Recent events prove that the country at large, and especially people in the South, need to have a serious conversation about the origins and nature of the Confederate States of America. Those who fly the flag, put it on their bumper stickers, support the presence of the CSA flag in front of state capitals, most of those people seem to be operating under the basic premise that the CSA flag represents something besides slavery and white supremacist violence. Heritage not hate, as the popular slogan goes. Most who fly the CSA flag are to an extent, unknowingly or perhaps wilfully, holding on to vestiges of an ahistorical view of the cause of the Civil War. Most people who fly the flag in their yard are probably just people with ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, and who want to believe (no doubt rightly, in many cases) that their ancestors weren’t fighting to enslave blacks. Some who fly the flag are of course out-and-out racists who know perfectly well what they’re doing. Not much can be done about such people. Bigotry and racism isn’t a product of reason or any serious reading of history, and can’t be reasoned away. No, this post is intended to examine the idea that the Confederacy, and by extension the Civil War, was not about slavery.
As with just about any historical question, the place to start is with the primary sources. Fortunately there’s some easily accessible ones, kids should really have to read in high school when learning about the Civil War. It would correct a lot of myths. The sources in question are the declarations of secession issue by several of the Confederate states, in which they explicitly outlined why they were seceding.
South Carolina, the state that started it all. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp
I’ll quote some of the more relevant passages.
“But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.”
Note the position on “states’ rights” here. According to South Carolina, northern states didn’t have the right to deal with slavery on their own terms.
“For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the <a>Constitution</a>, a sectional party has found within that <a>Article</a> establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
The guaranties of the <a>Constitution</a> will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”
South Carolina seems pretty clear that the issue they’re seceding over is slavery. No other issue is even mentioned in their declaration, and there’s a particular reason for that actually; the secession convention in South Carolina debated the issue and explicitly decided that no other issue was relevant. http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/chron/civilwarnotes/keitt.html
And what of the other states? Mississippi’s declaration is short and very direct. The introduction is worth quoting. The rest, as can be seen at the link, is a list of evidence that the north is out to destroy slavery. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_missec.asp
“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
Here is Texas. https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/secession/2feb1861.html
“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. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?
The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.”
“For years past this abolition organization has been actively sowing the seeds of discord through the Union, and has rendered the federal congress the arena for spreading firebrands and hatred between the slave-holding and non-slave-holding States.
By consolidating their strength, they have placed the slave-holding States in a hopeless minority in the federal congress, and rendered representation of no avail in protecting Southern rights against their exactions and encroachments.
They have proclaimed, and at the ballot box sustained, the revolutionary doctrine that there is a “higher law” than the constitution and laws of our Federal Union, and virtually that they will disregard their oaths and trample upon our rights.
They have for years past encouraged and sustained lawless organizations to steal our slaves and prevent their recapture, and have repeatedly murdered Southern citizens while lawfully seeking their rendition.
They have invaded Southern soil and murdered unoffending citizens, and through the press their leading men and a fanatical pulpit have bestowed praise upon the actors and assassins in these crimes, while the governors of several of their States have refused to deliver parties implicated and indicted for participation in such offences, upon the legal demands of the States aggrieved.
They have, through the mails and hired emissaries, sent seditious pamphlets and papers among us to stir up servile insurrection and bring blood and carnage to our firesides.
They have sent hired emissaries among us to burn our towns and distribute arms and poison to our slaves for the same purpose.
They have impoverished the slave-holding States by unequal and partial legislation, thereby enriching themselves by draining our substance.
They have refused to vote appropriations for protecting Texas against ruthless savages, for the sole reason that she is a slave-holding State.”
Incidentally, the violence that the writers of this document keep claiming was being inflicted upon them is a reference to Bloody Kansas. There were atrocities committed by both slaveholders and abolitionists (notably John Brown), but the violence began with the former rather than the latter. It also references the refusal of northern states to cooperate with the fugitive slave act, which just as often as not, involved southern slavecatchers kidnapping blacks who had lived their lives free in the north. So much for southern reverence for states’ rights. Georgia and Florida (Florida’s was never formally issued) have declarations in a similar vein.
If the official declarations of the states themselves aren’t enough, here is the vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/cornerstone-speech/
“But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
And here’s Jefferson Davis himself. http://www.confederatepastpresent.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=117%3Aspeech-of-jefferson-davis-before-the-mississippi-legislature-nov-16-1858q-where-he-advocates-secession-if-an-abolitionist-is-elected-president-&catid=41%3Athe-gathering-storm
A work that’s really worth reading on the subject of southern secession is Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion. Dew is a Southern-born historian who grew up believing that “states’ rights” was the cause of the Civil War. Upon researching the matter, he wrote this book, which is about the secession commissioners that seceding states sent to other Southern states in order to convince them to secede. Here are some choice quotes from the book.
Leonard Spratt, South Carolina’s commissioner to Florida: “Within this government, two societies have become developed. The one is the society of one race, the other of two races. The one is based on free labor, the other slave labor. The one is braced together by but the two great relations of life — the relations of husband and wife, and parent and child; the other by the three relations of husband and wife, parent and child, and master and slave. The one embodies the social principle that equality is the right of man; the other, the social principle that equality is the right of equals only… There is and must be an irrepressible conflict between them, and it were best to realize the truth.”
South Carolina’s delegate to Texas, former congressman John McQueen: “Lincoln was elected by a sectional vote, whose platform was that of the Black Republican party and whose policy was to be the abolition of slavery upon this continent and the elevation of our own slaves to an equality with ourselves and our children.”
Alabama also sent out similar delegations. Here’s Stephen P. Hale, the Alabamian commissioner to Kentucky’s secession convention. The following quotes are from a letter he wrote to the Kentucky convention. “Lincoln’s election is nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, cosigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans…”
“What Southerner 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?”
The book is full of dozens of more quotes like this, from different secessionist representatives sent to different conventions. The historical record, as written by the leaders and founders of the CSA themselves, is absolutely clear; the primary cause of the Civil War was the national divide over slavery. The Southern states seceded because they saw Lincoln’s election as a threat to slavery. The cause was not “states’ rights.” State’s rights is a general concept, which clearly the Southern states disagreed with whenever it resulted in Northern states dragging their heels on the federal Fugitive Slave Law. The only states’ right that the South was overly interested in was the particular right to slavery. Even then, the position of the CSA government was actually antithetical to states’ rights; the CSA mandated that all states allow slavery.
The issue of tariffs sometimes gets dragged out when discussing the cause of the Civil War as well, due to South Carolina’s near-revolt over tariffs in the early 1830s. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work very well as an explanation for anything by the time of the Civil War. Tariffs were at a historic low in 1860, and a Republican-backed proposed tariff increase was only able to pass Congress after the South’s secession and the withdrawal of Southern congressmen. Further, no secession declaration even mentions tariffs, aside from a passage in the Georgia declaration which actually declares that the South won on the tariff issue as far back as 1846. Some Confederate leaders would claim taxation as a reason for their rebellion in post-war years; however, these are the same men, such as Stevens and Davis, who declared slavery to be the only issue of consequence before and during the conflict. Other than a minority of South Carolina secessionists like Robert Barnwell Rhett who were outvoted at their convention, no leading secessionists even considered the tariff worthy of being mentioned.
To briefly address another couple of counterpoints that get raised when talking about the Civil War, usually when someone has become backed into a corner on the subject of the CSA’s devotion to slavery, yes. some states in the Union still had slaves, yes most Northerners were not abolitionists and were fighting to preserve the Union, and yes Lincoln wasn’t such a massive exception to nineteenth century views about race, and he toyed with voluntary colonization schemes for sending blacks back to Africa at times. (He never once proposed forcing anyone to go) None of that matters in the overall context of what started the war, because Lincoln and the Union states didn’t start the war. The CSA states started seceding before Lincoln was even in office. He was never given a fair chance. Nor could he simply let the CSA states go, as is sometimes asserted. What was the Republican platform that threw the South into an uproar when Lincoln was elected? Lincoln didn’t have the power to interfere with slavery where it already existed, so the Republican platform was to ban slavery from expanding any further into the western territories. The CSA did not sit idly on its hands before Fort Sumter; the CSA seized federal posts, supplied stolen federal weaponry to pro-CSA forces in Missouri despite the majority in that state being against secession, and laid plans to invade and seize Kentucky, Maryland, and D.C itself, as well as the western territories (which they later carried out with Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign, intended to reach California.) Co-existence with the Confederacy would only have been possible had Lincoln sacrificed well over half the country to the Confederates, likely including states and territories that decidedly did not want to be part of the CSA, not to mention ignoring his constitutional responsibility to keep the country together and put down insurrections. War of Northern Aggression is doubtlessly the least accurate title anyone has ever come up with for the war.
In regards to the CSA flag itself, the point should be made that no variant of the CSA flag, naval jack or otherwise, can be divorced from the fact that it was a standard of a rebellion launched in the interests of preserving and expanding the institution of slavery. In that regard, every CSA flag, Stars and Bars, national flag, or otherwise, carries the same overtones of slavery and violence, which is why the Stars and Bars were adopted by groups like the KKK and states in the 1960s protesting against racial integration.
To reiterate, there is no doubt many of the people who want to view the Confederate flag as a symbol of their heritage are just interested in honoring their ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, and don’t wish to believe that their ancestors fought for slavery. Not only is that fine, that is, in many instances, true. The motivations of individual soldiers however, don’t tell us much about the root political cause of the war. This has always been true in all wars; the reasons men fight very often don’t line up exactly with national or international politics. How many men who fought in Vietnam were real believers in the domino theory? The point here is you can honor your ancestors without trying to whitewash the history of the Confederate States of America. Many men who fought for the Confederacy were no doubt honorable in a nineteenth century context. But the cause of the Confederacy and the overall aim of its very existence was to perpetuate and spread the institution of slavery across North America, and even beyond. The Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. The cause of the Confederacy was morally repugnant, then and now. The CSA is a part of the South’s heritage, yes, but it is a dark, horrible, and yes, hateful part of that heritage. As a southerner, I tend to think we should celebrate more positive aspects of our history rather than trying to celebrate a treasonous rebellion built on the “cornerstone” of human bondage. Again, I am not trying to demonize every rank-and-file soldier who fought for the CSA as being representative of the CSA’s inherently immoral cause, no more than every soldier who fought for one of the Axis Powers in WWII was. Union general and future President Ulysses S. Grant perhaps summed up the duality of the point I’m trying to make here the best.
” I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”