Tag Archives: Confederate Flag

What it Really Means to be on the Right Side of History

Presumably, by

Presumably, by “traditional marriage,” these folks mean the right have roughly 700 wives — just like King Solomon did in the Bible.

The “right” side of history. It’s a refrain we’re hearing a lot these days, especially since the tyrannical, unelected, black-robed demon horde known as the Supreme Court decided to scoff at the biblical interpretation of foamy-mouthed Fundi-gelicals everywhere by legalizing the rainbow plague of super-gay Homo-Sexxican Devil marriage across the formerly free-but-now eternally damned United States of Sodom and Gomorrica.

Predictably, fire-and-brimstone wingnut stalwarts went apoplectic over the Court’s decision. Perennial presidential candidate and last-remaining Ted Nugent fan Mike Huckabee blew about fifteen gaskets and advocated mass civil disobedience against the impending Homo-Hordes. “When we believe that the civil government has acted outside of nature, and nature’s god, outside of the bounds of the law, outside of the bounds of the Constitution,” Huck winged, “we believe that it’s [civil disobedience] the right and the moral thing to do.” Not to be outdone by the Huckster, Bryan Fischer — the Mississippi-based gonzo-wingnut radio jockey for American Family Radio — described the Supremes’ ruling on same-sex marriage as “the new 9/11,” and claimed to witness “Satan dancing with delight” over America’s newfound gayness. The Dark Lord Himself could not be reached to verify Fischer’s comment.

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What the Civil War Can Teach us About Patriotism

Placing flags on Union soliders' graves at Vicksburg National Military Park. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a a last and necessary resort.

Flags on Union soldiers’ graves at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a last and necessary resort.

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is upon us, and, in keeping with tradition, Americans will be observing the founding of their nation as only they can: by searing woolly mammoth flanks (on sale at Walmart) on their Realtree-decaled, 124 propane tanked, patio grill-a-sauruses to commemorate the time Chuck Norris, a jellybean-grenade launching Ronald Reagan, a laser cannon-armed cyborg George Washington, and a velociraptor-mounted, open-carrying, tax-cutting Jesus teamed up to win American independence from the overbearing colonial clutches of the gay-communist-British-liberal-anti-freedom zombies.

Okay, perhaps that’s not quite historically accurate, but the basic tenets of Independence Day are nonetheless there. The Fourth of July is the official holiday for American patriotism, and citizens of the U.S. are a very patriotic people. But in the spirit of Independence Day, it’s worth examining what we mean when we celebrate “patriotism.”

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Dylann Roof and the Twilight of The Confederate Flag

The Confederate flag may finally be lowered from South Carolina's capital after decades of well-deserved controversy.

The Confederate flag may finally be lowered from South Carolina’s capital after decades of controversy.

A century-and-a-half after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, the Confederacy may finally be laying down its cultural arms. Following the horrific shooting rampage by white neo-Confederate psychopath Dylann Roof that left nine African-Americans dead in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the long-enduring Confederate flag ‘s days of flying above the South Carolina capital — the heart of the Old Confederacy — may be numbered.

As the families of Roof’s victims still mourn their terrible loss, they may be able to take solace in the fact that the cold-blooded murder of their loved ones seems to have spurred a national awakening that centuries of spilled African-American blood could not quite inspire.

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The Confederate Flag: America’s Most Loaded Generic Symbol of Rebellion

Privleged, white, rebels without a clue in Colorado.

Rebels without a clue in Colorado.

The Confederate flag is an American symbol like no other. The reasons for this aren’t complicated: the Rebel flag is both distinctly American and functionally anti-American at the same time. It’s American in the sense that it once stood for a rebellion started by Americans, but anti-American in the sense that those American rebels waged a treasonous war against, you know, the United States. Yes-sir-ee-Bob, the stars and bars represents the most chaotic moment in U.S. history, when the land of the free went to war over the fact that millions of its residents were decidedly unfree, and plenty of (white) Americans wanted to maintain that status quo.

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The Confederacy, Slavery, and the Fog of Historical Memory

The Orginal Cabinet for the Confederate States of America. President Jefferson Davis is third from right.

The Original Cabinet for the Confederate States of America. President Jefferson Davis is third from right.

Americans are still in the midst of celebrating (if indeed that’s the appropriate word to use) the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Yet even after all this time, a good many aspects of the war and its legacy are difficult for some people to accept and process. This is especially the case regarding the central role of slavery in causing the conflict, and how the war’s losing side, the Confederacy, should be remembered. The Confederate States of America existed from 1861-1865, and the men who founded the southern nation did so for the express purpose of protecting slavery from what they alleged to be the abolitionist, pro-racial equality stances of the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln.

Thus, the Confederacy was, at its core, a paradoxical entity: it was a slaveholders’ republic; a democracy based on white supremacy, in which the existence of black slavery explicitly contrasted with, and nurtured, white freedom.

Of course, in some respects, the Confederacy wasn’t all that different from the United States at the time. Indeed, white supremacy in its various forms was the open guiding principle of American society throughout the majority of the nation’s history, and, on some levels, still remains so today. But the Confederacy was something different still. It was a nation that tried to beat back calls for America to repent for its original sin of human bondage. In this respect, the Confederate experiment was the ultimate in conservative counter-revolutions: its government protected, and its armies fought for, the freedom for one group of people to enslave another group. Ever since the end of the Civil War, it’s this core fact that’s been hard for some Americans to take.

A case-in-point is the recent snafu over the proposed removal of Confederate flags from Washington and Lee University chapel in Virginia — the burial site of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. As Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory notes, a group of black law students at the university understandably take offence to the preponderance of Rebel flags on the campus, and in a letter to the Board of Trustees, they demanded that the university “remove all confederate flags from its property and premises, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.” The students’ demands naturally attracted the attention of that wily group of Rebel flag-waving’ Gomer Pyles known as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), who, of course, were not happy about this latest alleged attempt to stomp all over their Dixieland myths.

Over at Crossroads, Brookes Simpson highlights some of the dunder-headed claims made by Ben Jones, the new SCV chief of heritage operations. “It appears that those who have a very simplistic view of American history have decided that the 150th anniversary of The Civil War is the right time to demonize the Southern culture,” Jones stated. He then made the usual spiel about how America was built on slavery (a statement so uncontroversial that historians have acknowledged it for decades) and he maintains that this point somehow makes it okay to deny that the fact that the Confederacy tried to perpetuate slavery indefinitely. But Jones’ most important point comes when he invokes Martin Luther King (talk about ballsy) to claim that Americans should reconcile “by accepting our past as it is.”

But, of course, for folks like the SCV, “accepting the past as it is” is, in fact, no easy task, because doing so means recognizing and accepting the fact that the Confederacy viewed black slavery and white freedom as intimately connected: one facilitated the other. In 1860, when the Republican Party came to power under the platform of preventing slavery’s extension into the western territories — but not touching it the states where it already existed — such a platform was too much for southern Fire-Eaters to bear. Indeed, the mere HINT that Abraham Lincoln — who was elected by an exclusively northern electorate — might try to free the South’s slaves was enough to justify a new southern nation in which slavery could flourish unencumbered forever.

As secessionists in Craven County, North Carolina told Governor John W. Ellis in 1860, “the people of North Carolina have a common interest with all the slave holding states and whereas in common with them the State of North Carolina has suffered from the aggressions of the North upon the institution of slavery until the burden has become intolerable.” In order to relive this “intolerable” burden, the majority of the slave-holding southern states seceded from the Union in 1860-61. This was the cause for which Confederate armies fought, and its a cause that some modern-day Americans choose to conceal with an intentional historical fog.

In the twenty-first century, it troubles some Americans to think that their ancestors fought and died for such an odious cause. After all, America is supposed to be exceptional! America then, as now, was supposed to be the “land of the free.” How, then, could southern politicians form a new nation dedicated to protecting slavery? And how could they convince tens-of-thousands of southern whites to defend that nation to the death? The answer lies in the way black slavery legitimized white freedom in the antebellum South.

Weather we likeit or not, this flag symbolized a republic built by slaveholders to protect their human property.

Whether we like it or not, this flag symbolized a republic built by slaveholders to protect their human property.

Liberty in the antebellum South was built on slavery through the concept of “Herrenvolk Democracy” (a term derived from the German word for “master race”), which held that despite their inequality in property and status, all white men were equal in their shared racial domination over blacks. This concept offered a clear contrast between the free and unfree, as slaveholding and non-slaveholding whites alike measured their liberty against the millions of slaves that surrounded them. Poor and yeomen southern whites recognized a common kinship with planters and feared competing with blacks for land and labor in the event of slavery’s abolishment. Thus, Herrenvolk Democracy made southerners susceptible to “us vs. them” styles of political demagoguery.

And boy-oh-boy did the southern secessionists play the demagogue’s card in 1860. Consider the state of Texas. Its Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union makes it clear that slavery was the bedrock of what would become the new Southern nation:

Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people…She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy.

But for Texas, joining the Confederacy wasn’t just about maintaining slavery; it was also about upholding the racial dominance that undermined slavery, which the non-slaveholding northern states allegedly threatened. Thus, the Texas declaration further stated that:

 [I]n this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; 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.

Here you see the very essence of Herrenvolk Democracy: a state in which “all white men are…entitled to equal civil and political rights,” regardless of their class or station, because “the servitude of the African race” ensured that all blacks would remain an enslaved underclass over whom whites could dominate. As historian Stephanie McCurry writes in her book Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (which EVERYONE interested in the Civil War should read), “What secessionists set out to build was something entirely new in the history of nations: a modern proslavery and antidemocratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.”* White southerners in 1860 understood that their shared racial equality was bolstered by the fact that black slaves could never, under any circumstances, be their equals — the non-slaveholding states be damned.

This is why secessionist politicians argued that forming the Confederacy was a necessary bulwark against what they thought was Lincoln’s secret plans to end slavery and force racial equality on the South. They knew their audiences’ prejudices, and they played to them brilliantly. For example, in December of 1860, Stephen F. Hale, Alabama’s secession commissioner to Kentucky, told Bluegrass state governor Beriah Magoffin that, “if the policy of the Republicans is carried out…and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate — all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes.” The key point in Hale’s letter is how “the slave-holder and non-slaveholder” alike would be threatened by slavery’s demise. Hale explained this point further when he wrote that:

Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?

Stephen F. Hale, Alabama's secession commisioner to Kentucky. He made it clear that secession was to be a bulawrk against abolition and racial equality.

Stephen F. Hale, Alabama’s secession commissioner to Kentucky. He made it clear that secession was to be a bulwark against abolition and racial equality.

This was hardly an accurate description of the Republican Party’s policy in 1860, but what matters is that secessionists BELIEVED that the increased sectional power of the northern states portended not just the end of slavery, but also racial equality. Even after the South seceded from the Union, Confederates continued to invoke Herrenvolk Democracy throughout the war as a way to shore up white support for the Rebel cause. In December 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer warned Kentuckians that the “Northern hordes” would overrun Kentucky, and that “[t]heir Government has laid heavy taxes on you to carry on this unnatural war, which is openly avowed to be to set at liberty your slaves, and the ensuing steps in which will be to put arms in their hands, and give them political and social equality with yourselves.”

In his November 1863 inaugural address to the Mississippi legislature (which begins on pg. 158 at the link), Charles Clark, the Magnolia state’s Fire-Eating Confederate governor, echoed Zollicoffer’s warnings that the North would force racial equality on the South. “Between the South and the North there is a great gulf fixed,” Clark stated, “Humbly submit yourselves to our hated foes, and they will offer you a reconstructed Constitution providing for the confiscation of your property, the immediate emancipation of your slaves and the elevation of the black race to a position of equality, aye, of superiority, that will make them your masters and rulers.” Clark claimed that only violent resistance could stave off racial armageddon. “Rather than such base submission, such ruin and dishonor, let the last of our young men die upon the field of battle,” he vowed.

When you consider how the long tradition of Herrenvolk Democracy helped construct the antebellum South’s racial order, you can see why secessionists were so threatened by any-and-all possible restrictions on slavery that might come from the Northern states. The idea that the Confederacy defined white freedom in explicit contrast to black slavery is what makes the SCV-types so defensive about the way Americans remember the legacy of the southern rebellion. The Confederate flag, as the symbol of the short-lived slaveholder’s republic, represents a nation that fought to preserve slavery and the system of racial dominance that bolstered the “peculiar institution.”

When Americans choose to remember the Confederacy by intentionally stripping it of its very ideological foundations, they are, in effect, fogging up the windows of the past with a present-day vision of what they WANT the Confederacy to be. This vision bears little resemblance to what the Confederacy actually was. This is also the reason why no amount of historical evidence that links the Confederacy to protecting slavery and white supremacy will ever convince those who have a vested interest in believing otherwise. They aren’t interested in learning about the past; rather, they’re so blinded by a belief in American (and Southern) exceptionalism that the notion that Americans once fought for slavery — the very antithesis of freedom — is an unpalatable fact that they deny at all costs.

But just remember, folks: we as Americans won’t learn anything from the past if we try to sugar-coat history with an idealized mythology. It’s better to have lived and learned than never to have learned at all.

* See Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1.

Why You Can’t Separate The Confederate Flag from its History

An Army of Tennessee Confederate Battle Flag. This is image is historically linked to the preservation of slavery, no matter what other symbolisms later generations have attached to it.

An Army of Tennessee Confederate Battle Flag. This image is historically linked to the preservation of slavery, no matter what other meanings later generations have attached to it.

The Confederate battle flag inspires, shall we say, some passionate opinions among different groups of Americans. To a particularly weird contingent of neo-Confederate apologists, including the various branches of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), the flag symbolizes “Loving the South and defending its culture, symbols and heritage.” These groups go out of their way to separate the Rebel flag from its historical associations with slavery and racism and claim that the emblem merely represents their love of all-things Dixie. To other groups, however, especially African-Americans, the Confederate flag is a historic symbol that invokes the legacy of slavery and racism that defined the American South for generations.

So who’s in the right here? Does the Rebel flag today merely serve as a symbol for historically illiterate Bubbas to wave in the name of “Heritage, Not Hate?” Or, does the flag still symbolize slavery and racism — basically the two worst things about the Old South? The answer is both complicated and straightforward.

Yes, people of different generations have attached different meanings to the Confederate flag to the point where, on one hand, it’s now little more than a generic symbol for rebellion that fuels a decidedly tasteless bumper-sticker and bikini industry. But on the other hand, the Confederate flag emerged at a very specific point in American history. It served as the military emblem of an army whose government, the Confederate States of America, waged a treasonous war against the United States in the name of defending, upholding, and perpetuating racial slavery. This is the real history of the flag that makes many Americans (justifiably) uncomfortable, and its a history that will forever be linked to the stars and bars.

The flag’s historical association with slavery and racism has always made it a banner controversy (oh yeah, that pun was intended). Case-in-point: Talking Points Memo recently reported that students and alumni of Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia have signed a petition to bring back their stars and bars-clad “Rebel Man” mascot. The move has proved controversial, but proponents of bringing back the mascot claim that “The Rebel Man was never intended to embark racism or start any kind of political controversy, but only to represent our city’s history.”

Unfortunately, the history that “Rebel Man” is intended to represent is quite loaded: Richmond, Virginia served as the capital of the Confederacy after it was moved from Montgomery, Alabama in early 1861. Knowing this full-well, one Freeman High School student echoed a familiar (and tired) refrain when he claimed that, “Since Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, a Southern soldier really represents us as a school…This Rebel Man does not represent racism or slavery.”

The "White House" where Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in Richmond, Virginia.

The “White House” where Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in Richmond, Virginia.

Of course, whether or not that student believes that Confederate imagery “does not represent racism or slavery,” the fact remains that the rebel flag and its associated symbolism historically represents a breakaway nation whose “cornerstone,” as explained by its vice-president, Alexander Stephens, was “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Based on this “cornerstone,” the majority of the slave-holding southern states formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 as an explicitly white-supremacist nation dedicated to defending the right to own black slaves.

And just how dedicated to slavery were the Confederate States of America, you ask? Well, consider the fact that the Confederate Constitution was, for all intents-and-purposes, a virtual carbon-copy of the American Constitution, but with a crucial difference: it had provisions clearly defending the right to preserve slavery. While it’s true that the American Constitution in its original form was essentially a pro-slavery document (it did have that whole three-fifths clause, after all), the framers of the Confederate Constitution went out of their way to make sure that NOBODY on earth could EVER deprive the South’s of its hard-working and EXTREMELY under-paid labor force.

Article I Section 9(4) of the Confederate Constitution reads that, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” That’s pretty straightforward, innit? But the fun doesn’t stop there! Article IV Section 3(3) reads that, “The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and… In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

You get all that? Basically, the Confederate Constitution not only protected slavery, but it also protected the right to perpetually extend slavery into any new Confederate territories FOR-EVER. Don’t believe me? Then read the dang thing for yourself! These Rebels were in the slavery business for the long haul, folks, and this is the uncomfortable fact that some contemporary Americans want to gloss over when they claim that you can wave the flag of a nation dedicated to slavery and white supremacy while simultaneously denying that said flag has anything to do with slavery and white supremacy. Sorry, but it just doesn’t work like that.

There's a reason why these hooded clowns tend to wave the Confederate flag: they know its history.

There’s a reason why these hooded clowns tend to wave the Confederate flag: they know its history.

But debates over the appropriateness of displaying the Rebel flag in public settings aren’t likely to go away any time soon. As historian John Coski writes in The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (a book I referenced in an earlier post about the flag’s legacy), “Even though the battle flag was the banner of a people striving to break away from the Union and protect the institution of slavery, those people were Americans.”* This means that the Confederate flag is also an American symbol, and it stirs high emotions precisely because it invokes the negative issues of slavery, racism, and inequality that are supposed to be contrary to American ideals but for which hundreds-of-thousands of Americans gave their lives in battle.

The Rebel flag makes us uncomfortable because it symbolizes a time in history when half the country took the worst aspects of American society and tried to form a new nation dedicated to those aspects. But it’s too easy to blame only the South here; after all, throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, racism and white supremacy were American values, not merely southern ones. Even though the Union won the Civil War, the Federal government wasn’t exactly committed to full-on, post-war racial equality, and the northern states didn’t exactly become havens of racial tolerance in the decades following the Confederacy’s demise.

Thus, the Rebel flag is controversial because it reminds Americans of a racist set of values that were once widely held; the South was just more honest about holding them. Nevertheless, the fact of widespread American historical racism is no excuse to blindly claim that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with racism and slavery. History is clear about the flag’s unfortunate connotations, and it’s a history that you can’t separate from the stars and bars. There’s plenty of other symbols of southern pride that ALL southerners — and all Americans — can get behind (like sweet tea; damn that stuff’s good), so let’s leave the Confederate flag where it belongs: to history.

* See John Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 293.