by Jack Hunter
When a group called the Confederate Heritage Trust decided to hold a “Secession Ball” in Charleston, South Carolina, commemorating the 150th anniversary of South Carolina leaving the union, the event made national headlines. MSNBC host Ed Schultz said, “Conservatives in South Carolina are celebrating the destruction of the United States.” Schultz’s guest, civil rights activist Al Sharpton, said the event celebrated “treason.” Charleston NAACP president Dot Scott said “there’s nothing we can see where there should be a celebration of the Confederacy, not from our vantage point.”
Not surprisingly, each of these liberal critics assumed that only one vantage point need be considered–that of liberals.
The older I get, this “Southern Avenger” has come to recognize and accept that the War for Southern Independence means different things to different people. For generations, many Southerners remembered it with pride as a struggle for independence against a tyrannical government, similar to the American Revolution. Many other Southerners, and particularly black Southerners, consider it a reminder of slavery and the institutional racism that would linger for a century after. Both views contain much truth–and both are inadequate to tell the entire story.
And it is how the Confederacy’s story has been told–and the fact that those who’ve shaped the narrative have been almost entirely hostile to their subject–that continues to bother Southerners like me the most.
For starters, the notion that Southern secession was “treason” is technically true–and about as dumb as calling a father who refuses to report his pot-smoking son to the authorities an “enemy of the state.” When the 13 colonies seceded from England, were they committing treason? British authorities certainly thought so, though the colonists themselves didn’t think of themselves as traitors and neither did much of Europe. Much of Europe would also support the Confederacy.
Secession is a political act, similar in its ends to civil disobedience. Were Sharpton and his fellow 1960s civil rights protesters trying to “destroy the United States” in their struggle to resist an unjust political machine? Many white Southerners at that time certainly thought so. Yet, these so-called “agitators” were actually patriots who understood that loyalty to their own people sometimes meant defying the government. In fighting for the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee declared that his first loyalty was to Virginia, not Washington, D.C. This is patriotism proper, and those who say otherwise have a rather bizarre and perverted view of that term.
Another thing liberals are not quick to admit is the degree to which they seem to have a natural aversion to anything that takes power away from the central government. This sort of big government, quasi-socialist mentality is simply part of their political DNA. Never mind that it has been states’ rights that continue to keep gay marriage legal in some states. Never mind that it is a de facto nullification of federal drug laws in California that keeps medicinal marijuana legally available. Never mind that the most active secessionist movement in the United States today is the left-wing Second Vermont Republic, which seeks a better socialism for the Green Mountain State.
Still, these basic democratic and decentralist principles, championed by everyone from the ancient Greeks to Thomas Jefferson, remain nothing but sinister code words for racism in liberals’ minds. But is liberals’ anti-racism, in this regard genuine? Some of the earliest examples of nullification were states that resisted fugitive slave laws, in which federal law dictated that escaped slaves must be returned to their masters. Eric Foner, a fairly establishment historian with a preference for centralized government, writes of the abolitionists’ states’ rights arguments: “Radicals in some states invoked the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798-99, in which Jefferson and Madison had claimed for the states the power to challenge or even override national legislation… . Some Republicans spoke of nullification.” Abraham Lincoln critic and author Thomas DiLorenzo has noted that Foner praises Lincoln for denouncing nullification and upholding the Fugitive Slave Act, which sent escaped slaves back into bondage because it was the “rule of law.”
So was Lincoln pro-slavery? When the Southern states seceded, Lincoln supported adding an amendment to the Constitution that would forever protect slavery under federal law. Lincoln hoped this might coax the South back into the union. Obviously, it didn’t work. So when praising Lincoln today, why isn’t this rather significant detail part of the “Great Emancipator” narrative? Because his admirers prefer to portray a wholly benevolent leader.
When civil rights leaders commemorate the memory and legacy of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, or most recently the 15th anniversary of 1995′s Million Man March in Washington, D.C., why do they leave out of their celebrations well documented examples of anti-white rhetoric and anti-Semitism? Because they prefer instead to stress the many positive aspects of black nationalism. And they should.
When Southerners commemorate the memory and legacy of their Confederate ancestors by holding a “Secession Ball,” why do they leave out of their celebration slavery and the other negative aspects of that time period? Because they prefer instead to stress the many positive aspects of Southern secession. And they should.
Copyright © 2008 The American Conservative