It would seem that the tragic events in Charleston are to beget even more tragedy by revitalizing the movement opposed to the flying of the flag of The Confederate States of America. The flag is not the only thing being opposed, of course; as many statues of prominent Confederates are also, but nonetheless I will deal with the history at the root of the controversy of them both here today.
First, for a history of the Confederate flag(s) I suggest you read the article at Shotgun’s Home of The Civil War for an excellent overview. If going through all those words seems daunting then here are several of the videos to pop up recently explaining the history adequately.
I think it is a bit poetic, that after the war the Battle Flag and the Naval Jack became widely used symbols in the South in preference to any of the National Flags, since the Confederate Army (whom my ancestors were, unfortunately, not a part) fought bravely in the Civil War, while the Confederate government is (perhaps unjustly) seen as letting the South down in the war. Robert E. Lee once said of Confederate Congress, “They do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco….”
Anyway, the earliest documented use of the Confederate flag by the Ku Klux Klan was at a Confederate Memorial Day “celebration” in 1939. (1) There is also an interesting anecdote of U.S. marines raising the Confederate Flag over Okinawa during World War 2. “LIFE” reported in 1951 that the flag was seeing a resurgence in the South which they called a fad, but it was around this time that the Confederate flag was taken up in earnest by Anti-Civil Rights groups. The quintessential Civil War historian Shelby Foote described what occurred at this time in a Confederate Flag debate back in 2000,
“…they [people offended by the flag] take that flag to represent what those yahoos represent as – in their protest against civil rights things. But the people who knew what that flag really stood for should have stopped those yahoos from using it as a symbol of what they stood for. But we didn’t – and now you had this problem of the confederate flag being identified as sort of a roughneck thing, which it is not.”
By “yahoos” Foote, of course, means KKK and other opponents of Civil Rights and this brings us to where we are today.
Now, of course, the position held by most opponents of the Confederate Flag is best described by the recent words of John Oliver, “…the first time the Confederate Flag was used in a racist way was the exact second they finished sewing the very first one.” Thus, the real debate over the Confederate flag is over what exactly the Confederates were really fighting for in The Civil War and thus what the flag really represents.
I’ll say up front, that no one blog post or perhaps even series of posts can contain all the history and reasons why the Confederate States were fighting for a righteous cause. I’ll try to merely give the most concise arguments that I can, below.
Secession and The Compact Theory of Government
The Constitutional argument for the right of the State’s to secede rests on the Tenth Amendment which reads in full; “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The argument put forward by Confederate President Jefferson Davis (and accepted by others at the time) was that even though the Constitution does not give the States the right to secede, it also does not give the Federal government the power to coerce a seceding state either. Hence, secession was a power reserved to the states. (2) Remember James Madison’s words in Federalist No. 45?
“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” (3)
And as Thomas E. Woods Jr., put it in “The Political Incorrect Guide to American History”;
“The list of authorities that supported the principle that American states had the legal right to secede it impressive. Taken together, they amount to very serious evidence of the existence of such a right: Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams; William Lloyd Garrison; William Rawle; and Alexis de Tocqueville…Add to this that the New England states threatened secession several times in the early nineteenth century, and the result if practically unavoidable: The legitimacy of secession although not held unanimously, had been taken for granted in all sections of the country for years by the time of the war.” (4)
The way Alexis de Tocqueville justified secession, in “Democracy in America”, touches on something very important in The Civil War;
“The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; and these, in uniting together, have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and same people. If one of the States chose to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so…”
This highlights the fact that two competing theories of government have existed in the U.S. almost since the founding and collided in The Civil War; these theories were the Compact Theory and the Nationalist Theory. The Compact Theory (held by Thomas Jefferson) stated that the thirteen states had formed a compact for mutual benefit in 1789, but the States still retained strong powers that were necessary to perverse the individual liberty of the people. The Nationalist Theory holds that the Union comes first (meaning it cannot be broken) and that the surest guarantee of liberty was by consolidating power in the Union. (5)
Considering the facts that the Treaty of Paris, which granted America its independence, listed the states individually and that each state ratified the Constitution (or in some case almost did not) individually, this would seem to give credibility to the Compact Theory.
Why the North Fought the War
Absolutely no professional historian believes that Abraham Lincoln started the war to free the slaves; as he wrote to Editor Horace Greeley,
“I would save the Union. … If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. … What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.”
Lincoln also supported a Constitutional amendment protecting Southern slavery forever and did nothing to help the blacks in his home state, where they could not vote, go to court against whites, or attend public school. (6) Most historians instead argue that Lincoln began the war to preserve the Union and then turned the war into a war to free the slaves, through the Emancipation Proclamation (which, in point of fact, did not free any slaves) and the Gettysburg Address (whom H.L. Mencken once gave a scathing observation of) before he discovered that that was what the war had been about all along.
And just like many Northerners held racists views against blacks it is important to remember that many Southerners opposed slavery, Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson both despised the institution and in 1828 they were four times as many abolition societies in the South than in the North. (7)
The Confederacy Fought for American Principles
“The people who say the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery are just as wrong as the people who say it had everything to do with slavery,” Foote once stated and I certainly agree with him; slavery greatly contributed to the war, but it was not the main cause of the war nor the main reason the Confederacy fought the war. The Confederate cause was the preservation of the ideals of self-government, limited federal government, and States Rights—hence the best name for the Civil War is probably “The War for Southern Independence”. For what it’s worth both “The Second American Revolution” and “The War against Federal Dominion” are and have been popular names in the South for the Civil War (although to be fair so has “The War to Preserve Slavery”).
A brief look at the Confederate Constitution (an almost carbon copy of the U. S. Constitution) shows that the Confederates were very worried about the growth of Federal power; the President could only have a single six-year term (roughly 86 years before the presidential two term limit was passed), the President had a line item veto, no public money could be spent on internal improvements. And the “General Welfare” which has justified even the most absurd Federal actions, was completely absent in the Confederate Constitution.
Thomas Woods wrote in “The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History” that the great Civil War Historian James M. McPherson found in his study of the records of average Civil War soldiers (in his book “Causes and Comrades”) that the Southerners said they were fighting for the principles of self-government, which they believed were the real legacy of the Founding Fathers. (8)
In 1860-61, the Confederate States used their Constitutional right to secede from the Union because as, Foote put it, “They believed Lincoln was going to take the country in directions they did not care to go.” (9) This undeniably meant that some Southerners feared the abolition of their slaves was coming, but that is a huge simplification of the issue; they also saw their only safeguards protecting their rights and liberties were in danger of being usurped by an overgrown Federal government.
This was abundantly clear to the British politician and thinker, Lord Acton, who wrote to his good friend Robert E. Lee;
“I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.” (10)
Should the South have Won the Civil War?
First, let’s deal with the lesser issue at stake in that war, slavery; several solid theories have been put forward as to how the South would have abolished slavery even if it had been allowed to secede. Historian Bruce T. Clark argued that advancements in agriculture would have made slavery obsolete in the South, which is the very reason slavery died out in the North. (11) Thomas Woods argued that slavery would have been abolished in the South the same way it was (peacefully) abolished in Brazil. One Brazilian state simply abolished slavery there and became a magnet for runaway slaves; a fugitive slave law was passed to no avail and the entire institution collapsed in five years. This was exactly why William Lloyd Garrison supported seeing the North secede from the South. Either way, slavery would have ended in America without a brutal Civil War. (12)
And the slave freed might have been better off if it had. On more than one occasion, Foote observed that,
“This country has two great sins on its very soul. One is slavery, which we’ll never get out of our history and our conscience and everything else, the marrow of our bones. The other one is emancipation. They told four million people, “You are free. Hit the road.” Two-thirds of them couldn’t read or write. Very few of them had any trade except farming, and they went back into a sharecropper system that closely resembled peonage.”
While there is no guarantee, but would not compassionate Southerners worked toward preparing former slaves for life after slavery if they did not see them as the reason they lost their war of independence?
Now some might applaud the victory of a powerful Federal government over, what they would probably call, the delusions of a few silly conservative bigots; this is quite sad for a number of reasons the least of which is not that it flies in the face of the vision set forth by the Founding Fathers. As Thomas Jefferson said in his First Inaugural, that he envisioned the U.S. government as, “…a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits…”
The consolidation of power in the central government after The Civil War was the only logically consequence once the only checks on that powers—States Rights and Secession—were crushed with the Confederacy. The gross excesses of power and usurpation of the rights of Americans began with Abraham Lincoln’s well known abuses in The Civil War and came to fruition in the current and previous century. Hence, wherever the Confederate Flag flies, arguably, so does a greater symbol of freedom then when our current American flag does.
I’d like to say that I’m greatly indebted and eternally grateful to Shelby Foote, Thomas E. Woods, and Bruce T. Clark for helping me learn the real history surrounding the Civil War and the Confederate States of America. I will be even more thankful to Mr. Woods if he will restrain himself and not sue me for copyright infringement.
1) “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem” by John M. Coski
2) “The Political Incorrect Guide to American History” by Thomas E. Woods Jr.
3) “The Federalist Papers” by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
4) “The Political Incorrect Guide to American History” by Thomas E. Woods Jr.
5) “Secession and the American Experience” by Thomas Woods
6) “33 Questions about American History You’re Not Suppose to Ask” by Thomas E. Woods Jr.
7) “The Political Incorrect Guide to American History” by Thomas E. Woods Jr.
9) “The Civil War” directed by Ken Burns
10) “33 Questions about American History You’re Not Suppose to Ask” by Thomas E. Woods Jr.
11) “The Outrageous Folly of the Civil War” by Bruce T. Clark
12) “The Political Incorrect Guide to American History” by Thomas E. Woods Jr.