I Went to Public School in Virginia and This is Not About History
When I was in elementary school, I was a massive civil war nerd. I was also not particularly tactful. I liked to drop my pencil on my desk with a little extra gusto when I was the first one done with a quiz. It was this relish for the “plus” after my “A” that lead me into a bit of a dilemma in our unit on the Civil War.
I was most of the way through the test when I came to a question that I knew was inevitable: “Why did the southern states secede from the union?” I knew the answer. Slavery. Easy. But I also knew from previous weeks in class that the answer that would get a check mark was different. “States’ rights.” I knew from quizzes past that, not only was the correct answer “states’ rights,” but that “slavery” would be an option as well and would be marked wrong if I chose it.
Those of you who have read anything else I’ve written about the Civil War and particularly the recent controversy surrounding monuments to Confederate generals and politicians have probably heard me state as fact that the Confederacy was formed to preserve the institution of slavery and went to war to defend it. Perhaps this struck some as a little brash. Perhaps a little forward. Perhaps I may have given the impression that I was trying to provoke or to stir up discontent. That is not the case. I argue that the Confederacy was a slaveholders’ republic that went to war to preserve their white supremacist social order and the “peculiar” institution upon which their economy depended, not for rhetorical impact, but because they said so themselves.
In the “Declaration of Causes” it produced to explain its secession from the Union, the state of South Carolina dedicates almost half its text to the issue of slavery. The fine people of Georgia, in a similar pronouncement, use the word “slave,” “slavery,” or “anti-slavery” thirty-five times. The state of Mississippi begins their own brief declaration, which consists solely of a list of seventeen “dangers to the institution,” by stating the following:
“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.”
In this environment, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s famous “Cornerstone” address is simply another rock on the pile. It is frequently cited, however, for excellent reason. Stephens lays out a handful of principles on which the new republic was founded.
The first is the idea that the federal government should not be able to regulate interstate commerce. At the time he made the speech, the portion of the U.S. Constitution that gave the federal government that ability was widely regarded as the most straightforward way that interventionist progressives like Abraham Lincoln could disrupt the slave trade. Alexander Stephens used different words but he spoke of slavery.
The next principle was a procedural tinkering with the role of cabinet members and how they could be selected to serve in the Federal government. I am unaware of how or if that particularly principle related to slavery but it seems unlikely that eleven states would leave the Union and wage war over a quibble with the finer points of federal bureaucracy.
He proceeds to extol the virtues of the Confederacy’s six year presidential term and one-term limit. He states that this is a “decidedly conservative” change and that “It will remove from the incumbent all temptation to use his office or exert the powers confided to him for any objects of personal ambition.” It’s possible this is yet another incident of procedural cork-sniffing, but more likely it fits into a longer pattern of dog-whistling to fears of progressive change. Insulating or inoculating politicians against public opinion is a centuries old means of curbing reform and liberalization. In this context the liberalization Confederate states most feared was that of the federal government’s position on slavery. Again, Stephens uses different words, but he speaks almost certainly of slavery. Which brings us to the most famous part of the speech:
"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. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
"In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world."
The Union was made up of a patchwork of radical abolitionists, true progressives, colonizationists (of which Lincoln was one for at least the first years of the war), moderates and pro-slavery unionists. Abraham Lincoln waged a war first and foremost for the preservation of the Union. His vision, though, was of a union rid of slavery. The politics of the Confederacy, however, brook no such ambiguity. The South seceded to preserve the institution of slavery. Full stop. Period.
Soldiers who fought for the Confederacy fought for that cause. Politicians who served in its institutions did so because they believed in the subjugation of black people and their perpetual bondage. Generals who commanded Confederate armies did so in the service of a slave holders’ republic. There is no legitimate disagreement to be had with those settled facts and arguing them is to argue with those politicians' and generals' own words.
It is in this context that my eyes roll involuntarily at the mention of historical preservation and heritage by defenders of Confederate iconography. This was never about history. History is an impediment to the glorification of the Slaveholders’ Republic. It is a thorn in the side of a cause that would see the evil of slavery minimized to the status of a historical footnote.
As a studious elementary schooler ten minutes into a social studies test, my head was free of such politics. I had not yet read the articles or declarations or speeches. But I knew. Something struck me as odd that I should have to choose between a perfect score on my test and accurately reflecting truth as I understood it. If it were ever about history, a child would not have been presented with such an absurd choice. I know that our worship at the feet of Confederate idols has nothing to do with history because I got a perfect score on that test. I chose an answer I knew to be false and got a pat on the back but I know better now and I’ll never choose so poorly again.