The Confederate States of America hasn’t been in operation for a century and a half. Nevertheless, after a photograph of mass murderer Dylann Roof holding a toy-sized Confederate flag flashed onto television and computer screens, “Take it down!” became the newest meme burning through social media. The trustees of The Citadel voted to remove a Confederate battle flag from the campus chapel. Walmart emptied its shelves of items featuring the most minute images of the flag. In Gettysburg, the battlefield’s on-site gift store announced that it “will no longer sell stand-alone items that solely feature the Confederate flag, including display and wearable items.”
I don’t have much personal investment in, or use for, the Confederate flag. I’m a Lincoln biographer and Civil War historian, from the town that gave the Confederacy its most serious defeat. The flag was the emblem of a regime based on what Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens called “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.” On those terms alone, the flag’s defenders ought to take the advice of the Confederacy’s most famous poet:
Touch it not — unfold it never;
Let it droop there, furled forever . . .
Furl it, hide it, — let it rest!
But there is also a substantial civil-liberties question at stake here, especially in the context of campaigns for trigger warnings, denunciations of micro-aggressions, prosecutions of Evangelical florists, and a claimed “right to be undisturbed by anything.” Banning displays of the Confederate flag threatens to acquire an association with banning Ovid, the absurdities of carrying a mattress as simultaneous protest and performance art, and the dubious editorial judgment of Rolling Stone.
Dealing with the Confederate flag really involves asking two questions. The first is whether the “Southern Cross” flag actually is a sign of racial hate. Only the most self-deluded can tell me that white racial supremacy was not the core of what made the Confederacy; so, to the extent that the flag represented that Confederacy, it is. South Carolina’s secession ordinance in 1860 stated as clearly as anyone could wish that secession was a response to the election of Abraham Lincoln, “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Mississippi followed South Carolina into secession, declaring that “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest in the world.” Jefferson Davis in his inaugural address as the Confederacy’s provisional president accused Lincoln’s Republicans of “surrounding [us] entirely by States in which slavery should be prohibited . . . thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless.” This, at least, was obvious to Southerners then. “The South went to war on account of Slavery,” admitted the famed Confederate guerrilla captain John S. Mosby. “South Carolina went to war — as she said in her Secession proclamation — because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln.”
After the Emancipation Proclamation, after Appomattox, and after the 13th Amendment, slavery was as dead as Marley’s doornail, and so was the Confederate flag, which practically disappeared from popular view until D. W. Griffith’s infamous epic, The Birth of a Nation. It was taken up again by the second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and by segregationists in the 1950s. But it also acquired a number of other meanings — libertarian resistance to centralized government, the hostility of an agrarian society to capitalism, the defiance of the loner, even a free-spirited Duck Dynasty goofiness. Defenders of the flag will want to argue that racial animosity is not its only message, or even its principal message, anymore, and they have a point that people who see race and only race in the flag should take it a little more seriously.
One thing that has gotten lost in this sound and fury is a meaning in the Confederate flag more obnoxious even than its racial message, and that is treason. When Union general Alex Hayes jubilantly trailed a captured Confederate flag in the dust behind his horse after the failure of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, he was not doing it because of any particular concerns about race but because he saw the Confederate flag as a fist shaken at the United States. “We believed then, and believe now, that we had a good government, worth fighting for, and, if need be, dying for,” said Ulysses S. Grant. Which is why the old veterans angrily refused to participate in mixed “blue and gray” reunions if the Confederate flag was to be displayed, and declared that “the flag of treason should be suppressed.”
This is the voice that has not been heard. Partly, that is because, in an increasingly globalized and cosmopolitan culture, of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, the idea of treason sounds antiquated, even slightly medieval; and partly, it’s because the cultural Left has never, since the Rosenbergs, been able to regard treason against the United States as a genuine crime. Neo-Confederate partisans curl the lip at this, too, as they have for 150 years, insisting that an attempt to overthrow the Constitution was actually completely consistent with the Constitution.
However strong the reasons for banning the flag as an ensign of hate, or however blurred with affection and non-conformity the flag’s meaning has become, we are talking primarily about perceptions, about how people feel about the flag. But treason is a legal fact, and anything that minimizes it is an offense to all Americans.
The second question is Who should do the taking down? In places where the Confederate flag is displayed on public property, the answer is clear: The people, through their representatives, have the authority to take down whatever they wish to take down.
But that will not remove all the difficulties, because the line between public and private has become so blurred. If the Confederate flag should be removed from state-funded flagpoles, should it also be removed from state-funded museums, or from privately held museums that are open to the public? Should living-history programs with Confederate re-enactors (and their flags) be banned from National Park Service sites? One could argue that these are strictly historical displays, and aren’t intended to send the same message that Dylann Roof sent — but that then begs the whole question.
So, here is my proposal. The Confederate flag was and is a symbol of many things, and in racial matters, a symbol of profound offense. But its most undeniable and constant meaning is rebellion. It is the emblem of treason, not only in 1861 but at any time someone defends the legitimacy of secession. Therefore, let every American who thinks treason is a crime take down the Confederate flag, and ask others to do likewise. And when (or if) we are refused, let us turn our backs on it, and dishonor it.
That is the response of the free citizen.
– Mr. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College and the author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.