Celebrating a Myth

Bookmark Edward Ball‘s opinion piece from The New York Times.

Robert Ariail, Spartansburg Herald-Journal, December 15, 2010The next five years will include an all-you-can-eat special of national remembrance. Yet even after 150 years full of grief and pride and anger, we greet the sesquicentennial wondering, why did the South secede?

I can testify about the South under oath. I was born and raised there, and 12 men in my family fought for the Confederacy; two of them were killed. And since I was a boy, the answer I’ve heard to this question, from Virginia to Louisiana (from whites, never from blacks), is this: “The War Between the States was about states’ rights. It was not about slavery.”

I’ve heard it from women and from men, from sober people and from people liquored up on anti-Washington talk. The North wouldn’t let us govern ourselves, they say, and Congress laid on tariffs that hurt the South. So we rebelled. Secession and the Civil War, in other words, were about small government, limited federal powers and states’ rights.

But a look through the declaration of causes written by South Carolina and four of the 10 states that followed it out of the Union — which, taken together, paint a kind of self-portrait of the Confederacy — reveals a different story. From Georgia to Texas, each state said the reason it was getting out was that the awful Northern states were threatening to do away with slavery.

It’s hard to figure. Even living in the far corner of the continental U.S. from the former Confederacy, one could still find supporters of the cause. Like the guy who lectured me once for a half hour once when I was fourteen about how Martin Luther King, Jr., cheated on his wife. Sure, King was most of a century after the war, but here’s the thing that, twenty-some years later, still confuses me: Is it that no white men ever cheat on their wives, or was this one of the first time I encountered that strange argument about how white people are treated badly compared to blacks?

That sounds silly, I know, but it’s hard to convey the particular tone of the discussion. I was being taught a secret, sacred lesson of American Truth that the ignorant masses didn’t—couldn’t understand. The Klan, by this narrative, was like an organization of chivalrous knights, riding around to the rescue of victimized women and orphans.

And, certainly, it certainly rattles one to consider the august Lord Acton‘s defense of the confederacy, except that even so eloquent an argument refuses a fundamental American principle:

In a great speech at the beginning of the movement, Mr. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, spoke these words: “The corner stone of our new government 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. Our new government is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Here, then, was a society adopting inequality, not as the natural product of property, descent and merit, but as its very foundation — a society, therefore, more aristocratically constituted than those of feudal times.

And, yet, those immortal words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Lord ActonOf course, one can certainly point out that the Declaration isn’t binding in any judicial sense, and that’s fine. But still, we forfeit the Revolution almost from the outset with the retention of slavery and the institution of the three-fifths rule, unless, of course, we dehumanize black people. To the eye of the late twentieth century, this seemed absurd, as anyone could see a black person was human.

This is the sort of rabbit hole the discussion falls down any time it comes up, though in truth it doesn’t come up among people actually speaking face to face. Not much around here, at least. But even Lord Acton could not get around that central point, so he celebrated it:

The Southern slave owner was in contradiction to the two principles which animated the democracy of the Northern states. He denied the absolute essential equality of all men in civil rights; and he denied the justice of the doctrine that the minority possesses nothing which is exempt from the control of the majority, because he knew that it was incompatible with the domestic institution which was as sacred to him as the rights of property. Therefore the very defect of their social system preserved them from those political errors which were transforming the original characters of the Northern republics. The decomposition of democracy was arrested in the South by the indirect influence of slavery.

Inequality. The decomposition of democracy. Denied the justice of the minority. Every valence of the argument requires exclusion from humanity. This is the cornerstone of the myth.

And yet, as South Carolina goes forward with its sequisentennial celebration, we find the myth alive and well:

NAACP members and supporters plan to hold a peaceful march in downtown Charleston the day of the ball, on Dec. 20, followed by a meeting and question-and-answer session focusing on slavery. Participants will watch segments of “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 silent film that portrayed Ku Klux Klan members as heroes.

Nearby at Charleston’s Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, ball attendees, who will pay $100 a ticket, will don formal, period dress, eat and dance the Virginia Reel as a band plays “Dixie.” The evening’s highlight will be a play reenacting the signing of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession 150 years ago, which severed the state’s ties with the Union and paved the way for the Civil War.

“This is nothing more than a celebration of slavery,” Randolph said of the event.

Members of the S.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans, a co-sponsor of the ball, say slavery was one of several issues that caused – but it was not the cause – of the Civil War.

The ball is a way to honor the brave S.C. men who stood up to an over-domineering federal government, high tariffs and Northern states that wanted to take the country in an economic direction that was not best for the South, said Mark Simpson, the S.C. division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

As we wallow through the next five or so years for the benefit of our neighbors in the southeast, it is essential to remember that it really is just a festival of bluster and noise to hide that inner, necessary component. As Ball reminds:

From Georgia to Texas, each state said the reason it was getting out was that the awful Northern states were threatening to do away with slavery.

South Carolina: “The non-slaveholding states … have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and “have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes.”

Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. … There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.”

Georgia: “A brief history of the rise, progress, and policy of anti-slavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the Federal Government has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia.”

Several states single out a special culprit, Abraham Lincoln, “an obscure and illiterate man” whose “opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Lincoln’s election to the White House meant, for South Carolina, that “the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

In other words, the only state right the Confederate founders were interested in was the rich man’s “right” to own slaves.

National remembrance, indeed. It would do us well to remember what it really was all about.

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