a light. Attitudes were certainly changing by the 1860s, but slavery was a fact of life in the United States, as it had been around the world throughout all of human history.
So, if we can separate emotions from logic, then we can have a rational discussion and defend the Confederacy without supporting slavery. No respectable person today is arguing in favor of slavery and attacks on anyone for doing so is just another example of race-baiting, which is as bad as racism. For in our modern era, racism is seen, quite correctly, as the vilest mindset one can have so by accusing someone of it, especially without any evidence and for simply holding a different opinion on a historical question, is just as revolting.
We can praise our Confederate forebears for the vision they had for governing their republic and the protections they built into their Constitution to ensure the country remained true to its principles. In short, Southerners, through the Confederacy, sought to keep Jefferson’s Republic alive from political forces bent on killing it.
In Jefferson’s America, which lasted roughly six decades, the states had a tremendous amount of autonomy. The country was highly decentralized. Through most of those sixty years, there were no internal federal taxes, very low tariffs, no standing army, almost no national debt, a constitutional treasury system, and a belief in a strict interpretation of the Constitution and strong emphasis on the Bill of Rights. It was among the freest and most prosperous places on Earth.
Lincoln’s America, and the Republican political vision for the future, was the opposite, a centralized nation consisting of internal taxes, high tariffs, a standing army, profligate spending and a national debt, a national banking system, a fiat currency, federal funds for internal improvements, aid to business, and a great emphasis on Northern manufacturing. And when Northern citizens questioned Lincoln’s War, many were jailed without charges or trial, including newspaper editors who printed critical opinions.
The South sought to keep Jefferson’s governing vision in place and the only way that could be accomplished was through secession and building an independence nation of their own. So in 1861 the Confederacy was born with a constitutional convention in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Confederate Constitution crafted by the Southern framers was nearly identical to the US Constitution except for some important changes, which only made the Confederacy more Jeffersonian, not less.
Let’s briefly examine a few:
1. The states were greatly strengthened and better protected against federal encroachment. One of the great complaints about the Tenth Amendment was that it did not contain a remedy for the states to employ when the federal government overstepped its bounds. Both Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun advocated nullification, with Calhoun devising a practical application for a state to nullify federal laws. The Confederate Constitution did not contain a provision for nullification but gave the states an even stronger power – impeachment. The individual states, by their legislature, could remove any federal official, whether a judge or some other officer, from the bounds of that state by impeachment, thus assuring the Confederate government could not police any of the individual states.
2. Protective tariffs were outlawed. A centerpiece of Lincoln’s mercantile economic policy was his passionate belief in high protective tariffs. As he once said as a young man, “Give us a protective tariff and we will have the greatest country on earth.” He was poised to raise tariffs to the highest rates in US history. And he did so, increasing the tax multiple times as President. Lincoln was obsessed with economics and wanted to enact all of Henry Clay’s American System. This is what the South feared above all else. Their experience with such policies had resulted in economic hardship for their region.
The South’s longstanding economic argument on trade was this: A tariff is a tax on imports that is to be used to gain revenue to run the legitimate operations of the federal government. Raising tariffs for the purpose of protecting favored industries was not the intent of the founders because it placed the federal government in a position of picking and choosing industries to protect, and that practice, along with Hamiltonian subsidies to business, was inherently corrupt.
So the Confederate Constitution prohibited it: “nor shall any duties or taxes on importations from foreign nations be laid to promote or foster any branch of industry.”
3. Spending was strictly controlled. Under the Confederate Constitution, many safeguards were built into the system to guarantee tax dollars were spent in accordance with the powers granted to Congress. Aside from a few special situations, all appropriations required a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress. Spending within a state, what were called “internal improvements” at the time, usually enacted to “facilitate commerce,” was prohibited. Both of these changes would have ensured that our current corrupt practice of “earmarks” would, most likely, never have developed.
Another change that would also have helped end corrupt practices is often overlooked. “All bills appropriating money shall specify in Federal currency the exact amount of each appropriation and the purposes for which it is made; and Congress shall grant no extra compensation to any public contractor, officer, agent, or servant, after such contract shall have been made or such service rendered.”
This is a very significant aspect of the Confederate government. There have always been massive cost overruns and the inevitable fraud associated with government spending projects. In 1838 Senator John C. Calhoun spoke about it on the Senate floor: “We all knew when a public building was once commenced that it was never finished under five times the original estimate.” The Confederacy wanted to put an end to so disreputable of a practice.
And if you consider this provision along with the ban on both protective tariffs and funding for internal improvements, it would have been next to impossible for the ongoing concept of “crony capitalism” to have materialized in the Confederacy.
The President was also given a line-item veto so that specific items in a spending bill could be rejected, which would have also helped end earmarks and crony capitalism. There was also no “general welfare clause” in the Southern Constitution, which has been abused by politicians in our day, giving them the excuse to spend money and reward their friends and constituents with tax dollars.
4. Structural changes. The President had a six-year term but could only serve one, which would save the country from nasty re-election bids, and cabinet officers could speak on the floor of Congress but could not vote, so the executive branch could make their case on appropriations and laws needed to run their departments.
The document made it more difficult to admit new states because it took a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress, rather than a simple majority, which, had that provision been included in the US Constitution, might have averted the war because the small republic might not have expanded, and it was territorial expansion that caused so much turmoil, just as Calhoun warned it would.
The Confederate Constitution was also easier to amend because it only took three states to call a convention to consider new amendments.
It also protected the integrity of the ballot and the inborn corruption therein, for it decreed that “no person of foreign birth, not a citizen of the Confederate States, shall be allowed to vote for any officer, civil or political, State or Federal.” And that has been a problem throughout our history.
Setting slavery, emotions, and presentism aside, can any reasonable person, especially anyone calling themselves a conservative, object to any of these changes? Would not our nation benefit today if we adopted at least some of them?
We have no way of knowing what kind of country the Confederacy would have been, since the entire history of the new Southern republic, save a few early months, was beset by invasion, total war, and conquest. We can rest assured, however, that slavery would not be practiced today since it was in the process of dying out around the world and would have eventually ended in the Southern Confederacy as well. Economics and technology, as well as changing attitudes, would have made sure of that.
We can also rest assured, without much debate or discussion, that Lincoln’s regime wanted the end of Jeffersonian governance and they achieved it at the point of a bayonet. Lincoln’s purpose, and that of his party, was to build a centralized mercantile empire in place of Jefferson’s Republic. The South saw Lincoln and the Republicans for who they were and no longer wished to remain a part of this new concept of the American Union. So they withdrew, standing on the same principle of self-determination their colonial forebears stood on in 1776.
But the South’s attempt at self-government failed, not because of the flaws in Jeffersonian governance but because of an illegal invasion by a superior power. The Confederates fought valiantly against overwhelming odds for their independence. That is why the Confederate battle flag is seen around the world as a symbol of defiance of tyranny. The example of our Southern forefathers should be one of honor, right along with our colonial ancestors, not one of shame and disgrace. They tried to protect the Jeffersonian Ideal but, as Lincoln desired, it has perished from the Earth.