No, the Confederacy Wasn’t About States’ Rights
The conservative Prager U has a surprisingly accurate video in which military historian Col. Ty Seidule debunks common myths surrounding the Civil War and the Confederacy’s motives for seceding. Let’s break down those myths below.
1. The South wanted States’ Rights.
Perhaps the most popular justification for honoring Confederate generals and symbols is the idea that the Confederacy was fighting a just war for State Sovereignty against a federal government that overstepped their bounds at every turn.
This justification is entirely fabricated. According to the articles of secession from Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina, the Northern States’ use of States Rights to violate the Fugitive Slave Act was one of their main reason’s for seceding.
What was the Fugitive Slave Act? Simply put, the Fugitive Slave Act was a federal law requiring that slaves found in free states be returned to their owners in slave states. Confederate secession was due in part to perceived free state violations of this law.
Given that multiple Confederate states listed the rebellious acts of individual states as causes for secession, the idea that the South cared about states rights should be considered a myth by all impartial readers.
2. The North didn’t need farmhands.
Another false myth perpetuated about the Civil War is that the North didn’t need slaves because they were heavily more industrialized. This explanation, as Seidule points out, is overly simplistic.
The National Park Service points out that while the North definitely had an advantage in terms of industrial power, 40 percent of their population was still involved in agriculture that produced half of the nation’s corn, 4/5 of the nation’s wheat, and 7/8 of the nation’s oats.
That 40% of the Northern population didn’t just magically disappear. While they did have access to more machinery, the fact of the matter is that farmhands in free states were still allowed to come and go freely as they wished. Only in the South did slavery remain an integral part of the agrarian economy.
3. Slavery wasn’t the main issue.
The Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, would beg to differ. In his famous Corner Stone speech, Stephens repeatedly made one thing clear about the Confederacy: “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.”
He would then go on to say that the Union was “attempting to make things equal that the creator had main unequal.” in the Corner Stone speech which mentioned slavery 5 times before going on to issues of implementing the Confederacy for the long term.
Don’t just take his word for it, though. Just look at the Georgian articles of secession, which referenced the “anti-slavery” attitude of the North eleven times. Or the Mississippian version, which states that their position is “thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”
Still not convinced? Take a gander at South Carolina’s articles of secession. While they did introduce with a lengthy exposition on the importance of State Sovereignty, it was clear that the sovereignty they desired was the ability to keep slaves and have them returned should they escape to a free state. That’s why the articles refer to an “increasing hostility on the part of non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.”
It’s also why the article explicitly referred to “The right of property in slaves” established by the 3/5 compromise which counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of allocating House Representatives to each state.
“Wait.”, some may say. “If the Founding Fathers were okay with slavery, to begin with, why does the South catch all the flak?”
The reason is simple. When the Declaration of Independence was written, there was no reference to slavery. Instead, the eternal proposition that “all men are created equal” was inscribed on paper and sent to King George III in order to declare the U.S free from British rule.
While the U.S should definitely be reminded of its imperfect beginnings, the fact of the matter is that the center of U.S revolution was not concerned with Slavery. Instead, concerns about taxes, authoritarianism, and colonial rule were at the center of the U.S rebellion.
Long story short, if slavery didn’t exist, the U.S would still have rebelled. The Confederacy, on the other hand, would never have been born in the first place.
4. The GOP is the Party of Lincoln
The issue of political parties isn’t addressed in the video, but it’s so relevant I decided to address it myself in this article.
You see, right now there’s a popular piece of right-wing propaganda that flares up in conjunction with controversy about Confederate paraphernalia. In essence, it states that Democrats were the real party of slaves, while Republicans were a party founded on the principle that slavery was wrong. That claim is a half-truth.
Yes, in the 1860’s, generally speaking, Democrats were the party of slavery, while Republicans were the party of abolitionists.
At the same time, the Confederacy was formed in reaction to Lincoln’s election.
This presents a dilemma. If Lincoln was anti-slavery, and the Confederacy was formed by Democrats in reaction to his election, wouldn’t that make the Confederacy… an inherently pro-slavery institution?
The answer is yes, the Confederacy was pro-slavery. At the same time, though, people who stand up for statues of Confederates are on a whole right-wing spectrum that ranges milquetoast Republican to literal neo-nazi.
If the bit about the GOP’s status as the party of Lincoln is the end of the story, wouldn’t the Confederate Flag be waved to irritate Republicans?
The answer to that question is yes as well. So what gives? Basically, the parties you see today were re-aligned in a process that culminated in Nixon’s Southern Strategy, in which the Republican Party decided to appeal to white males in the South as their best shot in maintaining power.
As a result, modern Republicans are to Civil War Democrats what Modern Democrats are to Civil War Republicans. The GOP is no longer the party of Lincoln – which is why right-wingers are waving the flag of the country he fought against in the first place.
A Final Note
As a native Texan, I often wonder just what about Southern Heritage the Confederate Flag is supposed to emulate. After all, the values I was raised with as a Texan include being nice, saying “yes ma’am”, opening your house and your hearts to guests, respecting your elders, measuring distance in hours, and taking your tea sweet by default. Those things can exist without a historical allusion to violent White Supremacy.
If we Southerners want to be proud of our culture, maybe it’s time we ditched the battle flag in favor of something a little more in touch with our values.