The Confederacy Issue in the United States | Ethan Liddell
Overview of the issue
There seems to be a prominent issue about whether the Southern States in the US and citizens within them should be allowed to show symbols and flags from the Confederacy era, as well as an issue of Confederate remnants popping up more frequently. There have been countless times that I’ve seen the Confederate battle flag (a.k.a. the ‘Stars and Bars’ flag) being waved in the US, whether it be at a Trump rally or just from a Southerner, but why? This starts with the fact the South used to be a Confederacy, following their secession from the US in the early 1860s, as the two were heading in very different directions in terms of economy. The South’s economy was made up of slavery and focused on agriculture, whereas the North was industrialising. But the South did not plan to change and knew that the Union were becoming more of a threat to their economy. Knowing this, shouldn’t it be reasonable that anything from the Confederacy is automatically viewed as wrong? Yes, but it isn’t as simple as we would hope as there are still people in the US that refuse to change. In this article, I wish to not only give you context to the Civil War and why it’s still relevant today, but also my own opinion.
Why do some still express support for the Confederacy?
To begin, we must ask one question: why is there a debate in the first place? Surely if the eleven Southern States that made up the Confederacy based their entire existence and character on slavery, it would be accepted that having pride in the South is racist in itself. I personally agree that showing support for the Confederacy is not only disgusting, but also ignorant. Where I acknowledge there were other issues during the Civil War, it cannot be denied that the Civil War was predominantly about slavery, and those trying to deny that slavery wasn’t the main cause of the war are only creating more division. Those who claim this usually bring up two reasons; (1) Lincoln’s claim about not wanting to destroy slavery and (2) it was about states’ rights. I will explain exactly why both of these are wrong.
Addressing the first claim, during the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln kept trying to push the rhetoric that the conflict isn’t completely about slavery, instead, he said it was to preserve the Union. This is why some claim that Lincoln didn’t really want to end slavery, they say he was more focused on other issues, but this is not true. Lincoln had a plan, we can see this in a letter sent to Horace Greeley (an editor who criticised Lincoln’s lack of ‘direction and resolve’)in 1862: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery”. His hope was that he could stop the secession and gradually change the South as President. I believe that due to his difficult position Lincoln only said this so he did not anger the Southern citizens any more than they already were, realistically he knew what he was doing and still wanted to abolish slavery, as he did once the war was won, but it certainly wouldn’t help to admit this at the time. So, those who claim that Lincoln still wanted slavery completely fail to understand the position that Lincoln was in, before and during his election into office, as well as the fact he went down in history as the man who led his country through a bloody war to free the slaves.
The second claim is even more popular amongst those that show support for the Confederacy, it is simply false that it was about states’ rights. Obviously, there was conflict about states’ rights, the US was a young country, it did not have the institutions and laws in place that it does today. Significant ones would be certain federal laws, that clarify the relationship between the states and the government as well as balancing powers. But it wasn’t the main cause and direct reason for the war. If the secession was apparently about state rights, there likely wouldn’t have been a war, it must be remembered that the Confederates fought in the name of oppression, they did not fight in the name of protecting states or extending freedom and democracy, they cared about keeping their riches and keeping their slaves.
The remnants of the Confederacy debate
I believe there are two reasons why those who fly Confederate flags and defend any sort of remnants continue to do so. It stems from (1) a complete lack of care and (2) ignorance in relation to the issue. They either do not care about what they are promoting and do it even though that flag carries a lot of weight with it or they know what they are doing and are just trying to cause division. However, it’s not just the ‘Stars and Bars’ flag, but actual state flags of Southern states, a very recent example of this is the state of Mississippi that had to change its flag after a state vote, it was removed on June 30th 2020, due to a confederate flag being part of its design. I personally think changing the flags to properly represent the state and encourage state pride without having the Confederacy attached to it is the best way to go about it.
There is one thing, however, that I wish to mention, I must point out that people have previously attacked the Union, it’s the fact that there are many in America that defaced statues of those that fought for the Union and don’t respect those that died fighting for the freedom of the slaves. For example, a statue of Ulysses S. Grant was toppled in 2020, a prominent general in the Union army, he may have still had a controversial past, but the lack of understanding of historical context (what times were like in those days) and lack respect for those that were willing to die to end slavery is absolutely ridiculous. We should attack the ideas of the Confederacy, not the Union, and any remnants left over should be challenged in the name of the Union, not in the name of historic censorship.
What about those that still owned slaves and are commemorated in the Union? In the US, as well as some countries in Europe, there are still a lot of controversial statues that you may wonder why they do not deserve the same fate as the Confederate ones, this is because their entire existence was not due to owning slaves, their commemoration was likely due to their life achievements or how they helped the country. There must be a clear understanding that getting angry at someone from the 19th century for being controversial by today’s standards is ludicrous, as the same could be done to you in 100 years’ time.
The ‘patriotic’ excuse
Those that fly the flag and constantly try to defend the Confederate symbols, flags and songs usually try to make up an excuse by saying they are just ‘patriotic’ or ‘proud of their heritage’, which is wrong for a few reasons. The first is that supporting a secession that fought against the country you claim to support is not patriotic, they were the enemies and flying their flags and symbols shows that you are not patriotic towards your country.
Secondly, a vast majority of countries in the world have done some bad at some point, that’s something many can agree on. So, why can they still show their support for their country, but you can’t for the Confederacy? It’s because the Confederacy’s entire existence was due to slavery, for the four years they were around, they spent them killing their fellow Americans and enslaving people. There should be no pride shown to them.
What should they do then?
In terms of solutions to the issue, we should look at the two main political parties in the US concerning the Confederacy topic. It seems that those attacking the flags and statues tend to be Democrats and those that defend them tend to be Republicans. But the most important part of this is where those representing the parties stand, like former President Trump who had issued an executive order protecting ‘American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues…’ due to him previously condemning the ‘mob rule’ that had taken place. This means anyone that damages, vandalises or tears down any of those highlighted are punishable under federal law. This is supported by the different sections of the executive order, like Section 5 that states ‘Providing assistance for the Protection of Federal Monuments, Memorials, Statues, and Property,’ meaning Homeland Security can provide help in protecting them.
The newly elected President Joe Biden has also taken a clear stance on this debate. In a Reuter article, it mentions that he not only said the statues should be in museums instead of town squares, but he disagreed with the violence saying, “It’s better they do not… It’s always better to do it peacefully” (referring to the Jefferson Davis statue getting pulled down). How do these two political figures affect the Confederacy debate? What these two say is extremely important as it can swing voters and therefore decide the fate of the statues and Southern State flags. Due to Joe Biden being the new president, I’m sure that he will stand by his words and some reform may come.
Where I am always one to support one’s own feeling of identity and maximising freedom of expression, it is simply impossible for one to defend the Confederate past and the atrocities that come with it. I believe that having statues commemorating Confederates, flags and other remnants in museums and not in public areas is a much better idea. That way we do not engage in complete censorship (e.g. destroying them), they go towards educating those interested in American history, and they can work to build a brighter future for the Southern USA.