In our previous post, Winning Progressive made a reference to South Carolina being a state that continues to celebrate treason by flying the Confederate flag at the state capitol and having Confederate Memorial Day as a state holiday. Our pointing out that fact has raised hackles among some commentors, who have suggested that the Civil War was not about slavery, that secession was not treason, and that calling out folks who continue to celebrate such secession is somehow offensive. These commentors are simply wrong from an historical perspective, and the only thing offensive here is the thought that people are still celebrating a war primarily motivated by slavery that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans 147 years after it ended. Following is our response.
In December 1865, the state of South Carolina voted to secede from the United States. Less than three weeks later, South Carolinian troops fired on an unarmed ship bringing supplies to Fort Sumter, an American fort located in the harbor of Charleston. South Carolina’s aggression touched off the Civil War, which led to nearly 250,000 combat deaths, and approximately 625,000 total deaths over the four year war.
In December 2010, the South Carolina Secession Gala was held in Columbia to celebrate the 150th anniversary of that state’s decision to secede. Unfortunately, that was far from the only such celebration of secession that occurred. As the New York Times reported:
And yet, as the 150th anniversary of the four-year conflict gets under way, some groups in the old Confederacy are planning at least a certain amount of hoopla, chiefly around the glory days of secession, when 11 states declared their sovereignty under a banner of states’ rights and broke from the union.
The events include a “secession ball” in the former slave port of Charleston (“a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” says the invitation), which will be replicated on a smaller scale in other cities. A parade is being planned in Montgomery, Ala., along with a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy.
In addition, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and some of its local chapters are preparing various television commercials that they hope to show next year. “All we wanted was to be left alone to govern ourselves,” says one ad from the group’s Georgia Division.
These celebrations of secession were highly disturbing for two major reasons. The first is that they are celebrating actions that occurred specifically to defend slavery, i.e. the “right” of whites to own African Americans as property. Defenders of the Confederacy often claim that the Civil War was about “states’ rights,” not about slavery. But this claim represents, at best, willful blindness to reality, as the states that left the U.S. made clear at the time. For example, here are the Declarations of the Causes of Secession of four of the Confederate States – South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, and Georgia. As you will see, they are rife with discussions of slavery and the North’s efforts to end slavery as the cause of secession and the resulting Civil War. Mississippi stated it perhaps most clearly, identifying as the “immediate causes which induce and justify” 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.
That paragraph is what, in effect, the secession galas occurring here in the 21st Century were celebrating. It is truly repulsive.
The second major problem with the celebrations of secession is that they also glorified treason. Treason is defined as a violent crime that undermines one’s country. And that is exactly what the Confederates committed. Not willing to work through the political structure established by our Constitution and laws, or to accept that ones beliefs and interests do not always prevail in a democracy, the Confederates took up arms against their own government, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and the destruction of untold numbers of cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
The celebration of the slavery and treason involved in secession and the Civil War is morally reprehensible and is a textbook example of what the term “un-American” means. Now some might respond that while celebration of secession and the Civil War is certainly offensive, why does it really matter? Obviously, we are not going to return to slavery in the U.S. and the chances of another Civil War is extremely slim. But we believe that the continued celebration and glorification of the Confederacy is wrong for at least two reasons.
First, such glorification simply continues the scar of racism and prejudice that has marred our nation’s history. Obviously we have made significant progress toward realizing the ideal of equality in our country. But racism, both direct and institutional, is still with us. And we can never truly move beyond that history until, at a minimum, we stop glorifying the institutions that carried it out.
Second, secession and the belief that states can nullify the actions of our democratically elected federal government continues to be a popular and disturbing view in the U.S. While no longer about justifying slavery, in just the past few years we have seen Republican state governors like Rick Perry in Texas float the idea of secession because Congress passed a moderately progressive health care reform law, enacted a stimulus bill that stabilized our economy, and passed basic financial reforms to try to keep our financial system from melting down again. Meanwhile, Eric Cantor, one of the leading Republicans in the House, has announced his support for a Constitutional Amendment that would allow 2/3 of the state legislatures to overturn any federal law. And the Republicans’ 2010 Senate candidate in Nevada, Sharron Angle, frequently talked about resorting to “Second-Amendment remedies,” i.e. armed resistance, if the federal government continued passing things like health care reform. The underlying premise that political disputes should be resolved through secession or violence, rather than through democratic processes, is not healthy for the stability of our political system.
The simple fact is that America will thrive and succeed to its fullest only if we recognize that we are all in this together regardless of our race or of the state or region we live in, and that we have established methods under our Constitution for both determining the will of the majority and protecting the rights of the minority. Glorifying slavery, nullification, and secession runs counter to these values that are critical to the strength of our nation. It is far past time for all of us to move beyond the Civil War and to celebrate and glorify the values of equality and democracy that make our nation great, not the slavery, violence, and hatred that tore our nation apart.