Based on a (very good and civil, mind you) e-mail conversation I had over the weekend, I think now is a fine time to expand some points I made here over a year ago, when I wrote my “Southern Heritage is a Crock” column. So here we go:
The Confederate States of America was a fundamentally evil institution. Period, end of sentence. That’s “evil,” spelled “E-V-I-L.” “Evil,” as in “morally reprehensible,” “sinful,” “wicked,” “pernicious,” “offensive” and “noxious.” “Evil,” as in “the world is a demonstrably better place without this thing in it.” Evil. That’s right, evil. Once again, for those of you who haven’t figured it out yet: Evil. And for those of you yet hard of hearing, the ASL version:
Really, I don’t know how much clearer I can make it.
The CSA was a fundamentally evil institution because it codified slavery into its system of government; N.B: Article IV Section 2 of the Constitution of the Confederacy. And lest you think this was just some sort of mamby-pamby sop thrown in the CSA constitution to please the slave-holders, let’s go to the historical record, to a speech by CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens in March of 1861, in which he discussed the CSA Constitution at great length. The entire text is here, but allow me to excerpt considerably (and to place emphasis on the relevant passages) from Stephens’ comments about slavery and its role in the CSA, both in its constitution and in its very formation:
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. [US President Thomas] 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 government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity.
“One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.
“I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.“
Lots of Confederate sympathizers like to say that what the Confederacy was really about was state’s rights, and all that. But I don’t know. Let’s put on one side a bunch of Confederate sympathizers who understandably want to downplay their fetish’s unfortunate association with that whole “people owning people” thing. And on the other side, let’s put the CSA’s second-highest executive, speaking about a Constitution he helped create, specifically discussing the role of slavery in his country’s formation. When it comes to what the Confederacy was really about, who are you going to believe?
Yes, the United States had slavery (and continued to have it, even during the Civil War; that Emancipation Proclamation thing of Lincoln was only effective in rebellious states), and isn’t blameless of other nasty habits, including brushing the natives off land it wanted to own. However, the United States did not codify evil into its Constitution by enshrining the practice of slavery; as Stephens proudly notes, it took the CSA, among all other countries in the world, to do that. The United States has done evil, but is not fundamentally evil in its formulation, as is the CSA.
It comes to this: When someone tells you the Confederacy was about something other than people owning people, they’re either being intentionally disingenuous or (more charitably) are ignorant about the deep and abiding role slavery had in the formation of the CSA. It was about other things, too. But, and in an entirely appropriate, non Godwin-izing use of this particular political entity, the Third Reich was about more than just exterminating the Jews. It just happens that that’s the one cornerstone policy of the Reich that, you know, sort of stands out.
Given that the CSA is a fundamentally evil institution, it’s clear that any of its trappings are symbols of evil, including those flags Confederate sympathizers love so well. This is a pretty cut and dried thing: If the answer to the question “Was this symbol/flag/insignia/whatever used as an identifying object by the Confederate States of America?” is “Yes,” then it is, point of fact, a racist and evil symbol. If you’re wearing such a symbol or otherwise endorsing it in some public way, it’s not unreasonable for people who see you wearing such symbols (particularly the descendants of former slaves) to wonder if you’re either racist and somewhat evil yourself or, alternately, just plain dim.
If you have an ancestor who fought for the CSA, then, yes, he fought for an evil institution — but no, I don’t think it makes that individual evil in himself. I think it’s perfectly reasonable and right for the descendants of Confederate soldiers to note the bravery and valor with which they fought, and to commemorate their individual efforts on the field. I think it would be nice if they additionally noted that it was sad that the government for which they fought was ultimately undeserving of their blood and defense, and that it was rightfully expunged from the world, but that’s another matter entirely.
(My correspondent this weekend asked me an interesting question as to whether a memorial for American soldiers who died in combat should include names of Confederate soldiers — the genesis of this question being some fracas he’d heard about at a northern university that was putting together such a memorial. My response is that it shouldn’t, for the reason that either the CSA was its own country, in which case its soldiers weren’t “American” soldiers (“American” understood to refer to citizens of the US), or it wasn’t its own country and the Confederate soldiers were in open and treasonous rebellion, and as a general rule one does not commemorate traitors, particularly ones whose rebellious actions ultimately caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands. I don’t have a problem with such memorials in formerly Confederate territory, but the rest of the United States is not obligated to follow suit.)
Now, look: I understand that for a lot of Confederacy fans, it really isn’t about race or anything else other than pride for the South. My response to that is: Groovy. Go for it. Love the South. What y’all need to do, however, is get some new symbols, some that don’t hearken back to the Dixie Days, when you went to war for the right to keep owning people. The Confederacy was evil, and now it’s dead, and its being dead is front and center the best thing that there ever was about it. There is the South, and there is the Confederacy, and a good thing for you and for the rest of us would be the realization that these two things don’t have to be synonymous.