A Response to Attacks on Confederate Symbols and History

A Response to Attacks on Confederate Symbols and History

Michael T. Griffith

2007

@All Rights Reserved

Fourth Edition Page 2

The direct, immediate cause of the Civil War was Lincoln’s refusal to allow the South to go in peace. If Lincoln had not decided to invade the South in order to crush Southern independence, there would have been no war. In one famous exchange between a captured Confederate soldier and Union troops, the Union soldiers asked their prisoner if he was a slaveowner. He answered that he wasn’t, and that in fact he was rather poor. "Then why are you fighting for the Confederacy?", they asked him. "Because you’re here," he replied. Civil War scholar Francis Springer put it this way:

For stark truth, the so-called "Civil War" ought to be called "The War for the Destruction of the South." It was as much a war for destruction as any war that was ever fought on this or on any other continent. It is surprising, nevertheless, how often the question is asked, "What was the South fighting for anyway?" and the usual answers are just as surprisingly vague and involved. The real answer is quite simple. The South was fighting because it was invaded. (Francis Springer, War for What?, Springfield, Tennessee: Nippert Publishing, 1990, reprint, p. 132)

Few people know that a number of Confederate leaders believed slavery was wrong and that many Southerners supported emancipation.  Even fewer people know that key Confederate leaders were prepared to abolish slavery. General Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s leading general, early on urged the abolition of slavery and said slavery was “a moral and political evil” years before the war.  General Joseph E. Johnston, the second highest ranking general in the Confederacy, disliked slavery and often called it a “curse.”  Another famous Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson, wanted to see all the slaves freed and was known for the kind, respectful way he treated people of color. Confederate general Patrick Cleburne advocated emancipation for all slaves who would enlist in the Confederate army, and twelve Confederate brigade and regimental commanders supported this proposal, including General Daniel Govan, General John H. Kelly, and General Marc Lowrey. Several Southern governors also supported emancipation for slaves who served as Confederate soldiers.  Governor William Smith of Virginia, Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia, Governor Milledge Bonham of South Carolina, Governor Charles Clark of Mississippi, and Governor Zebulon Vance of North Carolina endorsed a resolution calling for emancipation for all slaves who served faithfully in the Confederate army.  Duncan Kenner, a prominent member of the Confederate Congress and one of the South’s largest slaveowners, supported abolition very early in the war. Also, as early as 1862, the Confederate Secretary of State, Judah Benjamin, proposed abolishing slavery in exchange for European diplomatic recognition. Two years later, in 1864, President Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders were prepared to abolish slavery to gain European diplomatic recognition in order to save the Confederacy.  I think these facts are important because they show that independence was more important to Confederate leaders than was the continuation of slavery.

As Americans we rightly repudiate the bad things that have been done under our flag. We emphasize the good in our heritage and symbols. Similarly, those who are proud of their Confederate ancestors should be allowed to repudiate the negative aspects of their heritage and symbols and to focus on the good thereof. Confederate symbols, names, and historical figures do not necessarily have to remind anyone of slavery, especially since the vast majority of Southerners did not own slaves, since four of the eleven Confederate states did not secede over slavery, and since Confederate leaders were prepared to abolish slavery in order to achieve Southern independence. To many Southerners, Confederate symbols and names bring to mind such noble principles as limited government, courage, sacrifice, honor, loyalty, freedom, the rule of law, democratic government, a Jeffersonian respect for state sovereignty, and faith in God.

I understand this is a sensitive issue for some people. It’s also a sensitive issue for those whose ancestors fought in the Confederate army. It’s also a sensitive issue for those who are offended by the unceasing, unfair efforts to demonize everything associated with Confederate heritage.

The Confederacy was a democratic nation. Throughout the war, the South had a vigorous free press. The Confederacy held free and fair elections during the war. Confederate postage stamps included the images of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. The Confederate seal featured George Washington. After all, Confederate citizens were still Americans; indeed, the official name of their new nation was the Confederate States of America. They believed they were preserving the true principles of American constitutional government that the founding fathers had established, such as limited government, states rights, low taxation, and the rule of law. They also believed, with some justification, that the North was increasingly rejecting these principles. The Confederate Constitution was closely patterned after the U.S. Constitution, and it included modifications that even some Northern commentators conceded were improvements that made government more responsible and more accountable to the people.  The Confederate Constitution mandated free trade and made it very hard for the government to raise taxes on its citizens. It forbade the general government from getting involved in welfare and from using taxpayer money for "internal improvements" (i.e., public works projects and corporate welfare).  It also made it easier for the president to block wasteful spending by permitting him to use a line-item veto. Confederate citizens enjoyed all the rights that we enjoy today, if not more.

Yes, the Confederacy permitted slavery. So did the U.S. Constitution. So did four of the states that fought for the Union, and for decades New England slave traders made fabulous fortunes selling slaves to the South, to Brazil, to Cuba, and to the West Indies.  In addition, it’s often overlooked that the Confederate Constitution permitted the admission of free states to the Confederacy, banned the African slave trade, and allowed Confederate states to abolish slavery within their borders.  Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, by late 1864 the Confederacy was moving toward abolishing slavery.

Finally, it needs to be observed that the Confederacy did not engage in rebellion or insurrection against the federal government. Secession is not the same thing as rebellion or insurrection, and it’s certainly not treason.  Only if one defines “rebellion” solely as resistance to aggression or invasion can one say the Confederacy engaged in rebellion.  Thomas Jefferson recognized the right of a state to leave the Union in peace, even if he didn’t agree with the state’s reason for leaving. The state of Massachusetts threatened to secede in the early 1800s, and its leaders obviously believed they had the right to do so.  President John Quincy Adams likewise believed a state had the right to secede. So did President John Tyler. So did the great constitutional scholar William Rawle, who was appointed as U.S. Attorney for Pennsylvania by George Washington, and whose book A View of the Constitution was adopted as a textbook at West Point and at other institutions.  So did another early American legal giant, George Tucker.  When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, three of the states specified in their ratification ordinances that their citizens retained the right to resume the powers of government if they felt the need to do so. Virginia cited this fact in its ordinance of secession.

The Southern states attempted to leave the Union peacefully.  In fact, before the war began, most Southerners believed secession would be a peaceful process. The Southern states seceded in a peaceful, democratic manner, with the overwhelming support of their citizens. One of the first acts of the Confederate government was to send commissioners to Washington, D.C., in an effort to establish peaceful relations with the North. The Confederacy was prepared to pay compensation for all federal installations within its borders, to pay for the Southern states’ fair share of the national debt, and to allow Northern ships to continue to use the Mississippi River. The Confederacy neither attempted nor desired to overthrow the federal government. It wanted to be left alone and to live in peace with the North.  Even after the confrontation at Fort Sumter, which Lincoln later admitted he provoked, the Confederacy continued to express its desire for peace.

It’s time for the smearing and demonization of Confederate symbols and history to stop.

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