How to Fight the Confederate Flag: Know History, and Know It Well

It gives me great pleasure to see that South Carolina has stopped flying the Confederate Battle Flag on the Capitol. I think that it is extremely unfortunate that this step forward did not take place until a Confederate Flag-toting rabid white supremacist murdered nine people. But what I wanted to focus on in this blog post is the importance of historical knowledge for opponents of the flag. After all, the issue of the Confederate flag will not be going away anytime soon, as it is still displayed in many places, including the Mississippi state flag. And if the fight against its display is going to be successful, those of us who rightly see it is a symbol of racism need to be able to demonstrate that this position is historically accurate. There are two basic lines of defense about the Confederate Flag. The first line of defense acknowledges that the South seceded to protect slavery but argues, “It’s our history.” The second line of defense, the one that I am focusing on in this piece, is that the South did not secede primarily to protect slavery. The people who spout this defense have a historical narrative. This narrative is relatively easy to disprove, but it is a narrative nonetheless, and it can sometimes persuade people who are not history buffs. Thus, the conclusive historical evidence proving that the South seceded over slavery, which can be found through a combination of historical documents and deductive reasoning, needs to be shown to the public as much as possible. People who want to see the Confederate Flag removed from public property, excluding museums, and want to persuade private citizens to choose to stop flying it, have to be able to counter Neo-Confederate historiography. This is especially important, because if the South did not secede mainly to protect slavery (it most certainly did), then none of our other arguments are effective. If we argue that the Confederate Flag has been frequently used by white supremacists, defenders of the symbol can point out that the Bible and American flag have been as well. If we argue that the Confederate Flag offends many, probably most African Americans, then we are unintentionally deflecting blame. By saying, “Maybe the flag doesn’t stand for slavery, but if it’s hurtful to so many people, so why not just take it down?” people are inadvertently suggesting that African Americans are in some way to blame for this controversy. If only, the implication goes, African Americans weren’t so sensitive, it would be O.K. to fly the flag. We must use the historical evidence and compelling arguments to demonstrate that people of all races who find the flag offensive are indeed correct. We must prove to the public that the Confederate Flag was not “corrupted,” by later generations but rather that it always stood for slavery. And we must vigorously make the case that even if many of the soldiers who went to war under the flag were not fighting to protect slavery (indeed, many were drafted), it is impossible to divorce a military flag from the government that said military fought under. Additionally, it is vital to show that slavery was THE primary cause of secession, not just one of a variety of major causes. Otherwise, people may point out that slavery existed for many years under the American flag. The difference between America and the Confederacy is that white supremacy was the main reason for the foundation of the Confederacy, while there were multiple major causes for the Revolutionary War. Of course, it could also be pointed out that America eventually banned slavery, while the Confederacy never did. To help people who want to bring the attention of the public to the centrality of slavery for Southern secession, I am posting a number of quotes.

“In 1820 the North endeavored to overturn this wise and successful policy and demanded that the State of Missouri should not be admitted into the Union unless she first prohibited slavery within her limits by her constitution. After a bitter and protracted struggle the North was defeated in her special object, but her policy and position led to the adoption of a section in the law for the admission of Missouri, prohibiting slavery in all that portion of the territory acquired from France lying North of 36 [degrees] 30 [minutes] north latitude and outside of Missouri. The venerable Madison at the time of its adoption declared it unconstitutional. Mr. Jefferson condemned the restriction and foresaw its consequences and predicted that it would result in the dissolution of the Union. His prediction is now history.”–Georgia Declaration of Secession

“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.”–Mississippi Declaration of Secession

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; 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.

By the secession of six of the slave-holding States, and the certainty that others will speedily do likewise, Texas has no alternative but to remain in an isolated connection with the North, or unite her destinies with the South.”–Texas Declaration of Secession

“The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. 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.”–South Carolina Declaration of Secession

“The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”–Virginia Ordinance of Secession

“It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.”-Jefferson Davis, Farewell Address to the U.S. Senate

“The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.”–Confederate Constitution defends states’ rights … by making it illegal for individual states to prevent visitors from bringing slaves into their borders.


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