The recent events in Charlottesville and the movement to remove confederate memorials across the South have again inspired confederate apologists to cry, “It wasn’t about slavery!”
Oh, but it was.
For generations we Americans have been taught that the American Civil War was a bloody disagreement over states’ rights. Something about tariffs, and Northern fabric mills forcing down prices of southern cotton, and broken promises made in the U.S. Constitution, all of that. Oh, yes, and slavery, but that wasn’t really an issue.
I don’t know why even public education hid behind this fig leaf for so long, especially here in Colorado, whose militia fought on the Union side at Glorieta Pass (the shame of Coloradans’ actions in that conflict can be discussed another time.) It may have something to do with the identity of Americans, and that it is simply incomprehensible that red-blooded Americans would, by the hundreds of thousands, betray their country in the most massive act of treason in human history, all to retain ownership of other human beings. Or maybe because, even among the majority of Americans north of the Mason-Dixon Line, negroes were considered inferior to “real” (European) human beings prior to the Civil war. In the aftermath, with all those negro men, women, and children suddenly granted something theoretically akin to equality with us God-blessed white people, well … it couldn’t have been all about slavery, could it?
In the age of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Tuskegee Airmen and Martin Luther King, Jr., it was simply unacceptable to believe that our valiant, brave southern brethren had died by the thousands to protect … slavery! There had to be a more noble cause. No poor white farmer scratching a living from the Mississippi dirt could be induced to fight to protect some plantation owner’s right to own slaves, could he?
Oh, yes, he could, and with very plausible reason.
Meanwhile, the monuments, the statues, the glorious heritage of the Stars and Bars was all swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the rest of the nation, and spoon-fed to us children of the post-World War II generations.
It was, we would later learn, all bullshit.
And we would learn it from some of the people most learned about the war. Shelby Foote, one of the most respected writers of the South, writes in his three-volume narrative of the war, “The North opposed (the South’s) dream of southern expansion by opposing the extension of slavery, without which the new southwestern territory would be anything but southern. Attracted by the hope of so much gain, and goaded by the fear of such a loss, (Jefferson) Davis and his cohorts adopted more drastic actions, including threats of secession …. (They) informed the North quite plainly that unless slavery was extended to the territories, the South would leave the Union.” [Foote, Shelby. “Prologue – The Opponents.” The Civil War: a Narrative, vol. 1, Vintage Books, 1986, pp. 13–14.]
In February 2011 Prof. James Loewen, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader,” wrote in the Washington Post that the Civil War was, if not exclusively then certainly primarily, about protecting the institution of slavery in North America. He debunks five myths about “why it all began,” and the very first one is that myth about states’ rights.
“On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina’s secession convention adopted a ‘Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.’ It noted an ‘increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery’ and protested that Northern states had failed to fulfill their constitutional obligations by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage….
“Slavery, not states’ rights,” wrote Prof. Loewen, “birthed the Civil War.” [Loewen, James. “Five Myths about Why the South Seceded.” Washington Post, 25 Feb. 2011.]
But why rely on a Vermont university professor? Why not go straight to the source?
Indeed, in declarations of causes of seceding issued by Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, all five states specifically cite slavery and the anti-slavery movement of the North as primary motivations for secession.
From Georgia: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.” [“The Reasons for Secession.” Civil War Trust, Civil War Trust, www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/reasons-secession]
From Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.” [Ibid]
From South Carolina: “Those (northern) States have assume (sic) the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.” [Ibid]
From Texas: “Texas abandoned her separate national existence and … was received into the confederacy … as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy.” [Ibid]
From Virginia: “The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.” [Ibid]
If you read the five declarations in their entirety, you’ll see that at no time is any other “injury” mentioned. There’s no mention of tariffs, of unfair or illegal cotton price rigging, no mention of anti-agrarian policies of any kind. The sole and complete reason for secession, it is clear from these documents, is that southerners were promised by their fellow slaveholders in the 18th century that slavery would be permitted but, in a sudden and outrageous fit of 19th century conscience, that promise was being broken.
So yes, my little racist snowflakes, the Stars & Bars, the Civil War, the deaths of 620,000 American soldiers and 50,000 civilians was all about slavery, pure and simple.
But why, we ask, would poor southern boys, who had no hope of owning slaves, fight to protect slavery? Let’s go back to Prof. Loewen’s op-ed piece. It’s true, he said, less than half of white Mississippi households owned one or more slaves, and in “whiter” states like Virginia and Tennessee, the ratio was even lower. And, in some areas, the people opposed the war; West Virginia broke away from Virginia over the issue of slavery, and the confederates had to resort to military occupation to hold some southern areas in line.
But, according to Loewen, there were two reasons poor southerners were willing to fight for the confederacy; hope of someday owning slaves, and the belief in white supremacy.
“Americans are wondrous optimists, looking to the upper class and expecting to join it someday,” Loewen wrote. “In 1860, many subsistence farmers aspired to become large slave-owners. So poor white Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people (supported) the extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy ….” [Loewen]
And then there’s this gem of enlightenment about us Americans:
“(B)elief in white supremacy provided a rationale for slavery. As the French political theorist Montesquieu observed wryly in 1748: ‘It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [enslaved Africans] to be men; because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.’ Given this belief, most white Southerners — and many Northerners, too — could not envision life in black-majority states such as South Carolina and Mississippi unless blacks were in chains.” [Ibid]
So let’s not quibble over this “reason” issue any longer. The South seceded from the United States of America and treasonously waged war against the U.S. government for one reason and one reason only – to protect the right of white people to own black people.
And they want to raise monuments to that?