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.
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?
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.