History

An Open Apology to the Confederacy

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.

 

 

 

25 replies »

  1. Thank you for standing your ground and doing the thorough research, even if the deniers continue their denial.

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  2. I was borne in Georgia long enough ago that all of those arguments, in a slightly less apologetic form and far more assertive in terms of rectitude, are familiar to me as my grandfather’s front lawn. I have Confederate relatives on both sides of my family. It’s a bit of a bitter pill to absorb the truth of that look-away time, but absorb it one must.

    The other day it occurred to me that in Germany, while there may be monuments to their war dead, and rightly so regardless of the nature of the regime they defended, there are no monuments to the Nazis. Nazi regalia, at least in Germany, ist verboten. I don’t say that African American slavery is the equivalent to the Holocaust; drawing such historical parallels is suspect at best.

    I will say that when I read Timur Vermes’ chilling satirical work, Look Who’s Back, I found the slogan of Hitler’s resurgent party quite disturbing in its implications: “It wasn’t all bad.”

    I guess that depends on who you ask.

    So here’s the thing: civilization requires progress, and that means understanding our own mistakes. Racism is one of the many mistakes we humans have made, and I’m always reminded of the Star Trek episode where the two aliens pursue each other because, though both are black on one side and white on the other, they were so on opposite sides. That rather points out the ultimate idiocy of racism in blunt terms.

    Well-written piece, Sean. Well-written.

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  3. I appreciate the education on the actual reasons for the secession, but I still don’t understand why some southerners today have the need to display the confederate flag or other war items on vehicles, homes, etc.? As Sean pointed out, more people died during the civil war than in any other. We reunited as a country at the end of the war. No matter the reasons for the war, because it is still a reminder of a terrible time in our country’s history and the amount of deaths that occurred, why would anyone want to display such items? Can someone help me understand this?

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    • Because of the fact that of ALL the several Confederate Flags this was the ONLY one in use that the Stupid Politicians that listened to the rich folk and got the States in a war.. Never Voted as the Confederate Flag.
      Then How come It’s THE Confederate flag?
      Because when the Politicians listened to the tiny fraction that actually own slaves.. and lots, and lots of land and Money.
      They pretty much screwed the pouch, know one knows who fired the first shot at Fort Sumpter.
      It is as likely to be a drunk southerner as northerner.
      or a Sutler who wanted to make sure he sold his wagon load.

      Oh.. the Flag.. yah..
      – They kept voting flags that they thought were “cool”.. one looked so much like the stars and stipes your column could almost walk up next to and enemy position before you realized it wasn’t your guys. That was enjoyed as must as the preachers daughter singing hymns in a bordello.
      – Then the fools went the other way they made a flag so white.. the other side kept mistaking it for a surrender flag. Now you might as well have the Youngest daughter in there going room to room passing the hat greeting everyone by name.
      – and so on the last one wasn’t so bad.. but really by that time the Battle flag of the Army of North Virginia the one everyone just started using while the nitwits made up their tiny little minds, she was our flag.. and the politicians were still idiots.

      — So you read papers by the idiot politicians who put our families at risk. And laugh at us for following them. Every Time they gave us something to follow, signed paper, or blowing flag, they risked our lives and the lives of our families. Did we think the enemies politicians were better Why they were nothing but fool bags of wind as well blowing blood, death and rapine across the farms we knew and many we passed on our march. We kil’t many of them, and they kil’t many of us. All dead to the glory of Fool politicians, some did come march and die with us there is a kind of wisdom in death. You never make a fool of yourself again.

      — When it came to an end.. You’ll never guess what happened.
      Politicians.. yup.. They would grab our flag wave it and point over there and say, See I’m not a fool Politician like those guys.. I am… Whatever the current flavor of politics was.. Why because They weren’t fools like those over there.

      And they weren’t.. they were brand new fools all in their own right. This was the Flag of those who put up with fools, bleed and died protecting their own and their neighbors often with their dead bodies.

      And today you laugh at our dead.. Read the word of your new high priests, the Politicians.
      Explain to use how these men who gutted themselves on bayonets, fell shredded by cannon, died in the jakes bowels running like water, and left family home wondering. Did all these thing for these magic words many couldn’t read.. and had no interest in, beyond asking why those idiots risked the live of his family over this.
      And you add more words, of more idiot politicians, from more times, think’n possibly if you make a big enough pile.. it will suddenly not be just more hog manure.

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  4. Nice work as usual, Sean. Two quotes for you:

    Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. -Aldous Huxley

    I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it. -George Bernard Shaw

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  5. Sean, sorry – biting criticism becomes less biting and more tiresome after the first few hundred words. Your points well taken, but don’t pretend that there is no other, legitimate, non-racist side to this issue.

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      • When the Horse has one foot raised they were injured, when it is rearing upraised they died.. at least tradition was.

        The horse riders may have been among the fools that started the war..
        many weren’t.
        . . But at least those that came served amid the blood and death that the Followers of the Confederate flag that Never Was struggled with to save their families, neighbors, and songs.

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  6. It is vital that we recognize and remember our actual history, learn from it, and intentionally choose different ways of relating that value all people, rather than ignore what happened or revise it. As the saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Repentance that moves us to new and more loving action is a good thing.

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  7. So, those statues were not removed for the benefit of those offended by them they were removed for the benefit of those not offended by them. I get it now.

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  8. Sean, you are a true American hero. Thank you! I have sent this post to many of my family and friends because it is so poignant and spot on. Again, thank you for so thoughtfully and insightfully sharing your views on the American experience, and the direction we should be striving to move in.

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