I recently read the following comments in a post on a friend’s Facebook page, related to the topic of the modern display of the Civil War Northern Virginia Battle Flag and what it symbolizes.
FB post February 2016
“People think that Abe Lincoln was such a benevolent President. He was actually a bit of a tyrant. He attacked the Confederate States of America, who succeeded [sic] from the Union due to tax and tariffs. (If you think it was over slavery, you need to find a real American history book written before 1960.)”
The author seems to be ignorant of the fact that we live in the Internet age, with no need to rely only on “history books” for specific information about times past. Everyone now has instant access to a huge collection of “primary sources.” In this case, for instance, if we want to know why the Southern States chose to secede from the Union, we don’t have to rely on history books, either from before or after 1960. We can eliminate the middle man and go back to documents directly from Civil War times, and read in their own words the official statements from Southern leaders regarding their motives for secession. Obviously, the author above has not done that, or he would not be so adamant in his claims.
As one Atlantic magazine writer put it in June 2015:
This afternoon, in announcing her support for removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley asserted that killer Dylann Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it.” If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong. Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy.
This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.
Below is a partial collection of excerpts from Civil War era documents written by Confederate leaders. We can examine them for the “exact contents of that heritage,” including their own words describing what they were “seceding over.” (Unless otherwise noted, all underlining, italics, and bolding in the excerpts below has been added to call attention to specific points under consideration in this commentary.)
Declaration of Causes of Seceding States
South Carolina 12/24/1860
Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union
… We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.
The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”
So just which “Constitutional Obligations” were the Northern States refusing to fulfill? Not the obligation to cooperate to insure “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all” throughout the country, nor insure “justice for all.” No, it was the obligation to return fugitive slaves who had escaped slavery in the South by traveling to the North.
Although a strong national Fugitive Slave Law had been passed in 1850, detailing how Northern States were required to deal with the capture and return of fugitive slaves, a growing abolitionist sentiment in many Northern areas was undermining the effectiveness of that law.
Rather than applauding the idea of “states’ rights” to have their own laws about such matters, the South, including South Carolina as seen in this document, was insisting that the federal government was required to trample those states’ rights when it came to the matter of fugitive slaves. For, of course, according to South Carolina, a slave was not really a “man” as were those described in the Declaration of Independence as being “created equal”—he was a piece of property and part of the “wealth” of the master. The Southern States expected the federal government to enforce those property rights.
This stipulation [in Article 4] was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made.
In other words, South Carolina was explaining that “the compact”…the agreement… made in 1789 to combine the colonies into a nation would not have been agreed to by the Southern colonies if the Northern colonies had not agreed to include the fugitive slave clause in Article 4 of the Constitution. Endorsement of the right to own slaves was that “material.” It wasn’t just an afterthought, or a minor part of the Constitution in their minds. It was absolutely, fundamentally a necessary part of the agreement to form a nation.
The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves [more colonies were “slave-holding” than “non-slave-holding], and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.
… But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution.
… Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.
In other words, the very Constitution itself, the agreement between the Northern and Southern states which had made them into one nation, had been broken by the failure of Northern states to endorse slavery and assist in assuring the “property rights” of slave owners. And it was this failure, not some nebulous argument over recent taxes and tariffs, which was THE precipitating cause of secession by South Carolina.
…The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition [return to the owner] of fugitives from labor.
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign [take far away] the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
In other words, the citizens of the North had no right to evaluate the institution of slavery in light of their own sense of morality. They were expected to accept the “heritage of the institution of slavery” of the South, and make absolutely no effort to seek its end. In fact, the only approach they could take that would be acceptable to the South would be to allow slavery to expand to new territories.
… A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
In other words, it was not acceptable to the South that they be merely “tolerated” in their belief in the rightness of a society and economy based on slavery. It was not acceptable that they be allowed to keep the slaves they had at the time. It would have been necessary for the North to agree that slavery would and should be an “eternal” institution in the United States, and allowed to expand. The fact that Abraham Lincoln, recently elected president, had expressed anti-slavery sentiments was enough to reject him and the whole US governmental system. As many commentators note, Lincoln at the time wasn’t particularly interested in legally eliminating slavery immediately. Enforced emancipation hadn’t been a part of his election platform. The issue of immediately ending slavery in his mind wasn’t the precipitating reason for the North to go to war with the secessionist states. He was willing to let slavery “die out” in the slave states on its own, and was primarily interested in “preserving the nation” as one unit. But this was not enough for the South.
On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. [Lincoln would be inaugurated.] It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. [Equal rights to what? To hold slaves and to expand the institution of slavery throughout the territories owned by the US.] The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.
And these points made in the South Carolina declaration of secession were echoed in the declarations of the other slaveholding states.
Mississippi January 9, 1861
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
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. [In particular, cotton.] 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.
I don’t know how much more clearly anyone could have put the connection between secession and slavery! According to the authors of this document, the attitude of many in the North against the continuation of slavery was a blow at civilization itself! The GREATEST MATERIAL INTEREST IN THE WORLD is slavery. The Negro was “born” to labor in the sun to pick cotton (and sugar cane, and whatever…). The specter of losing those Negroes to do that picking “left them no choice” but to secede.
…[The Northern hostility to slavery] advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection [rebellion] and incendiarism [inflammatory behavior, agitation] in our midst.
It has enlisted its press, its pulpit and its schools against us, until the whole popular mind of the North is excited and inflamed with prejudice.
…It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system.
“Our social system”…let’s not white wash that term to imply the “genteel,” pre-Civil War illusion of the world of Gone with the Wind (before the scene where war is declared) with elegant ladies and gentlemen of impeccable manners sipping mint juleps on the veranda, with the Happy Negroes working the fields and coming in every evening to eat watermelons and dance jigs. “Our social system” was a hierarchy of absolute white supremacy, absolute subjection of Negroes as if they were no more than farm animals, including selling young children away from mothers, just as one might take litters of kittens and pups and sell them as soon as they are weaned. Along with separating husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, elderly grandmothers and grandfathers from their extended families. As you can see by some of the posters and ads below, not only was there a brisk market in selling slaves, they were even used as “prizes” in lotteries and raffles.
Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it.
The irony of this wording is stunning in hindsight! Obviously their whole “social system” was based on the utter subjugation of another whole race of people, but any resistance by the Negro race to their own subjugation was considered intolerable insurrection.
It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.
Notice that the “cause” here is not labeled as some vague disagreements over taxes and tariffs. It is over money, to be sure, but not tax money. It is the loss of “four billions of money” that would be incurred if slavery were ended.
Our decision is made. We follow their footsteps. We embrace the alternative of separation; and for the reasons here stated, we resolve to maintain our rights with the full consciousness of the justice of our course, and the undoubting belief of our ability to maintain it.
And then there was Texas.
Texas February 2, 1861
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* [emphasis in the original]; 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.
Texas was even more bold, asserting bluntly that the right of white men to hold the Negro race in slavery is “the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.” And that this status is “recognized by all Christian nations.” I guess that the authors didn’t consider England a Christian nation. For of course it abolished slavery in 1838.
In any event, Texas was adamant that it wasn’t just some arguments over taxes and tariffs that impelled them to secede. It was the fact that the “destruction of the existing relations between the two races” would bring calamities and devastation on the slaveholding states.
Here is one final example of detailed explanation of the cause of secession of the Confederacy. Below are excerpts from the famous “Cornerstone Speech” delivered on March 21, 1861 in Savannah, Georgia, by Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice President. The speech came less than a month before the firing on Ft. Sumter which precipitated all-out war.
“The new Constitution [of the Confederacy] 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.
Again, I don’t know how much more clearly someone could have put it. The “immediate cause of the rupture” between the North and South, what caused the secession of the Southern states, was not some bickering over taxes and tariffs. It was, as stated boldly above, “the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.”
That “proper status” was the “peculiar institution” of African slavery.
But whether he [Jefferson, who had predicted that the slavery issue would some day lead to the break up of the Union] 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 [temporary] and pass away…
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.”
For those who respect the Bible, this analogy is very creepy! The term the “storm came and the wind blew”…and it fell…comes from a parable in the Bible, told by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. After admonishing his audience with the Beatitudes… blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the merciful and on and on…He tells them:
Matthew 7:24-27 (NIV)
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
To take this passage about “building on the rock” of Jesus’ loving, merciful, kind teachings, which talks about Jesus’ teachings being the foundation for life, talks about neglecting the teachings of Jesus being like foolishly building on sand instead of rock…and try to apply it to the hideous system of total white supremacy and total slavery of the Negro race in the 1800s in America is, I would suggest, blasphemous. To say that this is the “revealed will of the Almighty Creator” is even more blasphemous.
What is the “Cornerstone” that is referred to in the common title for Stephen’s speech? The Bible speaks of Christ Himself being the “chief cornerstone” of the society of Christians that Jesus envisioned. But the Southern States had in mind a different cornerstone…
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 normal condition.
How on earth any modern Christian can look at words like these and “make excuses” for the motives of the South in seceding from the country at the time of the Civil War is utterly beyond me. To claim that the Civil War was, from the Southern point of view, just all about issues such as unfair taxes and tariffs, and that slavery was just an afterthought, is to endorse a lie.
. . . look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgement of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws.
Yes, from the point of view of the Confederacy, any white nation that ever had “white slaves” was indeed defying God and “the laws of nature.” But the South’s system was totally in alignment with the Will of the Almighty and the “laws of nature.” For it had enslaved not other whites, but a totally inferior race, whose “natural condition” was to be the property of white people.
Why is any of this relevant today?
Because when the war ended, the North was indeed able to enforce release of the Negroes from slavery. But it did not and could not release the minds and hearts of the vanquished Southerners from their convictions about the nature of the relationship of the races. They might not be able to “own” Negroes any more, but they could…and did…make and enforce “Jim Crow” laws and customs (both with local and regional legal systems and with informal acts of humiliation and terrorism…including lynchings) that subjugated every aspect of the lives of the Negroes, and taught them in no uncertain terms their “proper place.” Starting with segregation of public institutions like schools and hospitals. But ultimately reaching down to even the smallest, pettiest aspects of life. For instance, both whites and blacks could legally be fined earlier in the 20th century just for using “titles of respect” such as Mr. and Mrs. when speaking to or about a Negro in many states. Or a Negro approaching a white person coming the other way on a sidewalk could be fined for not stepping into the street so that the white person could pass without risking “bumping into” the Negro.
These Jim Crow laws and customs were so ingrained in the South that 100 years after emancipation, a Negro still couldn’t even drink out of the same drinking fountain as a white person. Or send his children to the same school to learn their ABCs. Or go to the same hospital if he were sick or injured. Or borrow a book from the same library. (And if he was able to use a “Colored” school or hospital or library…it was a decidedly UNequal, often horrendously inferior substitute.) There was absolutely no logical reason for any of these limitations other than…as tools of humiliation, to keep the Race in its Place.
And these practices were not viewed as something temporary, to last only until some undefined time when Negroes would “earn the right” to be an integrated part of the society. Just exactly as the South had proclaimed in the excerpts above that this was the “law of nature” and intended to be “for all time,” the South of 100 years later proclaimed the same thing. Example: George Wallace was voted in as governor of Alabama in fall 1962.
Wallace took the oath of office on January 14, 1963, standing on the gold star marking the spot where, nearly 102 years earlier, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as provisional president of the Confederate States of America. In his inaugural speech, Wallace said:
“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” [Source]
That ended up a false prophecy, of course. A very short-lived one. The federal government stepped in and established the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and began enforcement throughout the South. Schools, workplaces, and facilities that served the general public (such as libraries, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and parks) were ordered to be integrated. Resistance continued for several years in some pockets of the South.
HOWEVER…although the new laws of 1964 and later may have eventually legally forced all Southern whites to integrate their businesses and institutions, they did not and could not release the minds and hearts of the vanquished Southerners of this later generation from their convictions about the nature of the relationship of the races.
Now, fifty years later, there has no doubt been a softening of the minds and hearts of some—hopefully many—of those folks. Especially in the younger generations, who hadn’t been indoctrinated in their youth into the whole Jim Crow social structure that their parents and grandparents had absorbed into their very pores just by custom. But one only needs to surf for a few minutes on the Internet to very clearly find out that the Jim Crow mindset is alive and well all over the US.
Refusing to recognize this, and to recognize how deep the roots of it go, is one very important source of the many race-related issues in our country today.