The Corner

Politics & Policy

‘Why Was the Confederacy Founded? And Why Was the United States?’

Not all slippery slopes are slippery in the same way. You slide down some because you started out with an arbitrary distinction; you slide down others because you overlooked a sound distinction. It’s possible that removing Confederate monuments will result in our eventually dynamiting the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. But if so, we will have slid down the second kind of slope. To understand why, ask the questions above.

Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, had no doubt about the answers. Consider these words from his 1861 “Cornerstone” speech (which I thank my colleague Rick Brookhiser for bringing to my attention):

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. . . .

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. . . .

. . . 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.

Race slavery was essential to the purpose and self-understanding of the Confederacy, which was founded expressly to preserve the peculiar institution. It was not essential to the purpose and self-understanding of the United States, and the United States became truer to its founding principles when slavery was abolished (for reasons that I elaborated here). That doesn’t mean we should shrug off the moral enormity of certain Founders’ slave ownership. But it does mean that we can reject those Founders qua slaveholders even as we honor them for dedicating our nation to ideas that would not tolerate the enormity.

A couple of years ago, I said that my view of Confederate monuments was “not so much that they should cease to exist as that they never should have existed.” Perhaps some of them could be altered or re-contextualized in ways that acknowledge the moral chasm separating the Union from the Confederacy. But what I believe must cease to exist on public property, and should cease to exist on private property too, is any monument that romanticizes the Confederate cause or presents it as just or honorable or good.

Today, President Trump tweeted that “you can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” That is correct. The problem is that Confederate monuments as they exist today provide a miseducation. The most charitable thing, if not necessarily the most plausible, that can be said of Trump’s wish to preserve them is that he himself received that miseducation and has now joined the faculty.

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