The Corner


Re: The Dishonorable Confederate Battle Flag

Thank you, David and Jonah, for your separate replies to my post on the Confederate battle flag.

As a native westerner, I may be unattuned to the sensibilities of southerners whose ancestors fought and suffered in the Civil War. Nonetheless, there are important principles at issue. So I beg the reader’s attention as I explain and clarify myself in response to my colleagues’ criticisms.

David challenges my claim that the Confederacy had an incoherent idea of sovereignty. I meant its belief in a right of lawful secession, a right of the states to secede at will and in consistency with the Constitution. This is incoherent because it deprives the Constitution of the character of law. It makes the Constitution present itself as optional. The idea that the states might nullify federal laws was incoherent in a similar way. The idea of revolution is perfectly coherent, but the South had no right of revolution, because the main reason for such a revolution would have been to continue violating natural rights by practicing slavery. The best starting point for thinking about the legal question is Lincoln’s first inaugural address. The best starting point for thinking about the moral question is Lincoln’s second inaugural address. I said a few exegetical things about them here.

Of course I do not believe, as Jonah put it, that “every southerner with a Confederate flag on [his] bumper sticker . . . support[s] Roof’s ideology — or [is] too stupid to realize [he does].” But the flag does have an original meaning. This is a matter of historical fact. It was a battle flag of an army fighting for the existence of the Confederacy, and the Confederacy wished to exist in order that it might exist as a slave state. The battle flag was in fact first proposed as a Confederate national flag and only later taken up by Lee’s army. The use of the flag by modern white supremacists is not an adventitious development, but a logical outgrowth of the original meaning. And that should be enough for everyone to stop using it, whatever he may mean by it. No comparison should be made to the American flag, by the way, because even though the United States has done unjust things — including practice slavery — these injustices were not part of its very purpose.

I do believe, against David, that if someone’s cause is morally and legally illegitimate, then he should not receive our approval: both his means and his end should have to be just in order for us to memorialize him. What I think about Confederate monuments is not so much that they should cease to exist as that they never should have existed. Since they do, let the American flag fly over them, silently repudiating them to the ages.

I am not “attack[ing] history,” as the title of David’s reply has it. By all means, every American should study what the Confederacy and the United States did, and he should even feel a certain sense of the South’s tragic grandeur. What I do object to is a romanticized southern interpretation of history according to which the Civil War was somehow a clash of reasonable purposes and those who served the Confederacy are to be placed on a moral par with those who served the United States. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, “defending history since 1896,” assure us, for example, that “the citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution. The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built.” This is delusional. And it is no affront to history to say so.

Thanks again for the exchange.

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