Neo-Confederate Mythology, Racist Realities and Genuine Southern Heroes
By Tim Wise
April 13, 2010
Am I the only one who finds it a bit too coincidental that in the midst of a political season in which conservative whites can be heard screaming that they “want their country back,” the Governor of Virginia should declare April “Confederate History Month?” Or that others would be clamoring for the inclusion of a “Confederate Southern American” identity box on the decennial census forms? I mean, damn, waxing nostalgic for the 1950s is one thing, but the 1860s? Quite telling, to say the least.
And yes, I know, the Governor’s proclamation wasn’t really about desiring to fondly remember everything about those days, and certainly not the less palatable aspects of the period such as the enslavement of African peoples. Slavery, after all, wasn't even mentioned in the proclamation. Rather, Governor Bob McDonnell was just trying to remind all good Virginians (the white ones at least) that they should deign to honor their ancestors who fought so valiantly for a cause they believed in. That the cause in question was, well, ya know, slavery, is but a minor quibble, which "doesn't matter for diddly," in the immortal words of self-proclaimed "fat redneck," and Governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour.
For this last sentence--specifically the part where I note the centrality of slavery to the southern cause--I can now expect to receive literally hundreds of angry and rambling e-mails from neo-Confederates insisting that I have committed a “heritage offense.” To suggest that the Confederacy's purpose was in any way the maintenance of slavery is, to these folks, a vicious and untrue calumny, placed upon the heads of their brave forefathers unjustly by leftists and liberals, beholden to Yankee propaganda, and unwilling to see the finer nuances of antebellum ideology.
But aside from the fact that so-called Yankees are perfectly capable of doing first-rate historical research on the period and discerning the true causes of the North/South conflict at the time, the fact is, I am no such breed of animal. I am a southerner, and most of my family has been in the South, going back at least 250 years, and in some cases, all the way back to the Virginia of the 1630s. In other words Bubba, and as Flo used to say on that TV show, Alice, you can “kiss my grits.”
Several of my family members served the Confederacy in battle. Whether or not they understood the battle to be about slavery (and let’s not kid ourselves, most all southerners at the time knew full well that maintaining the institution of enslavement was the point of their breakaway government), their leaders made clear that this was the very purpose of the confederacy. So, if we are to remember history, we must surely begin with this fact: that whatever sacrifices confederate soldiers made, they made them for an underlying mission that was evil; a mission that cannot be sanitized, scrubbed clean of all inculpatory evidence, and turned into something valiant and worthy of positive commemoration.
What the Confederacy Was Not About
To suggest, as the neo-confederates do that the seceding states left the Union to preserve "state's rights" as a principle--separate and apart from the right to maintain slavery in those states, specifically--is absurd. After all, the rights that southern leaders felt were being impeded were specifically those rights tied to the maintenance of the slave system, and its extension into new territories in the West, recently added to the nation as a result of the war with Mexico. Because the Republican Party and Lincoln were "free soilers"--dedicated to banning slavery in the new territories--the slaveocracies of the South were convinced that their economic systems would be crippled over time, as they became outvoted in the Congress, and as the nation moved to a free labor system, as opposed to one deeply reliant on enslavement.
That the only "state's rights" being fought for were the rights of said states to operate a slave system was attested to by southern leaders themselves. In December of 1860, Alabama sent commissioners to the other slave states to advocate for their secession. One of the commissioners was Stephen Hale, whose job was to persuade Kentucky to leave the Union. In his letter to the Governor of Kentucky, he asked and answered the question as to which "state's rights" were being violated by the North.So too, the conflict was not about trade and tariff issues, as often claimed by the revisionists. Although the South had long opposed high tariffs on goods from England--which had a disproportionate impact on the South because they raised the cost of goods the region needed and which were not locally produced, and also made it more costly for Britain to purchase southern cotton--by the time of secession, the tariffs had been cut dramatically. Alexander Stephens, who would become Vice-President of the Confederacy noted as much when he spoke to the Georgia legislature in 1860, explaining:
"…what rights have been denied, what wrongs have been done, or threatened to be done, of which the Southern states, or the people of the Southern states, can complain?" he asked. In the very next paragraph he offered the answer, clearly and unmistakably:
"African slavery has not only become one of the fixed domestic institutions of the Southern states, but forms an important element of their political power, and constitutes the most valuable species of their property…forming, in fact, the basis upon which rests the prosperity and wealth of most of these states…It is upon this gigantic interest, this peculiar institution of the South, that the Northern states and their people have been waging an unrelenting and fanatical war for the last quarter of a century. An institution with which is bound up, not only the wealth and prosperity of the Southern people, but their very existence as a political community…They attack us through their literature, in their schools, from the hustings, in their legislative halls, through the public press…to strike down the rights of the Southern slave-holder, and override every barrier which the Constitution has erected for his protection."The fact is, the worst of all tariffs ever imposed--known in popular lore as the Tariff of Abominations--had been most harshly enforced during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, a Southerner. Yet no state save South Carolina ever threatened secession over this "mother of all tariffs," suggesting that it alone (or others like it, even less harsh) would hardly have been a significant contributor to the rupture of 1860-1861.
"The tariff no longer distracts the public councils. Reason has triumphed...The present tariff was voted for by Massachusetts and South Carolina. The lion and the lamb lay down together--every man in the Senate and the House from Massachusetts and South Carolina, I think, voted for it…(the duties) were made just as low as Southern men asked them to be, and those are the rates they are now at."
Wearing Their Racism On Their Sleeve: The Real Reason for Secession
Not state's rights, not tariffs, but slavery and the desire to maintain and extend its reach was the reason for southern secession, for the creation of this putrid confederacy the Governor of Virginia (and the legislatures of several other southern states) would have us commemorate. CSA Vice-President Stephens explained as much in crystal clear detail when he noted that the Confederate government's "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 moral condition."
In this address, delivered in Savannah in the spring of 1861, Stephens went on to distinguish the centrality of racism and slavery in the South, from that of all past governmental systems, including the United States:Then in April, 1861, after Virginia lawmakers had voted 2-1 against secession, Stephens traveled to Richmond to implore the state's leaders to change their minds and join the confederacy. In order to convince them, Stephens made what he thought would be his most persuasive pitch, laying out the case for dissolving the union in blatantly racist terms. He noted:
"This, our newer Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. Those at the North...assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights, with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just; but their premises being wrong, their whole argument fails.""One good and wise feature in our new and revised Constitution is that we have put to rest the vexed question of slavery forever…On this subject, from which sprung the immediate cause of our late troubles and threatened dangers, you will indulge me in a few remarks as not irrelevant to the occasion."
He went on to articulate the principle of white supremacy as being central to the ideology of the Confederate government:"As a race, the African is inferior to the white man. Subordination to the white man is his normal condition. He is not equal by nature, and cannot be made so by human laws or human institutions. Our system, therefore, so far as regards this inferior race, rests upon this great immutable law of nature. It is founded not upon wrong or injustice, but upon the eternal fitness of things. Hence, its harmonious working for the benefit and advantage of both…The great truth, I repeat, upon which our system rests, is the inferiority of the African. The enemies of our institutions ignore this truth. They set out with the assumption that the races are equal…hence, so much misapplied sympathy for fancied wrongs and sufferings. These wrongs and sufferings exist only in their heated imaginations. There can be no wrong where there is no violation of nature's laws…It is the fanatics of the North, who are warring against the decrees of God Almighty, in their attempts to make things equal which he made unequal."Only after Stephens's presentation, in which racial supremacy was the clear and singular rallying cry, did Virginia opt to secede, suggesting that their decision was not merely in response to a perceived federal invasion of the South, or state sovereignty in the abstract, but because of the perception that white supremacy and racism were imperiled. One wonders if Governor McDonnell will require that Virginians reflect upon this aspect of their role in the confederacy: namely, that only after being whipped into a racist fervor by appeals to white supremacy did the state's lawmakers even seek to join the breakaway government in the first place.
Additionally, we know that secession and the formation of the Confederate system was about the desire to maintain enslavement of blacks, because of the proclamations made by various leaders of the southern states at the time. Four states issued explicit "Declarations of Causes" for their secession, and in each case their stated reasons specifically spoke to the fear that the slave system upon which they had grown dependent was imperiled. Mississippi, for instance, listed its grievances with the North as follows: the failure to uphold the Fugitive Slave laws, enticing of slaves to run away, the desire to prohibit slavery in the territories, the desire to exclude new slave states from the union, and the desire, ultimately to abolish slavery in all the Union.
When South Carolina's legislature voted for secession, it reported out two documents from its convention. The first was a Declaration of Causes, which spoke exclusively about the increasing "hostility" of the Northern states to the institution of slavery. The second was an address to the other slaveholding states, written by Robert Barnwell Rhett.
In Rhett's document – an exhortation to the other slave states to secede – he argued:"The fairest portions of the world have been turned into wildernesses, and the most civilized and prosperous communities have been impoverished and ruined by Anti-Slavery fanaticism. The people of the North have not left us in doubt as to their designs and policy…they have elected as the exponent of their policy one who has openly declared that all the States of the United States must be made Free States or Slave States…if African slavery in the Southern States be the evil their political combinations affirm it to be, the requisitions of an inexorable logic must lead them to emancipation. If it is right to preclude or abolish slavery in a territory, why should it be allowed to remain in the States?"And when Alabama Commissioner Stephen Hale wrote to the governor of Kentucky in late 1860, after Lincoln's election but before his inauguration, seeking to persuade him to leave the union he argued similarly:"The Federal Government has failed to protect the rights and property of the citizens of the South, and is about to pass into the hands of a party pledged for the destruction not only of their rights and property, but…the heaven-ordained superiority of the white over the black race…Will the South give up the institution of slavery, and consent that her citizens be stripped of their property, her civilization destroyed, the whole land laid waste by fire and sword? It is impossible; she cannot, she will not…"Hale's fanatical commitment to the notions of white supremacy and African savagery was made clear later in the letter when he argued:
"…this new theory of Government (as articulated by the Republicans) destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans…"
He continued by conjuring up the fear that whites and blacks would be made social equals under Republican rule: a fate that, to hear him tell it, was worse than death,Hale then explained that a Southern triumph over the Union would allow the maintenance of slavery as its principal (and only mentioned) benefit, and would serve as a bulwark against black barbarism.
"If the policy of the Republicans is carried out," Hale explained, "according to the programme indicated by the leaders of the party, and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern states. The slave-holder and non-slave holder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side-by-side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life; or else there will be eternal war of races, desolating the land with blood, and utterly wasting the destroying all the resources of the country. Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism, of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?""If we triumph…we can…preserve an institution that has done more to civilize and Christianize the heathen than all human agencies beside—and institution beneficial to both races, ameliorating the moral, physical and intellectual condition of the one, and giving wealth and happiness to the other. If we fail, the light of our civilization goes down in blood, our wives and our little ones will be driven from their homes by the light of our own dwellings. The dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes, be re-enacted in our own land upon a more gigantic scale."Praising Villains and Ignoring Real S/heroes: The Real "Heritage Violation"
Aside from a mere historical dispute however--and truthfully, as the evidence above indicates, there is no real dispute among actual historians--neo-confederate mythology is disturbing for another reason. Namely, it forever tethers the history of the South to the history of a four-year breakaway government, as if the latter can and should speak for the former. It conflates the South and the Confederacy, and in so doing suggests that this is what makes the region special, and that this is what we in the South should be proud of.
Yet, such a purposeful distortion does historical violence to the memory of the brave southerners who fought against racism, enslavement and the subordination of peoples of color. It suggests that the South is better represented by Jefferson Davis than Martin Luther King Jr. or Fannie Lou Hamer, or any of the leaders of the civil rights struggle, almost all of whom had southern roots that ran every bit as deep--deeper in fact--than most of the folks running around in confederate costumes re-enacting long-ago battles. To venerate the confederacy as a proud part of southern heritage is to elevate it to an equal or even superior position vis-a-vis that struggle, and to suggest that one should be just as proud of an ancestor who believed in owning other human beings as with an ancestor who stood up for freedom and justice.
Even for white southerners we surely can point to better role models than this. Why turn to Johnny Reb for sustenance when we have Moncure Conway, Duncan Smith, William Shreve Bailey, John Fee, Virginia Foster Durr, J Waties Waring, Anne Braden, Bob Zellner, and Mab Segrest from whom we might draw inspiration?
Why identify with an ignoble cause led by bigots when we have genuine heroes and sheroes, black, white and all shades between, whose efforts on behalf of human dignity and equality lasted far longer than the lifespan of that wicked confederacy? Why confirm every unjust stereotype about white southerners--which is what neo-confederate nonsense does--by cleaving to a tradition that is forever bound up with racism and white supremacy? In the greatest irony of confederate revisionism, then, those whose apologetics have come to define the movement, do a great disservice to the many antiracist legends whose stories are as southern as their own, and in the process, do a disservice to the south.
It is time for those of us who are proud southerners to reclaim our land, and our story, and our heritage: a heritage that includes all of us. A heritage that is as much about Tuskegee as the University of Alabama, as much about Jackson State as Ole Miss. A heritage that is as much about Medgar Evers as it is about George Wallace. And a heritage that, if we are prepared to fight for it, can be as much about justice in the present and future, as it was about injustice in the past.
Tim Wise is the author of five books on race and racism. His latest is Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, from City Lights.
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