That Confederate flag business

Despite all the historical revisionism from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the South attempted to secede from the Union in order to preserve slavery. The various Declarations of Causes issued by states of the Confederacy make that clear beyond all doubt. South Carolina's initial declaration specifies "... increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery ...". Mississippi's declaration is quoted here in its totality:

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. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory.

The feeling increased, until, in 1819-20, it deprived the South of more than half the vast territory acquired from France.

The same hostility dismembered Texas and seized upon all the territory acquired from Mexico.

It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.

It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.

It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.

It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.

It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.

It has enlisted its press, its pulpit and its schools against us, until the whole popular mind of the North is excited and inflamed with prejudice.

It has made combinations and formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation in the States and wherever else slavery exists.

It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better.

It has invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives.

It has broken every compact into which it has entered for our security.

It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system.

It knows no relenting or hesitation in its purposes; it stops not in its march of aggression, and leaves us no room to hope for cessation or for pause.

It has recently obtained control of the Government, by the prosecution of its unhallowed schemes, and destroyed the last expectation of living together in friendship and brotherhood.

Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.

Our decision is made. We follow their footsteps. We embrace the alternative of separation; and for the reasons here stated, we resolve to maintain our rights with the full consciousness of the justice of our course, and the undoubting belief of our ability to maintain it.

Tariffs? Taxes? Not mentioned. What the declarations have in common is the notion that secession was undertaken to protect slavery.

Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone Speech" made the matter quite clear when he stated that "slavery . . . was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution" and that protecting it was the "cornerstone" of the new Confederate government. Jeff Davis explained the secession of Mississippi by saying that "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."


In short, I think it's reasonable to judge the rationale of the Confederate states for attempting to secede by the statements of their own leaders. And those statements leave no doubt that the rationale was racist to the core, and motivated by a desire to maintain the institution of slavery.

It's another matter entirely to speak of re-naming army bases or other public property named after Confederate generals. Honorable men may fight for a dishonorable cause. Many of them fought for the dishonorable cause of the Confederacy. I see nothing remotely offensive in commemorating their courage and their other positive qualities. Nor should anyone even think of suppressing the right of individuals to display the Confederate flag, regardless of their motives. Contrary to the theory of allegedly "free" speech espoused by our friends in Europe and in Canada, there can be no question of "finding a balance" between free speech and the sensibilities of individuals and groups, however much those sensibilities may merit our sympathy. There is no right not to have one's feelings hurt. And if the vilest and most reprehensible of speech is not protected by the First Amendment, there can be no question of free speech even existing. Who, after all, decides what speech is acceptable, and what crosses that theoretical line marking the "balance" between free speech and "hate speech?" A country which proscribes "hate speech" cannot claim to enjoy freedom of speech at all, any more than a woman, to use Lincoln's analogy, can "surrender some of her virtue."

Racism, bigotry and hate should be confronted, not by legal sanction, but by universal revulsion, abhorrence, and disapprobation. But for the government at any level to display as an official symbol something whose inherent meaning embodies racism is another matter. That is simply boorish and stupid. Freedom of speech does not exist to protect the rights of governments, but of individuals.

I'm bemused by the inability of so many conservatives to see that, for example, while drawing cartoons of Mohammed ought to be protected by the First Amendment, to deliberately insult the beliefs of a religious minority- whatever the motives- is nevertheless intolerant, boorish, reprehensible, and childish. It ought not to be illegal- for individuals. But while individuals ought not to be prevented from drawing and displaying cartoons of Mohammed, they shouldn't.

Nor should individuals display the Confederate flag- which, on any showing, is the symbol of a cause whose bottom line was the inferiority and continued enslavement of African-Americans.

Individuals should not be prevented by law from doing so. But for governments to use symbols such as the Confederate flag- or, for that matter, the swastika- on their flags and seals or for official displays on government buildings is a fundamentally different matter.

Fort Bragg should remain Fort Bragg. Jeff Davis's statue, though, should be removed from the Kentucky capitol, just as Sen. Mitch McConnell advocates. His major historical significance, whatever his other sterling qualities may have been, was as the embodiment of an inherently racist cause.

Nobody should be prevented from displaying the Confederate flag, But the practice shouldn't be condoned by people of good will even if private citizens are doing the displaying. And on no account should government at any level use it as a symbol.


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