Defending the indefensible

I’m growing increasingly frustrated by the historical ignorance on the part of many Southerners. In the wake of the June 17 act of racial terrorism that took the lives of 9 African-American churchgoers in Charleston, SC, a debate has reignited over the Confederate flag (which has flown over the South Carolina state capitol since 2000). On one side of the debate are those who argue that the flag represents white supremacy, slavery, and treason. On the other side are those who think the flag is a symbol of Southern heritage and freedom from tyranny. The supporters of the flag are attempting to revise history with proclamations such as “The Civil War was fought over states’ rights”, “The Confederate flag represents bravery, valor, and heroism”, and “The Civil War wasn’t just fought over slavery”. The only proper response to the previous claims are (IMO) “no, it wasn’t”, “no the fuck it doesn’t”, and “hell yes it was”. While I’m sure that many people are genuinely ignorant of the causes of the Civil War and the symbolism of the Confederate flag (owing to deliberate attempts to paint the Southern states in a positive light in the wake of the Civil War), I have no doubt that many other people know full well what they argue for. Whatever the case may be, it disgusts me that whether intentional or not, people are defending the indefensible. To understand the reasons why supporters of the Confederate flag are deeply wrong, a little history lesson is in order. The following is a broad overview of the causes behind the Civil War.

From the social to the political to the economic realms, racism has been embedded in the U.S. since its inception. As manifested through African-American slave labor, racism in the early United States played a significant role in everything from economic development to the construction of the White House and U.S. Capitol. Until the end of the American Revolution, slave labor was used to harvest tobacco, the chief cash crop that helped develop the early economy of the country. Following the development of the cotton gin in 1793, cotton replaced tobacco as the chief cash crop and the peculiar institution saw a resurgence, one that many Southerners were particularly defensive of:

Torn between the economic benefits of slavery and the moral and constitutional issues it raised, white Southerners grew more and more defensive of the institution. They argued that black people, like children, were incapable of caring for themselves and that slavery was a benevolent institution that kept them fed, clothed, and occupied. Most Northerners did not doubt that black people were inferior to whites, but they did doubt the benevolence of slavery. The voices of Northern abolitionists, such as Boston editor and publisher William Lloyd Garrison, became increasingly violent. Educated blacks such as escaped-slave Frederick Douglass wrote eloquent and heartfelt attacks on the institution.

The Underground Railroad was organized to help slaves escape north to freedom. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, refuted the Southern myth that blacks were happy as slaves.

In reality, treatment of slaves ranged from mild and paternalistic to cruel and sadistic. Husbands, wives, and children were frequently sold away from one another and punishment by whipping was not unusual. The United States Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott Decision ruled that slaves were subhuman property with no rights of citizenship.  They had no legal means of protesting the way they were treated. Southerners feared open rebellion but this was rare. However, slaves would pretend illness, organize slowdowns, sabotage farm machinery, and sometimes commit arson or murder. Running away, usually for short periods of time, was common.

This defensiveness of slavery-which was seen as integral to the economy of the South-combined with the growing frustration felt by many in the Southern states over perceived overreach by the federal government created a political and social powder keg. The last straw came in 1860, when newly elected President Lincoln vowed to keep slavery out of the non-state territories. That pledge served to drive an irreparable wedge between the federal government and the Southern states, as the latter felt that slavery was an essential part of their economy. As a result, in the months following the election of President Lincoln, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas all issued their declarations of secession (and were later joined by Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). These declarations made clear that the states were seceding over their desire to retain the right to own other human beings-black people-as slaves. The following are the secession declarations of several Confederate states (and the opinions expressed are shared by all the Southern secessionist states):

Mississippi

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. 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. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

South Carolina

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.”

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, 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.

The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. 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. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. 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.

The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. 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 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 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.

Texas

The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the 3rd clause of the 2nd section of the 4th article [the fugitive slave clause] of the federal constitution, and laws passed in pursuance thereof; thereby annulling a material provision of the compact, designed by its framers to perpetuate the amity between the members of the confederacy and to secure the rights of the slave-holding States in their domestic institutions– a provision founded in justice and wisdom, and without the enforcement of which the compact fails to accomplish the object of its creation. Some of those States have imposed high fines and degrading penalties upon any of their citizens or officers who may carry out in good faith that provision of the compact, or the federal laws enacted in accordance therewith.

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color– a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

For years past this abolition organization has been actively sowing the seeds of discord through the Union, and has rendered the federal congress the arena for spreading firebrands and hatred between the slave-holding and non-slave-holding States.

By consolidating their strength, they have placed the slave-holding States in a hopeless minority in the federal congress, and rendered representation of no avail in protecting Southern rights against their exactions and encroachments. They have proclaimed, and at the ballot box sustained, the revolutionary doctrine that there is a ‘higher law’ than the constitution and laws of our Federal Union, and virtually that they will disregard their oaths and trample upon our rights.

They have for years past encouraged and sustained lawless organizations to steal our slaves and prevent their recapture, and have repeatedly murdered Southern citizens while lawfully seeking their rendition.

They have invaded Southern soil and murdered unoffending citizens, and through the press their leading men and a fanatical pulpit have bestowed praise upon the actors and assassins in these crimes, while the governors of several of their States have refused to deliver parties implicated and indicted for participation in such offenses, upon the legal demands of the States aggrieved.

They have, through the mails and hired emissaries, sent seditious pamphlets and papers among us to stir up servile insurrection and bring blood and carnage to our firesides.

They have sent hired emissaries among us to burn our towns and distribute arms and poison to our slaves for the same purpose.

They have impoverished the slave-holding States by unequal and partial legislation, thereby enriching themselves by draining our substance.

They have refused to vote appropriations for protecting Texas against ruthless savages, for the sole reason that she is a slave-holding State.

And, finally, by the combined sectional vote of the seventeen non-slave-holding States, they have elected as president and vice-president of the whole confederacy two men whose chief claims to such high positions are their approval of these long continued wrongs, and their pledges to continue them to the final consummation of these schemes for the ruin of the slave-holding States.

In view of these and many other facts, it is meet that our own views should be distinctly proclaimed.

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.

By the secession of six of the slave-holding States, and the certainty that others will speedily do likewise, Texas has no alternative but to remain in an isolated connection with the North, or unite her destinies with the South.

For these and other reasons, solemnly asserting that the federal constitution has been violated and virtually abrogated by the several States named, seeing that the federal government is now passing under the control of our enemies to be diverted from the exalted objects of its creation to those of oppression and wrong, and realizing that our own State can no longer look for protection, but to God and her own sons– We the delegates of the people of Texas, in Convention assembled, have passed an ordinance dissolving all political connection with the government of the United States of America and the people thereof and confidently appeal to the intelligence and patriotism of the freemen of Texas to ratify the same at the ballot box, on the 23rd day of the present month.

Through these secession declarations, the slave-holding states made it quite apparent that they were seceding over the notion that their rights had been unduly infringed upon by the federal government. The Northern states, however, refused to accept the legitimacy of these declarations:

While many still debate the ultimate causes of the Civil War, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson writes that, “The Civil War started because of uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states. When Abraham Lincoln won election in 1860 as the first Republican president on a platform pledging to keep slavery out of the territories, seven slave states in the deep South seceded and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America. The incoming Lincoln administration and most of the Northern people refused to recognize the legitimacy of secession. They feared that it would discredit democracy and create a fatal precedent that would eventually fragment the no-longer United States into several small, squabbling countries.”

So technically, the Southern states were rebelling from the “tyranny” of the North (and thus the Confederate flag is a symbol of opposition to tyranny). But lurking just below the surface of that argument is the true motive of the Southern states. They didn’t want to lose their economic way of life, and the Northern states, as led by the Lincoln administration, were increasingly opposed to slavery in the United States. Thus, the only right the Southern states were fighting for and the only reason they sought independence from the “tyranny” of the North was their perceived “right” to own African-Americans as slaves. This is likely the source of the claim that the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights”.

I spend a lot of time online, and in the last week-and-a-half, I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve seen someone comment about states’ rights as the cause for which the war was fought over. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I truly think that some people are ignorant and sincerely believe the Southern states fought in the war to preserve states’ rights. They genuinely do not know the history of the Civil War. I suspect this ignorance is the reason why no one I have come across has explained what rights they believe the Confederate states were fighting to preserve. It’s possible that some people simply haven’t given sufficient thought as to what it means to say the Confederacy fought in the Civil War to preserve states’ rights. OTOH, while I think some people are merely ignorant, I feel that many people do know the broad history of the Civil War, and knowingly spread misinformation about not only its causes, but the reasons why the states seceded.

Whether due to ignorance or deliberate malice, it is my opinion that those who defend the South…those who argue for “Southern heritage” to be something one ought to take pride in…those who espouse revisionist claims about the Civil War–they are people defending that which should not be defended. By supporting the Confederate states, they defend the idea of owning other human beings. They defend the enslavement of black people. And there is no justification-NO JUSTIFICATION-that makes such a position anything other than immoral, unethical, and absolutely reprehensible. Those who speak pridefully (yet ignorantly) of their ill-defined “Southern heritage” are in dire need of a history lesson; several of them in fact.  Because at the core of their so-called ‘heritage’ rests the doctrine of white supremacy as expressed through the institution of slavery. The protesters who recently rallied in defense of the Confederate flag on the steps of the South Carolina state house are one such group in need of a history lesson (I’m being charitable and assuming these people are ignorant, rather than being deliberately malicious):

Confederate battle flag rallied Saturday at the South Carolina Statehouse, urging lawmakers to reject a call to remove the controversial banner from the grounds of the Capitol.

The rally came just hours after an activist climbed the pole where the flag flies and removed it. A new flag was put in its place within an hour.

The rally was not in response to that incident, having been planned since late in the week.

The supporters argued that they believe a majority of people in the state want the flag to remain where it is. To remove it, they said, would be to go against the will of the people.

Ryan Hughes, one of those who attended, said flag opponents aren’t taking the symbol’s representation of Southern history into account.

“They are wrong,” Hughes said. “They need a history lesson. They need to go back and look at what this flag really stands for, and that is states rights. That’s freedom from tyranny. That’s freedom from subjugation from the federal government.”

Gather round boys and girls! It’s that time once again to play a rousing game of ‘Celebrate our white supremacist southern heritage‘ brought to you by the folks at historical revisionism and romanticism (for those times when celebrating the real history of the Confederate flag would make you a racist asshole).

Seriously though, this guy is the one who needs a history lesson. I don’t know whether he genuinely believes that the Southern states were under the tyrannical rule of the federal government or not, but the way he framed his point elided the “freedom” the Southern states sought. As noted in the above secession declarations, the Southern states wanted the freedom to continue using slaves as the central part of their economy. The only “subjugation” from the federal government was in the form of “no, we are not going to allow the territories to institute slavery“, and “no, we’re not going to let you secede because that would fragment our country and set a dangerous precedent“.

I don’t give a fuck about the “will of the people” when used as an argument for continuing to do harm. And make no mistake, distorting the history of and propagating lies about the Civil War does harm. Denying the central role that slavery and white supremacy played in the Civil War prevents people from coming to terms with the ongoing history of racism within the United States. Worse, such denial leads to people diminishing the severity of slavery. You might laugh, but yes, there are people in 21st century who diminish the inherent cruelty in treating human beings as property. People like-

The ignorant-and-could-not-be-bothered-to-educate-himself NBA player Charley Barkley, who in 2014 said:

“The only problem I had with Kenny’s, umm, open letter was, umm, I don’t think anytime anything bad that happens in the black community we have to talk about slavery. Listen, slavery is, uh, well, I shouldn’t say one of the worst things ever, because I don’t know anything about it other than what I read or what my grandmother told me. We, as black people, need the cops in our community. They’re not there just to quote-unquote kill black men, they’re there to protect us, and we, as black people, have got to develop a relationship with them.”

Apathetic Libertarian economics professor Walter Block, who, in early 2014, said the following:

“Free association is a very important aspect of liberty. It is crucial. Indeed, its lack was the major problem with slavery. The slaves could not quit. They were forced to ‘associate’ with their masters when they would have vastly preferred not to do so,” Block writes.

What follows, however, is unlikely to win over many of his critics. Block adds in the essay: “Otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc. The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory.”

Right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza, in his divorced-from-reality documentary, 2016: Obama’s America:

I don’t have the space here to dispute every specious point that D’Souza makes in America or highlight every bit of nonsensical sophistry he employs in order to mask the emptiness of his so-called reasoning. But his acrobatically evasive—and borderline idiotic—treatment of slavery should be enough to convince all but the most closed-minded D’Souzaites that the guy is little more than a slick, self-promotional propagandist.

First of all, shortly after setting out to disprove the notion that America “stole the labor of African Americans”—his words, not mine—D’Souza admits that the “enslavement of African Americans was theft—theft of life and labor.” I’m no logician, but I’m pretty sure that calling something true is an ineffective way of proving that it’s false.

No matter, though. D’Souza just barrels ahead. He’s no longer trying to say that slavery wasn’t theft. Now he’s just saying that it wasn’t as bad as liberals seem to think.

He notes, for example, that even though Frederick Douglass was opposed to slavery, he “didn’t want to leave America”—as if working to right a wrong from within the system is somehow tantamount to admitting that the wrong isn’t so grievous after all.

He explains that “white indentured servants were brought to this country by force,” too—as if the difference between temporary servitude and lifelong slavery based on skin color was merely a difference of degree.

He tells the story of black slave owner William Ellison, “one of the most feared plantation owners in the South”—as if the existence of black slave owners is somehow evidence that the antebellum South wasn’t seriously messed up instead of evidence of, you know, the exact opposite.

He recounts the tale of Madame C.J. Walker, a freed slave who “started selling her own hair-care products door to door” and became “the first self-made female millionaire in America”—as if all ex-slaves would have succeeded like Walker with enough “hard work.”

He even reminds us that “the Egyptians had slaves, the Chinese had slaves, the Africans had slaves, and the American Indians had slaves long before Columbus”—as if the Everybody-Else-Was-Doing-It defense makes American slavery OK.

D’Souza’s point here, I suppose, is that America wasn’t unusual in having slaves (even though the “peculiar institution” lasted longer in the U.S. than in any other First World country, in direct opposition to the ideals enshrined in our Constitution). What’s unusual about America, D’Souza is saying, is that we “fought a great war to end it.”

The Economist, in a review of Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” (since withdrawn and apologized for):

“Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”

Repugnant Arizona Republican Jim Brown, who said in 2014:

“Back in the day of slavery, slaves were kept in slavery by denying them education and opportunity while providing them with their basic needs,” wrote Brown. “Not by beating them and starving them,” he said, adding “Although there were isolated cases, of course.”

“Basically slave owners took pretty good care of their slaves and livestock and this kept business rolling along,” he said.

and SCOTUS Justice Clarence Thomas, who, in his dissent following the court’s June 26 ruling in favor of marriage equality made the following insipid argument against same-sex marriage:

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

The list of people who have engaged in apologetics for slavery doesn’t end with the fools above-here are 10 more. It boggles my mind that here in the 21st century, we have people-especially political figures-arguing that owning human beings really wasn’t all that bad. Such apologetics for slavery serve to bolster the historically revisionist claims of the Southerners who argue that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, or that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of white supremacy.  Whether it’s people engaging in slavery apologetics or people attempting to retroactively revise the Civil War, such arguments (poor as they are) serve to reinforce racism when we should all be demolishing that social ill.

And that’s reason #4908 for why the Black Lives Matter movement exists.

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Defending the indefensible

3 thoughts on “Defending the indefensible

  1. 1

    Even as a 12 yr. old child i never bought the States Rights argument. I was smart enough then to know BS when I heard it.
    I watched the interviews of the Supporters of the flag on Democracy now. I want to be charitable and claim they are some deeply ignorant people but I suspect even if they were told the truth, they’re the kind of people who would dismiss it.
    To a one, not one of them was able to clearly articulate why they support this falg and refused to clearly answer whether or not they supported slavery. Most of the people, All of whom were White and male just spouted some gibberish at the camera. People so caught up in their FEELINGS about the flag that they have never given it any other kind of thought.

    I’m of the opinion that such people should just “get over it and stop living in the past”! Something they are so quick to tell Black people whenever any racial issues are brought up.

    Get Over It! Stop Living in the Past! /s

  2. 2

    William Tappan Thompson (August 31, 1812 – March 24, 1882) was a newspaper writer in Georgia during the Civil War and one of the two recognized designers of the Confederate Flag. He had this to say about their creation:

    “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause… Such a flag…would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG… As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism. Another merit in the new flag is, that it bears no resemblance to the now infamous banner of the Yankee vandals.” (Wikipedia)

    And this flag is suppose to represent states rights???

  3. 3

    Steve:
    From a sheer technical standpoint, the flag does represent states’ rights. But the right they fought the Civil War over was the right to retain slaves, bc they felt the institution of slavery was essential to their economy. This is something that a great many pro-Confederate flag supporters elide when they mention states’ rights. There is no part of the Confederacy, or the 3 Confederate flags that is not rooted in white supremacy and slavery.

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