Last summer I had the pleasure of driving through a particularly beautiful part of eastern Tennessee. Slaloming through the Smoky Mountains, I was struck by what can only be described as a kind of patriotic schizophrenia on display outside one of the houses. I was used to seeing both the Stars and Stripes and the Confederate battle flag on display throughout the South, but the resident of this house had, hoisted high above his driveway, a flag that was half American and half Confederate. The Union flag gradually faded into the banner of secession and chattel slavery as the eye moved from left to right across the canvas.
There is, indeed, an assumed compatibility between the Union and Confederate flags across large swathes of the United States. The latter has metastasized into a symbol of regional pride and/or hostility toward the Federal government, while the former retains its monopoly on national allegiance. There are, undoubtedly, real Neo-Confederates out there, but Confederate symbols are not, I think, usually displayed out of a deep and abiding hatred for the inclusion of black people in the American experiment or of William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea. They are usually invoked in a nebulous way as a symbol of “tradition” or “heritage” or “honor.” More often than not, they’re also meant as a middle finger toward progressives, elites, “globalists,” and technocrats by working-class whites who resent a blue America that looks down upon them from a great height. This perhaps goes some way toward explaining why the stars and bars fly over houses in states that never seceded to begin with.
This week, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from all its races and properties. As Americans who have been to a NASCAR race or watched one on television will know, the flag has been a ubiquitous sight at such events for many years. NASCAR made an abortive attempt to limit the exposure of the flag at its races after Dylann Roof’s murder of black parishioners at a Charleston, S.C. church a few years ago, but spectators still waved it proudly and often until this Wednesday. Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s lone African-American driver, was at the forefront of the effort to rid the sport of the flag and deserves the praise of Americans North and South for his spokesmanship on the issue. As a private company, NASCAR is not bound to respect the First Amendment rights of its fans when they are at its races, and it ought to have restricted and stigmatized the flying of this odious symbol a long time ago.
My view is that the lingering affection for Confederate iconography — the flags, the monuments, etc. — among certain groups of Americans stems from a subtle elision of the differences between the American revolutionaries and their secessionist descendants. Even if their cause was evil, the story goes, the valor of the Confederates still places them within the heroic tradition of American resistance to centralized power. In spite of their treachery they are still held to be, at some fundamental level, American in character and in principle by their defenders. The homepage of the website for the Sons of Confederate Veterans claims that “the citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America” and that “the preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.” This attempt to establish some sense of continuity between the causes of 1776 and 1861 comes across forcefully in the “Confederate Catechism” published on the same website, presumably for the purpose of indoctrinating children. President Lincoln is frequently compared to George III, and the response to question eight, “What did the South fight for?” is also the only one given in all-caps: “IT FOUGHT TO REPEL INVASION AND FOR SELF-GOVERNMENT, JUST AS THE FATHERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION HAD DONE.”
As if shouting the answer would make it true.
The fact is that there is vanishingly little in the historical record to suggest any similarity between the cause of the Founders and the cause of the Confederates. The secessionists themselves said this loudly and often. Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens’s Cornerstone Speech, delivered in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861, served as a de facto manifesto for the rebels. In it, he explicitly denounced the racial attitudes of the Founders and the subsequent inadequacy of the Constitution they framed. “The prevailing ideas of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution,” Stephens proclaimed, “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.” He went on to assert that “those ideas . . . 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.’”
It is tempting to dismiss as an undiluted falsehood every utterance proceeding from the mouth of this racist fool, but in his characterization of the Founders he is actually correct. All of the prominent Founding Fathers agreed that slavery was evil. They also thought that unilateral emancipation of slaves would lead to a race war on the American continent. It cannot be stressed enough that this was the overwhelming consensus of anti-slavery statesmen across the world. The options on the table for the Founders, as they saw it, were civil war with the slave states, a race war, or a gradual effort to put slavery on a path to extinction by other means. They chose the third option.
Even the prominent Founders most deeply implicated in slavery recognized that it was wrong. Thomas Jefferson owned a plantation mired by debt, so emancipation of all of his slaves was never a real possibility, but he did manage to free nine of them. He also seconded a bill in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769 to allow slaveowners to free their slaves unilaterally. In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he castigated King George III for having enslaved Africans and for overruling colonial Virginia’s attempt to ban slavery. In drafting a state constitution for Virginia in 1776, he included a clause prohibiting any more importation of slaves and, in 1783, he included in a new draft a proposal for the gradual emancipation of slaves already held in the state. Both times, his efforts were thwarted. In 1784, he proposed a bill declaring slavery illegal in all western territories of the United States. Such a ban would have prevented slavery from being practiced in Alabama and Mississippi. It lost by one vote, that of a legislator too ill to come to the floor. Afterward, Jefferson lamented that the fate “of millions unborn” had been “hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment.”
When we turn our attention to George Washington, the case for any continuity between the Founders’ cause (not to mention their moral fiber) and that of the Confederates collapses altogether. In accordance with Virginia law, Washington freed all of his slaves upon the deaths of his wife and himself. In his will he instructed that slaves too old or too beset with “bodily infirmities” to look after themselves should be taken care of by his estate, and all slave children were to be “taught to read and write” and trained up for “some useful occupation.” His estate continued to support some of the freed slaves for decades after he had died. When the Marquis de Lafayette purchased a plantation for freed slaves to live on, Washington praised him as an example for the country: “Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it.” He also left behind slaves that he took north with him after he completed his terms as president and returned to Virginia, freeing them “on the sly,” as one biographer wrote. And he tried to sub-let much of his estate so that his slaves “might be hired by the year, as labourers” by tenant farmers. He was looking for a way, as he put it in a letter, “to liberate a certain species of property which I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings.”
Of course, Washington and Jefferson still owned slaves in the first place, and they can still be criticized for failing to do more to end the practice. But what cannot be doubted is that insofar as the cornerstone of the Confederacy was what Stephens odiously called the South’s “peculiar institution,” the rebels were irretrievably outside of the American political tradition established by these men. Abraham Lincoln himself summed up that tradition well in an 1859 letter:
All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
According to a U.S. Army official, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper are said to be open to holding a “bipartisan conversation” about renaming nearly a dozen major bases and installations that bear the names of Confederate military commanders. There is no reason why this renaming should not take place. American history is replete with men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion for the values that the Union flag has proclaimed at home and abroad for nearly a quarter-millennium. Those who led a bloody rebellion against that flag to preserve an economy of human subjugation were traitors to the nation our military serves; they don’t deserve to be honored.
“But what about the common Confederate soldiers?” you might object. “Many of them owned no slaves, and fought for the wrong side on account of sheer accidence of birth.”
This, of course, is true. These men should be remembered and honored by their descendants . . . but not as Confederate soldiers. Let them be fondly recalled as fathers and loved ones, in family anecdotes, and in treasured photo albums just as the beloved departed are in every American family. Let their legacies extend beyond an infernal cause they didn’t care for and a conflict they didn’t choose. Was the life of your great-grandfather, O Son of Confederate Veterans, not worth more than the bitter excretions of Alexander Stephens? Did he not raise a family, or worship God, or once help a friend in dire need? Insofar as he did, he was as American as Betsy Ross, but insofar as the thrust of his bayonet was driven by the desire to hold the image of God in bondage, he has no place in the annals of American valor.
Take the battle flags down from wherever they fly, rename the bases, and let’s enjoy the rest of the NASCAR season.