History Lessons

History Lessons


By Tom Robotham

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.~ Mississippi’s official declaration of secession, 1861.


Some years ago, I wrote a book about the Civil War. I had recently moved to Norfolk, so my publisher arranged some book-signings here in town.  One book-buyer stands out vividly in my mind.

“So, young man,” said an elderly woman with a deep Southern drawl. “Where are you from?”

“New York City,” I responded.

“Oh,” she said. “So you’re on the other side.”

What struck me is that she used the present tense.

My mom was a Southerner, and three of my ancestors fought for the Confederacy. I even have letters that one of them sent to his wife. But until that day at the bookstore, I hadn’t realized how much mythical force the Civil War still has in the South.

A few weeks later, I was talking to a neighbor—a man about 10 years younger than I—and the subject came up again. “People think it was about slavery,” he said. “It wasn’t at all. It was about states’ rights.”

I thought of those exchanges again recently after the dust-up about the Confederate flag. The controversy led, inevitably, to renewed debates about the causes of the war—and thus the symbolic meaning of the flag.  In such trying times it’s more important than ever that we understand our nation’s history and face it, regardless of how unpleasant it might be.

So what did cause the crisis?

No one summed it up more succinctly than Abraham Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address. Before the war, Lincoln noted, “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.”

Lincoln’s simple and straightforward assertion might seem to be a trick of rhetoric, designed to elevate the moral righteousness of the Northern effort.

But if you dig a little more deeply into historical documents, you’ll find that everyone recognized the truth of Lincoln’s statement.

Take, for example, this portion of the opening paragraph of Georgia’s official statement of secession. “For the last ten years, we have had numerous…causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding…states with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.”

Other statements of secession are equally clear on this point, as the epigraph at the top of this essay indicates.

So how did the confusion arise?

By and large, it’s a result of Southern revisionism that gradually took hold in the decades following the war, as a way of preserving Southern pride. There arose, as a result, this great mischief: the notion that the war was about Northern greed and federal tyranny, not the dispute over slavery.

The confusion is somewhat understandable. One common argument, for example, is that the war couldn’t have been about slavery because Lincoln had made it clear that he had no intention of trying to abolish it. This much is indisputable. He’s on record as saying this. But that aforementioned paragraph from the Second Inaugural Address—not to mention Georgia’s statement—gets to the heart of the matter. While Lincoln felt he couldn’t abolish slavery where it existed, he wanted to contain it—to prevent it, in other words, from expanding into new territories. This irked the South for two reasons.

Number one was that the Southern economy was utterly dependent upon slavery. Thus Lincoln’s position of containment was regarded as a grave threat to Southern prosperity in the future. Most people today recognize this much, at least.

The second reason, though, is one that many Southerners find hard to swallow. Slavery was important not only to the Southern economy, but to its culture, which rested on the notion that slavery was a “positive good,” as John C. Calhoun put it. The designer of one version of the Confederate Flag put it more explicitly: “As a people,” wrote William T. Thompson, upon his design’s unveiling, “we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”

Many Southerners even today take offense when such truths are spoken because they assume that it implies another argument: that Northerners were more enlightened on the subject of race.

Many abolitionists certainly were—and their role in aggravating sectional tensions cannot be overlooked. That said, abolitionists represented a minority of the Northern population. Many Northerners opposed the expansion of slavery for very different reasons. Congressman David Wilmot is a prime example. He was racist to the core, even by 19th century standards, and was motivated not by any concern for the welfare of African-Americans but by his desire to preserve the territories for whites.

None of this, however, alters the fundamental fact that Southern leaders spearheaded secession in an effort to preserve the institution of slavery—and subsequently started the war by ordering an assault on Fort Sumter. It was an act of treason, if ever there was one—treason, I might reiterate, motivated by the desire to maintain “heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man.”

It was with this sentiment in mind that the Ku Klux Klan later took up the flag, as the organization embarked on its campaign of terrorism—thus ensuring that the banner would forever be linked with the most virulent forms of racism in action: lynchings and beatings and burnings and rapes—not to mention humiliations of more ordinary kinds.

In light of all these blatant facts, it is quite astonishing that so many Americans continue to live in denial about the realities of slavery, the long period of racial oppression in the South after the war, and the symbolism of the Confederate flag. Yes, that flags represents “heritage”—but not a heritage of which anyone should be proud. The Confederate effort wasn’t just a lost cause—it was the wrong cause. One that is morally indefensible.

This does not mean that the average Confederate soldier was evil. We are all products of our times, and they were just doing what they thought was right. Likewise, I suspect that many people who defend the Confederate flag today truly believe it stands for “heritage, not hate.” They believe this out of ignorance, because that’s all they were taught.

In keeping with the spirit of the First Amendment, I would nevertheless defend anyone’s Constitutional right to fly the Confederate flag on private property today—just as I would defend anyone’s right to burn the American flag in political protest.  State endorsement of the Confederate flag, however, is a very different matter. It is an affront to decency. It is an insult, not only to African-Americans whose ancestors suffered from enslavement and domestic terrorism under that banner, but to all Americans who believe in this nation’s founding ideals and in the dignity of every human being.

As this controversy continues, we would do well to remember the words that Lincoln spoke in his First Inaugural Address: “We must not be enemies,” he said. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”