The horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of an officer of the law has ripped the scab from a festering wound on the American body politic. Decades of resentment over police brutality and racial bias in law enforcement on one hand, and the desire for law and order and condemnation of the criminality that seems rife in minority communities on the other, have sparked nationwide riots and protests from many, and knee-jerk opposition to change from others.
One aspect of this reaction is a growing outcry to tear down the monuments of the Confederacy and to remove the Confederate flag from America’s public square. While I have tried in recent years to keep this blog non-political, I am going to make an exception here to simply say this: it’s high time for the Confederate flag, and the fawning adulation of the leaders of the Confederacy, to go away. We cannot erase history, and no one is saying we should. But we need to quit lying about it.
It says something that the political party which once stood for slavery, secession, racism, and segregation – the party of Lee, Jefferson Davis, George Wallace, and Woodrow Wilson, the Democrats – now leads the charge to remove the badges of the Confederacy from public display; while the party that was formed in opposition to the spread of slavery, the party that called out secession as treason, the party that crushed slavery and first stood for black voting rights, the Republicans, is now the party whose strength is in the South and whose members are vehemently defending the Confederate flag and the statues of Robert E. Lee and his cohorts. There has been a profound change in American politics over the last 60 years, to be sure.
But the one thing on which 95% of all historians agree is this: The Southern states seceded from the Union and took up arms to protect the South’s “peculiar institution,” African chattel slavery. It really doesn’t take a genius to figure this out – slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. All you have to do to understand this is study the history of the 1840’s and 1850’s. Go to the primary sources. Read the newspaper editorials, north and south. Read the speeches of the political leaders of the era. Read the Ordinances of Secession from each of the Southern states, especially the “Deep South.” Throughout the 1850’s, the biggest political battles in America centered on the issue of slavery, particularly on whether or not slavery should be allowed to spread into the national territories. There were other issues – the tariff, for one, and manufacturing versus agrarian economies – but all these were things Americans had compromised on before and would do so again in the post-bellum era. But not slavery.
From the Mexican War to the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the horrific Dredd Scott decision by the Supreme Court in 1858, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and the 1860 election – the expansion of slavery was the primary issue of contention between North and South that whole time. Abraham Lincoln was elected on a platform of restricting the further spread of slavery, placing it, as he often said, “on a course of ultimate extinction,” but not banning it where it already existed. His moderate, nuanced stance did nothing to assuage Southern fears. As soon as he won the election, the seven cotton states seceded. Even though he had pledged to honor the existing laws regarding slavery, having a President who believed slavery was morally wrong was more than the South could endure, and so they willfully, gleefully shattered the Union. They fired on the American flag, proclaimed themselves a separate nation, and wrote a Constitution which would have protected and enshrined slavery forever. In doing so, they committed the largest act of treason in American history.
That’s right, treason - the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution, which according to that document “shall consist in waging war on the United States, or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” That’s what the Confederates did – they declared a war of independence against the government many of them had taken an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” because they lost a Presidential election – and because the new President did not want to see all the Federal territories converted into new slaveholding states. They didn’t even try to hide their motivation; most of the deep South states listed the Republican opposition to slavery as the primary reason they were packing up their beards and leaving the Union.
Sam Houston of Texas, a staunch Unionist, saw further than most Southerners, and detested the militant secessionists. “Our people are going to war to perpetuate slavery,” he said, “and the first shots fired in that war will be slavery’s death knell.” There you have it from a Southerner and a slaveowner – the Civil War was about slavery.
Lincoln himself pleaded with the South, both in private letters and in his first inaugural address, to slow down, reconsider, and not take the drastic step of secession. “In your hands, not in mine,” he said, “lies the momentous issue of civil war. . . the government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors.” In a letter to his old friend Alexander Stephens, now the Vice President of the Confederacy, he wrote: “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial disagreement between us.”
As we move forward from the George Floyd death and the protests that sprang from it, it is obvious there will be many issues that Americans will disagree on. Cries for reform will be met with cries for law and order, and in the end, one hopes that common ground will be found and that compromise – once considered a America’s greatest genius, now a dirty word to extremists on both sides – will find a way to bring peace to our troubled country. But it would not be a bad starting place for us, as a nation, to recognize what nearly all historians now accept to be a self-evident truth: The Civil War was about slavery. Southerners fought bravely, heroically at times, in one of the worst causes in the history of the world. Let’s retire the Confederate flag to the battlefields and monuments of that long-ago war and remove it from the public square where it serves no purpose except to rub salt in wounds that should have been healed long ago. Let’s relocate the statues to historical sites instead of courthouse and capitol lawns, and let’s replace the adoring text panels put up by the Daughters of the Confederacy with a more honest and modern commentary on America’s bloodiest conflict. Maybe if we are more honest about our past problems, we can be more honest about today’s national divide.