In the past few decades, Southern states have witnessed fervent and ongoing propaganda and activism for and against the presentation of Confederate imagery in public life. Nationwide, both great affinity and intense disdain are directed toward this same topic. Some influential groups continue to advocate for the removal of an increasing number of Confederate symbols, flags and monuments from common areas where people of many different viewpoints and sensitivities share space, especially on government property. Others seek to honor Southern heritage, as they describe it, by maintaining habits such as displaying the flag at state-owned facilities, wearing clothing that prominently shows the symbol and keeping statues in place. While aware that these actions are considered very offensive and hurtful to the former group, the latter group justifies these actions with a well known explanation. They say that one reason Confederate imagery does not represent hatred toward blacks is that the Civil War was not fought primarily about slavery. This belief disagrees with generations of research conclusions from the vast majority of professional historians. There is a lot of readily accessible and potent evidence available for fact-checking.
The most blatant proof is in either the speeches that Southern leaders gave to explain their reasons for leaving the Union, new proposed legislation designed to protect slavery without succession, or the official documents they wrote to justify and establish the Confederacy’s existence. Each Southern state thoroughly and officially named slavery as the cause for their succession.
Another important reference is the famous “Cornerstone Speech” from March 21st of 1861, offered by Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy. (Seven states had already left the Union. Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated on March 4th and the Civil War would begin on April 12th.) I think that anyone who takes Stephens’ words seriously will quickly see that the idea and oppressive institution of white supremacy was a central and immovable element within the Confederate mindset and civilization. Dozens of other Confederate leaders wrote and spoke about this in very similar ways to Stephens’ words here:
“…our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
A significant portion of Stephens’ presentation is dedicated to explaining the inherently subservient character of black people and the towering superiority of whites. In the most well known section, he made a grand statement in bold opposition to the idea of equality between all men. Many of the early American founders differed from him in that they believed slavery was unethical by definition, though possibly an insufficiently justified “necessity” in colonial life. Stephens commented:
“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its 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.”
He made it crystal clear that the principle of racial inequality was the central platform from which all Confederate values and activities sprang forward:
“This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth….[The Confederacy] is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.”
Raising the “Rebel Flag” and trying to deny the racist core of the obvious historical meaning therein is futile and delusional, even if various modern proponents themselves may be well meaning, sincere and non-racist. Some images, traditions and belief systems are just so corrupt and flawed in their content and history that the only sensible and humane decision is to abandon them as active customs – even though they may have been seen for many generations as deserving reverence and admiration.
Prominent mid-20th century moderate conservative historian Harry Jaffa commented on Stephens’ message in that “this remarkable address conveys, more than any other contemporary document, not only the soul of the Confederacy but also of that Jim Crow South that arose from the ashes of the Confederacy.”
In the years leading up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, several now famous statesman such as John Jay and Patrick Henry overtly explained in writing that they wished to see slavery abolished. The Declaration of Independence‘s author, Thomas Jefferson, had asserted there that “all men are created equal” and yet notoriously possessed over 200 slaves at various times in his life. He was, however, well aware of the immorality and absurdity of slavery. The heavy judgment he foresaw awaiting future generations made him weary:
“There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him.”
Benjamin Franklin owned slaves and was also torn in his conscience over the inhumanity of the practice:
“Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils.”
Stephens further explained his reasoning and that of the Confederacy in writing their new constitution and breaking away from the United States. He was convinced that their particular principles and way of life would eventually lead to triumph as a great society without need of the former Union or other countries as long as the Southern people stayed true to their values. He desperately wanted peace. Even at this late date, he hoped that the American government would just let them go without bloody conflict. He was quite optimistic that this might happen, partly because seven Southern states had already seceded in recent weeks without violence. He thought that the Republicans of the North were hypocritical because while they would not allow new slave territory to be established they would also not give up the slave-based income and related taxes that their state governments had been receiving for generations.
This longer excerpt from Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech” provides further key details and context regarding the quotes included above:
“The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time…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 government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’…Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its 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…[Northerners] were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”