Confederate Flag Hysteria

So the Stars and Bars is coming down from the South Carolina statehouse to the accompaniment of whooping and hollering by breast-beating politicians. If you have the stomach, you can watch some of it here. Now, sure as clockwork, politicians are tripping all over each other to get on the bandwagon. Flags are coming down all throughout the South. You can no longer buy them on Amazon or at Walmart, although at this writing they’re still seen on eBay. Statues of Confederate heroes are in danger of being ground up for use as concrete aggregate.

What’s the meaning of the Confederate flag, anyway? It depends whom you ask. It means nothing to me. To some white Southerners, it’s a reminder of their brave forbears’ fight for their honor. To many blacks, perhaps most, it’s a symbol of hate. Who’s right? All of the above; none of the above—it’s whatever you want to make of it. What’s disturbing is the widespread ignorance of what the Civil War was about. It was about secession, first and foremost, and only secondarily about slavery. Lincoln freed the slaves as a tactical matter, and only in the re-conquered Southern states, and not until two years into the war. Before the war he made it quite clear that his goal was to preserve the union, and if freeing the slaves would further that goal, he would free them, and if not, not.

It is the height of oversimplification to cast the rebels as bad guys and the yankees as good guys. There were many acts of kindness between whites and blacks on both sides of the line and of course, many atrocities on both sides. This doesn’t justify slavery the least little bit. But the war was the wrong way to end it. If the South had been allowed to go its way, 600,000 lives plus uncounted misery and destruction would have been averted. Slavery would not have lasted much longer in the South for economic and moral reasons. One economic reason is that the best slaves would have escaped to the North where they would no longer fear being deported. The gradual mechanization of farms is another. On the moral front, although ideas moved more slowly in those days, thoughtful Southerners would gradually come to see slavery as abominable and indefensible. (Highly recommended: Jeff Hummel’s groundbreaking revisionist treatment of the war, “Freeing the Slaves, Enslaving Free Men.”)

I take their word for it that blacks see the flag as a symbol of oppression. Given that, I would have to agree with the action in South Carolina notwithstanding the insult to Southern pride. But I’m not so naïve as to believe race relations will improve as a result. In fact, I fear they’ll get worse. If the flag wasn’t a symbol of racial animosity before, it is now. Positions will be hardened. White Southern conservatives, having recently taken a beating on gay marriage, will be further marginalized and polarized. The “progressives,” having smelled blood, will be on the warpath (oops—is that word racially insensitive?). They’ll be out on search-and-destroy missions, hunting down vestiges of Southernism.

My humble suggestion: let’s not get so worked up about symbols, whether they’re flags, crosses, Mohammed cartoons, or even the dollar sign on the last page of Atlas Shrugged.

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8 thoughts on “Confederate Flag Hysteria

  1. The Confederate leaders very much regarded the defence of slavery as essential to the decision to secede and fight a war. Lincoln self-defined as a life time opponent of slavery and whatever you think about that it is a matter of public record that Lincoln’s opposition to slavery was at the heart of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Yes it is true that Lincoln had no intention of immediate abolition, he did have a policy of penning slavery into the southern states and preventing its institution in new territories, in the expectation that slavery would die away for economic reasons. So in fact he expected slavery to die out in a section of the Union, in the same way that Warren Gibson expects it would have died out in an independent Confederacy. However, the expectation that slavery would have died out in a continuing CSA is a hypothesis.

    It is a matter of history in this world, the world we are living in, not a possible world we have never visited, that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Though as Warren Gibson emphasises, its terms and impact was limited it was the first step towards the real world real historical event, as opposed to possible world history, of the 13th Amendment, which sadly Warren Gibson does not find space to mention, which had the very real world impact of ending slavery. However limited the Emancipation Proclamation was, it led to freedom for many African-Americans, many of who chose to fight for the Union. It seems to me that when the previously enslaved fight for an end to slavery, it adds considerably to the moral weight of the side for which they were fighting. Yes some African-Americans fought on the Confederate side, but in negligible numbers. The undoubted fact that there were white people on both the Union and Confederate side with good and bad attitudes and behaviour towards African-Americans should not distract us from the not inconsequential issue of which side was aiding African-Americans escape slavery from 1863 and which one was not.

    However strong the nevertheless hypothetical arguments are that the CSA would have abolished slavery of its own accord one fine day, the fact is that the expectation that it would have done so is inevitably enhanced by the way that Union abolition of slavery adds to our retrospective feeling that slavery was coming to an end in the mid 19th century. If we are to look at hypotheses about the history of an imaginary continuing CSA we must take into account ambitions of the CSA to create a regional slavery bloc allying the CSA with states further south, and the possibility that a state very largely founded on support for the ‘peculiar institution’ (yes there were other issues important to some people, to do with trade and nullification rights, but slavery and the subordination of blacks was clearly stated by CSA leaders to be the big issue) would have been remarkably stubborn about hanging onto slavery. We must take into account the impact on later political decisions of founding a state devoted to slavery when faced with problems in maintaining slavery and surely concede the possibility that the CSA would have prolonged slavery beyond what looks like its rational and economic duration.

    Going back to Lincoln’s motives for going to war, yes let us consider his prime motive for war, the preservation of Union. That was essentially about the preservation of democracy. The USA was the only state which could claim to be a democracy at that time, of course inspiring Tocqueville to write Democracy in America, to show France and Europe that democracy could work and was probably coming to all countries where ‘feudal’ relations were being eliminated. The victory of the Union was a victory for democracy, as Lincoln suggested in the Gettysburg address. Whatever one might think about the address, the fact is that Britain took a major step towards universal voting rights in 1867, the Second Reform Act and France adopted universal suffrage in 1870. Of course the reasons were not only to do with Lincolns’ victory, but the proof that a democracy could endure war and remain unified certainly had a major impact in both France and Britain, where traditional elites had sympathy for the Confederacy and regard the war as evidence that democracy could not work. The loss of life on both sides in the Civil War is of course absolutely terrible, but unless one has a pure pacifist position then war is a possible instrument that can be adopted by free peoples in extreme circumstance. Do those who vilify Lincoln for going to war vilify those who led the American Revolution, which also led to terrible suffering and loss of life? Of course CSA defenders say their cause of independence was the same as that sought by Jefferson and Washington.

    However, the British were not on the whole (maybe a little bit at the margins) in conflict with the revolutionaries about slavery, already a divisive issue in the 13 colonies/founding states, but about the rights of colonies which had adopted more democratic systems than that in Britain to continue governing themselves in that manner without interference from the King’s government. The CSA did not defend democracy, which was not at risk, it defended the right of white people to treat black people as inferior and as property to be abused and whipped in many circumstances. Lincoln and the other Republicans of the time, in alliance with pro-union (and yes sometimes pro-slavery) Democrats denied the right of states to abruptly and unilaterally leave the Union, for reasons which were overwhelmingly to do with preserving and even expanding slavery. That Lincoln was willing to accept the southern states could preserve slavery and gave importance to the Union as an end in itself does not change the reality that the CSA leaders wanted to prolong slavery, while Lincoln wanted to end it as fast as possible given the laws and the political balances which he faced.

    The CSA is surely just as much to blame for deaths in war as the Union, in preferring war to return to a Union in which their states with full members with the same rights as anyone else. Both sides went to war, the victory of one side led to the end of slavery, and while we can debate how long slavery would have lasted given the victory of the other side, it would have been prolonged some way beyond 1865 and possibly expanded into new territories.

    As for ‘hysteria’ about the CSA battle standard, which has become the major symbol of the CSA, many simply want the flag to be removed from state property and for public places to lose names and statues associated with Confederate ‘heroes’ some of whom were major figures in the Klan, and the path to ‘Southern Redemption’, i.e. the Jim Crow system and the power of the Klan. Of course that does not mean denying private individuals the right to use the CSA flag or any other CSA symbol. If shops wish to stop supplying such symbols that is their private right as it is the private right of anyone to supply and purchase CSA symbols. It is no more ‘hysterical’ for retailers to stop supplying CSA symbols than it is for CSA sympathisers to complain about such decisions. I’m personally disturbed by calls to stop, say, screenings of Gone with the Wind, but that crass wish to partly suppress a film of great cinematic value, is anyway a different matter from respecting the belief of the vast majority of southern blacks and an increasing number of southern whites that CSA symbols and public commemoration of CSA ‘heroes’ have no place in a democracy committed to individual rights and equality before the law. There are many ways of respecting ‘Southern pride’ (presuming this is not a euphemism for white neo-Confederate mentality) other than CSA symbols, and I worry about the mentality that removing symbols that Warren Gibson (grudgingly just about) concedes are offensive to most southern blacks, should be defined in that way, and referred to as ‘hysterical’.

    How about the kind of ‘revisionism’ that looks at other symbols and monuments of the South, which after all only had a very short history in the CSA? That is the kind of revisionism needed in this context.

    • Good heavens, Dr Stocker, this response deserves a post of its own (“From the Comments: CSA symbolism and libertarian foot-in-mouth syndrome”)!

    • The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment were good things for which Lincoln deserves credit. They ended slavery ten or twenty years before it otherwise would have ended. But was that salutary result worth 600,000 deaths, an almost incomprehensible figure given a total population of 31 million? And that bloody slaughter wasn’t Lincoln’s worst legacy. He brought about a transformation of the nation from a voluntary union of sovereign states to a strong central government which has evolved into the predatory monster that is now eating away at us.

    • Dr A,

      You’re not thinking things through. Check it out:

      The Republican Party ran on a platform of prohibiting slavery in new states and territories, not in the South. The Southern states then declared their intent to leave the union because of the issue of slavery and their realization that the GOP’s win meant that their stranglehold on the Senate was at an end..

      Nobody has argued anything to the contrary. When the CSA seceded from the union – because of the issue of slavery – the Northern states declared war on the Southern ones. So the war was about secession, not slavery. Does this make sense?

      Lemme repeat this one more time in another way. The CSA left the union because of slavery. Once they left the union, the North declared war. The war was not, then, about slavery, but about secession. It is true that the South tried to leave because of slavery and wanting to keep it, but the North fought a war because the South left, not because of slavery.

      This is a subtle point and one that is hard to think through because of the despicable scourge of slavery and its just as despicable legacy, but I think you’ll see – once you think it through – that Warren is absolutely correct when he states that the war “was about secession, first and foremost, and only secondarily about slavery.”

      My thoughts on your question about Russia are coming, but in a post of their own.

    • There is another aspect of Dr Gibson’s argument worth thinking through here, and one that is far more radical: His contention that slavery would have gone the way of the dodo sooner or later anyway, and that the war fought between the two sides was too costly.

      This is the standard libertarian take on the issue (if I may be so bold). Many, if not most, people rationalize the war in their minds because slavery ended in the United States. This is as pure a utilitarian calculation as there is, but libertarians take issue with it. I am honestly on the fence about it, but the libertarian (contrarian) argument is one worth considering more fully.

      On the negative side of things, if the South had been allowed to leave, there is no doubt in my mind that slavery would have eventually ended. This is where things get tricky, though.

      When would slavery have ended? The British Empire abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies (and elsewhere) in 1834, three decades before the US Civil War was fought. The South would not have been a part of the Empire, but it would have been well-connected (the British almost entered the war on the side of the South). Or would slavery have persisted until the end of the 19th century, as it did in Brazil (in many ways northern Brazil and the southern US have a lot in common)? As a libertarian I find the question of slavery and its peaceful end disconcerting.

      On the other hand, ending slavery was used as a justification for imperialism and there is the distinct possibility that a British military occupation could have ended up back on the North American shores. What is the use of avoiding one war if another is bound to be fought?

  2. I think the key phrase in the whole debate can be found in your first sentence Dr Gibson: “So the Stars and Bars is coming down from the South Carolina statehouse […].”

    Emphasis mine. The Stars and Bars was being flown in front of, and in, government buildings. William C Davis, a historian at Virginia Tech, has an excellent essay up in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal explaining the history of the Stars and Bars and how it became a symbol of segregation and white supremacy in the South. Here is the point that stood out to me most:

    When we remember that common tax revenues support every expense connected with flying that flag or with displaying Confederate emblems on federal, state or municipal property, we confront the cruel irony of African-American taxpayers being forced to subsidize constant reminders of past and present injustices. Whatever private individuals and groups choose to do on their persons and their private property—and as Americans, they must be allowed their freedom of expression—the battle flag should disappear from display on public property and retire to museums where it can resume its place as an honored relic.

    Political Correctness is an evil, but in a world characterized by shades of grey, we must be alert when it comes to choosing sides. And now Tocqueville:

    I happened to meet an old man, in the South of the Union, who had lived in illicit intercourse with one of his Negresses and had had several children by her, who were born the slaves of their father. He had, indeed, frequently thought of bequeathing to them at least their liberty; but years had elapsed before he could surmount the legal obstacles to their emancipation, and meanwhile his old age had come and he was about to die. He pictured to himself his sons dragged from market to market and passing from the authority of a parent to the rod of the stranger, until these horrid anticipations worked his expiring imagination into frenzy. When I saw him, he was a prey to all the anguish of despair; and I then understood how awful is the retribution of Nature upon those who have broken her laws.

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