Slavery and the Confederate Flag

I just wanted to make a quick and simple point by providing some information that everyone should know, but apparently not everyone does..

If you find yourself inclined to assert that the American Civil War “wasn’t about slavery” as I have seen so many inclined to do, you likely need to take some time to seriously examine your intent.  My guess is that you’ll find you are opposing the painfully obvious for a reason which may surprise you, because the fact is: the civil war was basically about slavery.

Your motive for denying this seemingly obvious fact doesn’t have to be overt racism.  Maybe it’s something dark deep in your psyche, or maybe it’s just a general desire to appear more educated than others (’cause that seems to be a big part of it, in my experience – one discussion between friends which I observed included the assertion that belief in slavery as a primary cause of the Civil War is a “4th grade fantasy”).  Whatever the reason, you need to understand it so that you can stop it.

And if you’re sitting at your keyboard fuming over my dismissive stance towards your position, know that you’re not arguing with me, but with reality.  And because of that, I can point to other voices with far more authority on the matter than mine:

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.

Hopefully you recognize that address, but if not, it’s from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered during the Civil War.  Even in 1865, it was understood by the leader of the Union that the cause of the war had been slavery.  He was not gripped by delusion or misunderstanding, but he was plainly observing the facts.  People nowadays like to suggest that the cause of the war was somehow otherwise, and often it is asserted that it was an economic issue, as though the role of slavery in the economy can be separated from its moral character and the blame for the conflict placed squarely on that purportedly separate issue.  Others argue that it was about state’s rights, omitting the obvious fact that the ownership of slaves was the primary “right” whose legitimacy was in question.

The fact is that America had been struggling with the abolition of slavery since the Revolution, and that struggle came to a boil in years leading to the Civil War.  The South could sense that, without serious intervention, slavery was on its way out; the international slave trade was already outlawed, slavery was outlawed in much of the North, and the expansion of slavery into new territories was to be prevented.  Lincoln, a clearly anti-slavery candidate for the presidency, was elected without a single ballot cast for him in the majority of the southern states (in some, he didn’t even appear on the ballot), and under this weight, the conflict between the interest in slavery’s persistence and the general movement away from it on behalf of the country as a whole was too powerful to avoid volatility, and the Civil War began.

Some will say that Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist, as though this is somehow evidence that his proclamation of emancipation was a purely political move designed to further cripple the South, but the truth is more nuanced and interesting, and it reinforces the understanding that slavery was the cause of the Civil War.  Lincoln didn’t consider himself an abolitionist because he sought a more middle-ground solution to the problem rather than arguing for slavery’s immediate cessation.  He sought a solution of containment, suspecting that slavery would die out more peacefully and slowly under this policy.  Nonetheless, he repeatedly and unambiguously argued that the country’s republican principles of liberty and equality for all human beings required opposition to slavery.  He stated very plainly and clearly the immorality of slavery in a letter to Albert G. Hodges:

“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong … And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling … I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

These are not the words of a man who has any doubt over the moral character of slavery.  However, it shows that he had more practical doubts regarding the methods available to effect the proper end.  It is in this sense that Mr. Lincoln can be correctly considered not to be an abolitionist, and not in an overextended sense indicating that he was somehow indifferent to the moral issues of slavery or desirous of the institution’s persistence.

Anyway, I just wanted to put this up here because there should be no question in our minds over the significance of the Confederate flag.  Insofar as its flight indicates a “celebration of heritage” or some other such malarkey, it is an entirely absurd celebration of the heritage of slavery.  It is a reference to a people so gripped by greed and fear that they would wring their bread from the sweat of other men’s heads and sacrifice perhaps the most important nation the Earth has yet known to preserve their cowardly gluttony.  It reminds us of an armed insurrection costing more American lives than any other military conflict in history whose sole purpose was the preservation of a way of life incompatible with the founding principles unmistakably embedded at the forefront of a confused Constitution.

And yet, today, we have endless references to purported heroes of the Confederacy.  Myriad street names and statues erected celebrate the men who stood and fought for slavery, and it is hard to imagine that this persists not because racism remains strong in those parts of this land whose features are above mentioned.

The flags should be taken down, the streets renamed, and the statues replaced.  Perhaps the greatest statues in artistic quality can be relocated to museums or other archival areas for their future appreciation for what they are and what they mean, for I am no proponent of the destruction of important historic artifacts, but it seems to me that we ought to celebrate publicly our virtues and more properly lament our vices.

Of perhaps paramount importance here is our recognition of the fact that the costliest war in American history was fought for a moral conviction.  Though the contest was not absolute and direct, it should be clear to students of history that the recognition of slavery’s immorality pitted against powerful moneyed interest in its continuance drove the conflict that led to war.  In this understanding is a wealth of insight which should not go unknown.  There is perhaps no greater danger to a country than rapacious greed.

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