I’d like to take a moment to apologize for something I did a few days ago. It was a foolish thing. I was rash. And I did something wrong. I went ahead and wrote a Facebook post with, what I thought, was an insightful statement in favor of the removal of celebratory Confederate monuments from public properties by the democratically elected officials of the public entities that control said properties. After a few nice folks from my Facebook page took the time to let me know that I was wrong and then went on, at length, to explain the Constitution of the United States of America, a good deal of American history and what the actual meaning of historical context is, I realized that perhaps I had it all wrong. And to be fair, I meant no harm. I guess I just really hadn’t considered all those things. Or really thought it through.
These folks were also quick to point out, usually in their first line or so, that they didn’t like slavery. Which is good. Because I don’t either. In fact, I think it was a terrible institution. But what my new friends were kind enough to point out was that the conclusion that I had drawn, that slavery was the reason for the Civil War, was wrong. And now I’m pretty sure I understand how I got it all mixed up.
I guess when I took the time to read through the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, and it cited the violation of the Constitution by northern states on two accounts, first not returning fugitive slaves and second a broader intent to abolish slavery, I thought that it meant the words that it said. And when I read through all of the other Declarations of Secession, and places like Georgia, Texas and Virginia all clearly cite protection of the institution of slavery as their primary cause for secession, I naively believed them.
Additionally, when Mississippi even went so far as declare that, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.” I originally thought that they meant that literally, since they voted on it, wrote it down, and then signed it. What I now know, thanks to my many new friends, is that they were clearly using the abolishment of slavery as an example of the type of thing that made them want to secede, not the actual reason. And that my grand folly has really been my lack of ability to find other official types of things that were documented to support that opinion. It’s likely I was just looking in the wrong places over the last twenty years of reading or writing my capstone for my degree in history from a military service academy.
To be fair though, it’s hard to fault me. It was pretty easy to get mixed up. After all the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens said a bunch of really confusing things. Like this:
“Our new government…foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.”
Again, I’m guilty of taking Mr. Stephens literally. And I clearly missed the historical context of it all. Because what I didn’t see that he really meant was that federal government overreach is bad. And that freedom and liberty were way more important than anything else. He didn’t say it. But he meant it. That’s a statement I can get behind. Because it’s just like the problems with Obamacare. Too much government, even if the facts don’t support a better alternative. It’s starting to make a little more sense to me now.
One other note. I shouldn’t get too bent out of shape by the whole “negro not equal to white” comment Stephens said. It was a really long time ago. And everyone thought that way. Focusing on it is once again, me missing the “historical context”.
The one nuance that I really missed though was that secession was actually because of the Constitution, not in violation of it. The Constitution was, after all, something the states needed to ratify and agree to. It’s very existence was a statement of the rights of the states to form a union. Again, I think that I was just reading too much Alexander Stephens. Because I believed him when he said, in the same speech, the following about Thomas Jefferson and the ideas of the founding fathers:
“Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”
Again, if you go ahead and take Stephens literally, it sounds like he’s saying that the Constitution was wrong with his words. What he’s saying with his heart though, is something else. I’m just not sure what, because it’s not written down or supported by any facts. But my new friends were very certain of it. So I guess they’re on to something. It’s really my own fault for for insisting that the unreasonable burden of historical reality be met when I form my opinion.
This is starting to sound like I’m making excuses for myself. I’m not though. But to be fair, I also think I spent too much of my time thinking about the fact that more Americans died in the Civil War than all other wars combined. And that I was making too big a deal about the pre-emptive bombardment of Ft. Sumter that started the whole thing when it was still possible or even likely that peaceful secession was an option. Or about the time when Robert E. Lee invaded Pennsylvania with his army that was responsible for more American combat deaths than any adversary in history, though he was pardoned and died in his own bed of natural causes. I guess when I spend too much time on those things, the lens I look through makes it a little hard to see the message many have been so kind to point out to me on my Facebook page. That of the abstract discussion of the principle of state’s rights.
There’s just one thing I need to square away. And it may be a hard one. There are people whose present day lives have been materially impacted by the institution of slavery. The members of the African American community, who are still only one full generation removed from state sanctioned apartheid and the mathematical socio-economic impacts of it really have a hard time getting on board with the message of the Confederacy being something to commemorate with celebratory monuments. You see, it’s really hard for them to make that smooth transition into a more sophisticated and principled state’s rights debate. And they may even view those who are seamlessly able to as insensitive or maybe even a bit racist. Racism being defined as holding opinions subject to the criteria of race after all.
There’s Good news though. They don’t have to feel that way anymore, at least not according to those who were so kind to re-educate me on the Civil War and American history and the notion of historical context. Because what they taught me, is you can just have an opinion or feel a specific way about the past by simply saying it is so. And they don’t at all have to be laden with the troublesome burden of fact and real world experience. And once you cross that bridge, you can feel any way you want about anything. Because the lesson I learned above all else, is that it’s not the future that’s really a choice. We’re stuck there. It’s the past that we can change. So that the future we need to control, doesn’t.