Written for Facebook:
Lately, memes promoting and defending the Confederate flag flow through my feed pretty regularly. Most who circulate such material, like most who wave the Confederate flag itself, are far removed from the crude racists of the Ku Klux Klan variety. Many of them don't have a racist thought in mind. Ask them about it and they'll usually tell you the flag is about, to quote a popular slogan, "heritage, not hate."
But what heritage?
The irony of those who wave the flag while parroting that other popular slogan, "if this flag offends you, you need a history lesson," really is lost on most of those doing the parroting. For generation upon generation, their heads have been filled with a ludicrously false Confederate apologist version of the American Civil War cynically manufactured after its conclusion by those in the South looking to expunge the sin of slavery and white supremacy from their cause in much the same way Holocaust deniers try to expunge genocide from fascism.
The first African slaves in America were brought to the Jamestown colony in 1619. During the 18th century struggle with England, Thomas Jefferson, in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, wanted to lay blame for slavery at the doorstep of the King and be done with it. The idea didn't go over very well. At the insistence of the powerful Southern planter caste, slavery became integrated into the U.S. Constitution. Still, during the radical fervor of the Revolutionary era, abolitionist sentiment flourished. Between 1777 and 1804, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey--most of the U.S. outside the south--either abolished slavery outright or enacted programs of gradual abolition. But slavery, particularly in the wake of the cotton gin, became vital to the agrarian economy of the South, one of the wealthiest in the world. In what later became the Confederate states, a handful of rich planters, their fabulous wealth inextricably tied up in the institution, called the shots.
For over 40 years prior to the Civil War, slavery had been the top issue in the U.S. As the nation expanded, there was a constant tension between slave and free states, leading to a series of efforts to maintain a balance between the two. The southern planter caste--already granted, by the 3/5 compromise in the U.S. Constitution, disproportionate representation in the U.S. government--was particularly sensitive about maintaining this balance so as not to be outnumbered in the federal government, something the planters saw as a threat to their survival. Abolitionist sentiment in the U.S. continued to grow; the Underground Railroad appeared, aiding slaves in escaping to free territories. Lax enforcement of fugitive slave laws became a major grievance of the planters. In 1850, South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union if California was admitted to it as a free state. The Compromise of 1850 diffused the situation but it also mercilessly tightened fugitive slave law and beat back an effort to preclude the spread of slavery. With the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, congress decided that, instead of seeking any balance, the locals in a territory could decide if they were to be a free or slave state. The result was "Bleeding Kansas," a guerilla war between pro- and anti-slavery forces that went on for a decade. In 1859, the fiery abolitionist John Brown led his raid at Harpers Ferry. Brown's plan was to break into the armory and arm slaves to resist their masters. If failed but the prospect scared the living hell out of the Southern planters. Abraham Lincoln proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back. In 1860, he ran for president on a platform of opposing the expansion of slavery to any further territories. Upon his victory, South Carolina didn't even wait for his inauguration; in December, the state seceded.
Confederate apologists will offer all sorts of alternative explanations for this action. I've always found the most entertaining to be those who throw around "state's rights" without mention of what "right" was at issue. There is, fortunately, no ambiguity on this point; South Carolina issued a "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union." After a long recounting of U.S. history, the document is not only centrally concerned with slavery, it's solely concerned with it--it doesn't even pretend as if there's anything else behind the state's actions.
The other states followed South Carolina's lead and several of them issued these declarations. And all of them, without exception, are centrally concerned with slavery.
"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."
Reflecting the white supremacism at the heart of the Confederate project, the document rails against those who "advocate negro equality, socially and politically." This was echoed by Georgia in its own declaration, which rants against those allegedly seeking to bring about "the equality of the black and white races."
Ditto with Texas: "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."
And Florida: "It is in so many words saying to you we will not burn you at the stake but we will torture you to death by a slow fire we will not confiscate your property and consign you to a residence and equality with the African but that destiny certainly awaits your children."
The government of Alabama granted a special commission to Stephen F. Hale to act as a sort of ambassador to Kentucky, his job being to feel out KY Gov. Beriah Magoffin's views on the dispute. Hale wrote a fairly long letter, which still survives, outlining his state's view of the matter:
"If the policy of the Republicans is carried out, according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate--all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life; or else there will be an eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting and destroying all the resources of the country. Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?"
In the service of their own cause, abolitionists frequently referred to Jefferson's principle, enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal." Jefferson Davis didn't like that sort of talk. He'd been serving as a senator from Mississippi. In January 1861, when his state seceded, he offered the institution a farewell address:
"She [Mississippi] has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.... When our Constitution was formed... we find provision made for that very class of persons [Negroes] as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men--not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste..."
Davis went on to become the president of the Confederate States of America.
And so on.
The Confederate Constitution used the U.S. Constitution as its basic model, rendering various changes here and there. It attempted to end any controversy over slavery. Article I provided that "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed." Article IV provided that "The citizens of each State... shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired." The same article provided that, in any new territories, "the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states."
This was the cause of the Confederacy; the record is as clear on this as it is exhaustingly extensive.
Only three years after the war, Alexander Stephens, who had been the Vice President of the Confederate States, wrote a book, "A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States." It was one of the first of what would become a depressingly dizzying array of revisionist texts that would appear in the century-and-a-half that has followed. In Stephens' account, the war was a contest between a tyrannical central government and those opposed to it, slavery wasn't really a very important part of the equation at all, and how dare any writer claim the Confederates were "pro-slavery"! Stephens can be even more torturous a read than I; I've taken an except from his introduction here:
"It is a postulate, with many writers of this day, that the late War was the result of two opposing ideas, or principles, upon the subject of African Slavery. Between these, according to their theory, sprung the 'irrepressible conflict,' in principle, which ended in the terrible conflict of arms. Those who assume this postulate, and so theorize upon it, are but superficial observers.
"That the War had its origin in opposing principles... may be assumed as an unquestionable fact. But the opposing principles... were of a very different character from those assumed in the postulate. They lay in the organic Structure of the Government of the States. The conflict in principle arose from different and opposing ideas as to the nature of what is known as the General Government. The contest was between those who held it to be strictly Federal in its character, and those who maintained that it was thoroughly National. It was a strife between the principles of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other.
"Slavery, so called, was but the question on which these antagonistic principles, which had been in conflict, from the beginning, on divers other questions, were finally brought into actual and active collision with each other on the field of battle....
"It is the fashion of many writers of the day to class all who opposed the Consolidationists in this, their first step, as well as all who opposed them in all their subsequent steps, on this question, with what they style the Pro-Slavery Party. No greater injustice could be done any public men, and no greater violence be done to the truth of History, than such a classification. Their opposition to that measure, or kindred subsequent ones, sprung from no attachment to Slavery; but, as Jefferson's, Pinkney's and Clay's, from their strong convictions that the Federal Government had no rightful or Constitutional control or jurisdiction over such questions; and that no such action, as that proposed upon them, could be taken by Congress without destroying the elementary and vital principles upon which the Government was founded.
"By their acts, they did not identify themselves with the Pro-Slavery Party (for, in truth, no such Party had, at that time, or at any time in the History of the Country, any organized existence). They only identified themselves, or took position, with those who maintained the Federative character of the General Government."
Whew! Did you get all that? Back in 1861--7 years earlier and only a few days before the Confederacy would start the Civil War--Stephens had a very different--and much clearer--view of these matters:
"The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions--African slavery as it exists among us--the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the 'rock upon which the old Union would split.' He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it--when the 'storm came and the wind blew, it fell.' Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition."
When people who wave the Confederate flag use the slogan "Heritage, Not Hate," this is the "heritage" in question, whether they realize it or not.
But is that all there is? No. I'll get to that in the next round.