Lies My Teacher Told Me: The True History of the War for Southern Independence

Lee colorized

We Sons of Confederate Veterans are charged with preserving the good name of the Confederate soldier. The world, for the most part, has acknowledged what Gen. R. E. Lee described in his farewell address as the “valour and devotion” and “unsurpassed courage and fortitude” of the Confederate soldier. The Stephen D. Lee Institute program is dedicated to that part of our duty that charges us not only to honour the Confederate soldier but “to vindicate the cause for which he fought.” We are here to make the case not only for the Confederate soldier but for his cause. It is useless to proclaim the courage, skill, and sacrifice of the Confederate soldier while permitting him to be guilty of a bad cause.

Although their cause was lost it was a good cause and still has a lot to teach the world today.

In this age of Political Correctness there has never been a greater need and greater opportunity to refresh our understanding of what happened in America in the years 1861–1865 and start defending our Southern forebears as strongly as they ought to be defended. There is plenty of true history available to us. It is our job to make it known.

All the institutions of American society, including nearly all Southern institutions and leaders, are now doing their best to separate the Confederacy off from the rest of American history and push it into one dark little corner labeled “ Slavery and Treason.” Being taught at every level of the educational system is the official party line that everything good that we or anyone believe about our Confederate ancestors is a myth, and by myth they mean a pack of lies that Southerners thought up to excuse their evil deeds and defeat.

It was not always so. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter were not ashamed to be photographed with a Confederate flag. Dwight Eisenhower wrote a letter rebuking and correcting someone who had called R.E. Lee a traitor. In the newsreels of World War II and Korea our flag can be seen painted on fighter planes and flying over Marine tents. In the first half of the 20th century every single big Hollywood star played an admirable Confederate character in the movies at least once.

Those days are gone forever as you well know, although I doubt if you know how really bad it is. When we had the controversy over the flag in South Carolina a few years ago, some 90 or more historians issued a statement declaring that the war was about slavery and nothing but slavery and that all contrary ideas are invalid. They claimed that this was not simply their opinion, it was irrefutable fact established by them as experts in history. They did not put it exactly this way, but they were saying that our ancestors were despicable and that you and I are stupid and deluded in thinking well of them.

There are a hundred different things wrong with this statement. These historians are not speaking from knowledge or evidence, they are merely expressing the current fashion in historical interpretation. It is a misuse of history, indeed an absurdity, to reduce such a large and complex event as the War for Southern Independence to such simplistic and self-righteous terms. Historical interpretations change over time. Fifty years ago the foremost American historians believed that the war was primarily about economic interests and that slavery was a lesser issue. Fifty years from now, if people are still permitted to voice ideas that differ from the official government party line, historians will be saying something else.

Remember this. History is human experience and you do not have to be an “expert” to have an opinion about human experience. Furthermore, the kindergarten lesson of history is that human experience can be seen from more than one perspective. Never let yourself be put down by a so-called expert who claims to know more about your ancestors than you do. The qualities needed for understanding history are not some special expertise, but are the same qualities you look for in a good juror—the ability to examine all the evidence and weigh it fairly.

And history is not some disembodied truth. All history is the story of somebody’s experience. It is somebody’s history. When we talk about the War it is our history we are talking about, it is a part of our identity. To tell libelous lies about our ancestors is a direct attack on who we are.

It is right and natural for all people to honour their forefathers. We have every right to honour our Confederate forebears because they are ours, but there is more to it than that. We Southerners are especially fortunate in our forefathers. They not only won a place in the hearts of us, their descendants. They also won the lasting admiration of everyone in the civilized world who values an indomitable spirit in defense of freedom. That is why our battle-flag, which is being suppressed in this country, appeared spontaneously at the fall of the Berlin Wall and among peoples celebrating their liberation from communism.

Our Confederates are admired by the world to a degree seldom granted to lost causes. I find that thoughtful Europeans speak respectfully of the Confederacy, as did Winston Churchill. Foreigners have a great advantage in judging the right and wrong of the War between the States. They do not automatically assume that everything Yankees do and say is righteous, true, and unselfish. They view Yankees without the rose-coloured glasses with which Yankees view themselves.

The most basic simple fact about the War is that it was a war of invasion and conquest. Once you get clear on this basic fact, everything else falls into place. This is no secret. It is plain in the record. The rulers of the North openly declared that it was a war of conquest, to crush and punish disobedience to government, to create a powerful centralised state, and to keep the South as a captive source of wealth for Northern business and politicians. Lincoln’s pretty words about saving government of, by, and for the people are window dressing and the exact opposite of the truth. This is not preserving the Union. It is using war to turn the Union into something else that it was not meant to be.

The U.S. government, under the control of a minority party, launched a massive invasion of the South. They destroyed the democratic, legitimate, elected governments of fourteen States, killed as many of our forefathers as they could, deprived them of their citizenship, subjected them to military occupation, and did many other things that no American, North or South, could previously have imagined were possible.

Though they had four times our resources, they were not able to defeat our men, so the U.S. government launched an unprecedentedly brutal war of terrorism again Southern women and children, white and black. The war was so unpopular in the North that thousands of people were imprisoned by the army without due process, elections were conducted at bayonet point, and they had to import 300,000 foreigners to fill up the army.

This was the war—a brutal war of conquest and occupation against the will of millions of Americans. Was the reason for this the righteous desire to free the slaves?

Not hardly.

I want to talk about the Constitution and the rights of the States as our forefathers understood them. No subject in American history has been more neglected or dealt with more trivially and dishonestly, and yet there are not many subjects in American history that are more important. The more one studies it, the clearer it becomes that our forefathers were right. The Southern understanding of the Constitution has never been refuted. It can’t be. It was simply crushed.

According to the Declaration of Independence, governments rest on the consent of the people, who may alter or abolish them when they no longer serve their rightful ends. This is the bedrock American principle.

In every system there must be, at least in theory, a sovereign —a final authority for the settlement of all questions. All Americans are agreed that the people are sovereign. (Actually the people are not sovereign any more, which is part of the tragedy of our lost cause. Sovereignty is now exercised by the President and the Supreme Court .)

But if we say, as earlier Americans did, that the people are sovereign, what do we mean by the people? Our forefathers had a very clear answer to this. State rights was not, despite what they will tell you, something that was made up to defend slavery. It was the most honoured American tradition, implicit in the way the United States Constitution was set up and made valid. The right of the people of a State to exercise their sovereign will and secede from the Union was taken for granted at the Founding of the United States.

James Madison, called the Father of the Constitution, said that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the opinion of the people of the states when they ratified it, and that the Tenth Amendment, which limited the government to specific powers and left all others to the states and the people, was the cornerstone of the Constitution. Just before his election as President Thomas Jefferson drafted the Kentucky Resolutions which stated in absolutely clear language that sovereignty rested in the people of each state. He maintained this before, during, and after he was President. (I know of a case where a graduate student wrote about Jefferson’s and Madison’s position on State rights. A tenured professor of American history at a large state university told the student that he had made it up because it couldn’t be true. Remember this when you hear “expert” professors laying down the law about history.)

Even Alexander Hamilton, the greatest advocate of a strong central government, stated that the government would never have any right to coerce a State. Jefferson in his later years took it for granted that the Union would break up—probably into eastern and western confederacies. There was nothing wrong with that. The sacred thing was not the Union but the consent of the people, which might be better represented in two or three confederacies rather than one. What, after all, is wrong with Americans creating other Unions if that is what the people want?

If time allowed I could give you quotations from now until Christmas proving that the right of secession was clearly understood at the establishment of the Constitution and for long after. But let me try to illustrate my point.

In 1720 the people of South Carolina, acting through their own legislature and militia, exercised their sovereign will by declaring themselves independent of the Lords Proprietors who claimed to own their territory. In 1775, acting in the same exercise of their sovereign will, they threw out the King’s government and became an independent nation. And they made this good well before the joint Declaration of Independence by defeating a British attack on Charleston. In 1787 the people through a convention specially elected to express their sovereign will considered whether or not to ratify the United States Constitution. If you believe that government rests on the consent of the people, then this is the only place the consent could be given. And it was an entirely free act of a sovereign who could say yea or nay without responsibility to any other authority. They ratified the Constitution under the understanding that they were joining in a Union that would be of mutual benefit to all the partners. This was the will of the only sovereign, the people of each State.

In 1860, the people of South Carolina assembled once more in a convention and repealed their previous ratification of the Constitution, which as a sovereign people they were entitled to do. They were now once more an independent nation as they had been before they had given their consent to the Union. They did this because the Union was no longer to their benefit but had become a burden and a danger. They said: We have acted in good faith and been very patient. But obviously you people in control of the federal government intend permanently to exploit our wealth and interfere in our affairs. Our contract with you no longer serves it purpose of mutual benefit and is hereby dissolved.

As you know, our North Carolina people did not want to bring on a crisis. They did not rush into secession, though they were never in doubt about their right. Then Lincoln announced that the legitimate governments of the seven seceded States were not States at all but are merely what he called “combinations of lawbreakers.” According to him, the act of the people was merely a crime problem. Once you had accepted the federal government the consent of the people could never be exercised again . He ordered the States to disperse within 30 days and obey his authority, or else. The issue was now clear for our State and the sovereign people of North Carolina elected a convention that unanimously seceded from affiliation with the United States.

Our forefathers were right, and they knew they were right. Their Lost Cause was a loss for all Americans and for the principle that governments must rest on the consent of the people. Imagine for a moment how different our situation would be today if we were able to get together and disobey the federal government which has usurped our right to consent to our rulers.

But I am of good cheer. One of the bad South-hating historians recently whined in print that even though he and other brilliant experts have declared the truth over and over, people still continue to admire the Confederacy and honour that mythical Lost Cause. They think we are not as wise as they. Why, people still write novels and songs about Lee and even about his horse! Why doesn’t anyone write about Grant and his men like that? That they can’t understand this tells you what kind of people they are.

Here is our great advantage. Our Confederate ancestors are truly admirable, and decent people all over the world know it. Let’s always remember that.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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