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Mar 3, 2011 6:16 pm

Should the South Repudiate the Confederacy?

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Food for Thought

Jeffrey Goldberg

Last week, while on stage with Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, at the Atlantic-sponsored Washington Ideas Forum, I kept thinking this one thought: Black people are very forgiving people. Over and over again, this notion came to mind as I listened to Barbour spin himself away from a simple question I was asking, a question prompted by the recent work of the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson: Does the Republican Party actually believe that African-Americans would support it in numbers so long as party officials -- like Barbour -- venerate the Confederacy?...

The true, spin-free, answer, obviously, is that the Republican Party would rather not risk offending mythopoetic white Southerners by calling the Confederacy what it actually was -- a vast gulag of slavery, murder and rape....

I'm so interested in this issue I'm going to keep pursuing it -- the two sides of the issue, actually: The seeming black acquiescence to publicly-endorsed Confederacy-worship, and the reasons some white people -- and their leaders -- feel compelled to perpetuate such worship.

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John McNay - 10/21/2010

Yes, but to argue this is to suggest that to make the right decision in the civil war - and I mean the right decision, i.e., that you do not fight to defend slavery - is not an important issue. I would suggest that this issue, tied up as it is with our founding concepts and with the civil rights movement, is essential to what it means to be an American. To suggest that because our defense of the Enlightenment's values have been imperfect that the Confederacy was not completely wrong and fatally flawed is, I think, a serious misjudgment.

John McNay - 10/21/2010

Yes, but to argue this is to suggest that to make the right decision in the civil war - and I mean the right decision, i.e., that you do not fight to defend slavery - is not an important issue. I would suggest that this issue, tied up as it is with our founding concepts and with the civil rights movement, is essential to what it means to be an American. To suggest that because our defense of the Enlightenment's values have been imperfect that the Confederacy was not completely wrong and fatally flawed is, I think, a serious misjudgment.

Brian Martin - 10/14/2010

But that's the odd thing about history here. On one hand we have the "glorious union" who goes down South to free the slaves and save the union. Then shortly afterwards, we have the same "glorious union" (Custer, Sheridan, Sherman, et al) going out west, making and breaking treaties left and right, massacring indians at Sand Creek, Washita, and Wounded Knee, stealing land, destroying cultures, and planning genocide.

Those same folks that were willing to fight a bloody war for the agreements made decades before couldn't abide by the ones they were making during the same time period.

The same union that decried Fort Pillow, committed the exact same atrocities with very little said.
Lincoln upheld the executions of 38 Lakota for the Mankato uprising, but no one was hung for the crimes at Sand Creek.

Pretending that one side was righteous and the other not is a hard pill to swallow when one looks at history as a whole.

firstnew - 10/14/2010

Eric Foner is a leading scholar of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Here are some of his words on Lincoln.

“Lincoln comes into office not expecting to be the Great Emancipator. Nonetheless, he was deeply antislavery and had spoken many times before the Civil War of the ultimate extinction of slavery. He had refused in the secession crisis to compromise on the issue of the westward expansion of slavery even though that might have possibly avoided war.

“Lincoln was committed to some future abolition of slavery…
“In the 1840s Lincoln was a member of the Whig party. He hated slavery. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Lincoln hated slavery, but it was not a priority to him at that time. He was certainly not an abolitionist. He was opposed to the westward expansion of slavery, but he saw no way within the national political system that a politician like himself could actually do anything about slavery. It was a state institution. The Constitution did not give Congress any power over slavery in the states where it existed. Moreover, he saw it as a disruptive issue. He saw it as a threat to the stability of the Union.
“By the 1850s he’s changed. This issue of the westward expansion of slavery has now become the number one question in American politics and he now sees the expansion of slavery as the disruptive question threatening the Union. He comes to the position in eloquent, brilliant speeches that the nation must resolve to stop the expansion of slavery and to place slavery in what he called on the course of ultimate extinction.

"The Emancipation Proclamation... made the Union Army henceforth an agent of emancipation. Wherever the Union Army went, it was now part of its task to guarantee the freedom of these slaves.

“…the Emancipation Proclamation … really transforms the character of the Civil War in fundamental ways. It is really the turning point of the war, and Lincoln understands that. Whenever you think of Lincoln as a historian, in his own mind, he becomes the Great Emancipator. This is his role in history henceforth. He was an ambitious man who wanted to make an impact on history, and this is how he did it."

firstnew - 10/14/2010

Everything Mr. Looney said is inaccurate. There is not one correct statement of fact. It is all wrong!

John McNay - 10/13/2010

This is only true if you take a completely amoral view and take slavery out of the question. Saying in a simplistic way that they are all white slaveholders so their motivations do not matter is a naive conception. And, of course, one should keep in mind that there were many rather than just one motivation behind the declaration. The world is a complex place.

Monica S. - 10/12/2010

This statement marks a significant immaturity and inability to look outside of the immediacy of one's current view.

The Declaration of Independence was written by slaveholders to protect the rights of slaveholders based on a concept of natural law. The extension or lack of extension of that legal concept to other groups does not nullify the right of any group to seek separation. Southerners and America’s Founding Fathers are intellectually one and the same.

John McNay - 10/12/2010

The civil war was all about slavery. Even if you suggest it was about taxation, the South's complaints about taxation were because of its slave-based economy. Even if you suggest it was about state's rights, it was because they wanted to expand slavery. It was, again, all about slavery. Never have so many gave their lives for such a worthless cause. Much of the rest of what you have to say is not true or nor relevant.

John McNay - 10/11/2010

There is no reason to make heroes of traitors.

John McNay - 10/11/2010

Here is part of the problem. Comparing the South to the American Revolution is just an attempt to give the Confederacy a legitimacy which it never had.

Obviously, the US was an attempt to create a nation with a much broader democracy than England had at the time. Democratically speaking, it was a great step in the right direction. That would certainly not be true about an independent South.

And your complaints about Custer, Sheridan and Sherman are also largely irrelevant. The people starting the war have no room to complain about the brutality they brought on themselves.

Chase Looney - 10/11/2010

Great job, Sandy

Chase Looney - 10/11/2010

I'm kinda a history buff and do civil war reenacting.I wear both Blue and Gray in the battles.I think the South was right to susceed from the Union. It wasn't about Slavery. The Union didn't free their slaves till December 31,1865 because they needed the slaves to run their war machine and keep the Union producing war material.Almost all Union Generals owned slaves before and after the war.They had nowhere to go once freed so most stayed with their masters.The history books were written by the North. Do a little research and see what kind of people were running the country. Look into Abe Lincolns activities and his trips to the Brothels in D.C. $2.00 was the going price,but ole Abe being frugal bartered the Ladies of the Night down to $1.00. It is said Mary Todd died of Brain Syphilis. Wonder who she got that from ? I think the war wasted 600,000 young men and womens lives.They will not let Lincolns hair be tested for DNA because the truth may come out about Lincolns disease.

Randy Law - 10/11/2010

The denunciation of slavery, racism, and human rights abuses now simply amounts to "political correctness"? Sad.

Sandy Poe - 10/10/2010

We should absolutely NOT repudiate the confederacy. The Civil War is a major, major part of American history and the people who were part of the Confederacy were dedicated to the point of being willing to die for the cause. If we were to do such a cowardly thing in deference to being "politically correct" in this day and age of fearing to speak our minds, it would be a blatant disregard for our ancestors beliefs, values and sacrifice. A sacrifice that was beyond human comprehension....The men and boys who died in that horrible war would be disgraced, whether they fought in blue or in grey. NO, No, NO. Shame on anyone for even thinking of such a horrible idea!

Brian Martin - 10/9/2010

Washington, Jefferson, Adams, traitors all I guess according to your thinking. The U. S. breaking away from Great Britain didn't destroy Britain, it only made the empire smaller. Had the South been successful with their secession, do you honestly feel it would have destroyed the U. S.?

The U. S. apparently cared little for all the Native American nations they destroyed in their lust for gold, land, and power. Making heroes out of murderers like Custer, Sheridan, and Sherman is ridiculuous...

John McNay - 10/8/2010

This not a complicated issue. Supporters of the rebellion betrayed their country and tried to destroy the United States. There is no honor in treason. Making heroes out of traitors is ridiculous.

goat - 10/7/2010

"Black people are very forgiving people"?

In what universe is this NOT a racial comment?

deGrene - 10/7/2010

Repudiation of the Confederacy is a tricky item. Yes, it was deplorable that its economy was rooted in slavery, just as it is deplorable that, for many years, the North's economy was just a dependent on it (remember the Triangle Trade?) The fact that the North abolished slavery before the war is a matter of degree, to me. Besides, there were more issues at stake in the rebellion than slavery -- states' rights, self-determination, so on, so forth -- all of which admittedly circled around the issue of slavery.

What is of more concern to me, and the reason why I think the South needs to repudiate their so-called Heritage, is what happened after the Civil War. The resultant backlash against African-Americans with groups like the Klan and others, the Jim Crow Laws, segregation, and the rest, were -- and are -- no more than the embittered and angry tantrum of a child who has lost at his favorite game. I know that's bordering on trivializing something very serious, but I am speaking from a psychological perspective rather than sociological or human rights view.

The inability of many in the South to get over the events of 160 years ago simply shows that they are unable to deal with the problems and issues that face the country now. It is the same as if Germany and Japan wished to revive the Nazi and Imperial regimes out of a desire to “preserve their heritage.”

I was a Northerner who lived in the South during the Civil Rights Movement days and heard many times, in all seriousness, “If we’d had two machine guns and an airplane, we’d have won that damned war!” It demonstrated to me the unrealistic viewpoint of some Southerners who simply could not let go of a perceived glory that was, at best, tarnished and which, thankfully, faded quickly.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/6/2010

Interestingly, Goldberg has gotten some responses that detail some of what a repudiation might look like.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/6/2010

I don't see how you get from historical memory to anti-Republican sentiment.

The question of what repudiation would look like is an interesting one: declining historical illiteracy among the Sons of Confederate Veterans groups; declining membership in neo-Confederate groups like the League of the South; abandonment of the Confederate Battle Flag as an official and unofficial emblem of local pride; declining sales for Lost Cause books and movies; greater historical depth and less mythology at historical sites. That's a start, anyway.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/6/2010

Nobody is suggesting erasure: the question is about pride. As you note, there are bad moments, disgusting moments, and while the historian's primary goal is understanding rather than judgement, nonetheless it is impossible (sometimes irresponsible) not to have an opinion on some things. To suggest that the Confederacy is "mistakes," for example, suggests that you have an opinion about whether Southerners should take pride in, or repudiate, their Confederate history as an influence, a source of legitimacy, and a positive example.

R. Tim Matthewson - 10/6/2010

William Faulkner spilled oceans of ink over this question. He response was spelled out in his novels, which provide abundant facts about the evolution of the South. His general theme was the decline of the South. During the American Revolution the south provided the best leadership to the cause of America; I am of the opinion that the Revolutionary Generation was our greatest generation, far and above every other generation, including my own. You just have to mention the names of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and many other to realize that the South produced some outsanding examples of statesmen, whose influence is still felt by all Americans even today.
But Faulkner was flummoxed by what he saw as the decline of the south following the Revolution. The succeeding generations of slaveholders were shortsighted, narrowly focused, parochial, ignorant, and poorly educated. They did not come anywhere near the quality of the dynast of Virginia gentlemen who lead not just the South, but the entire nation to freedom, democracy and independence. Succeeding generation became so obsesses with dominating black men and women, retaining them in chains that they could identify no other goal for the South or for the nation. This was the real tragedy of the Southern Nation, its obesession with race what U.B. Phillips called the Central Theme of Southern History, that is, that the black man should never become the equal of the white man.
Faulkner perceived this tragedy clearly, as one can see by reading his novels. Faulkner repudiated the Confederacy, but he did not repudiate the South and would never have considered repudiation of the Greatest Generation of American leaders.

John D. Beatty - 10/6/2010

Tell us, please, how "the south" as a "whole" would do that? Deny that it happened? Demonize all those who supported the country?

Lets stay realistic in our political attacks on Republicans (that is what this is, after all) and leave the impossible, such as having "the south" "repudiate" the Confederacy and Middle East peace in the category of science fiction.

Elizabeth Cregan - 10/6/2010

I think people too often forget that before the Civil War, the south had a very rich and different culture. Many African American aspects of the current culture started there, yes in slavery, but still not forgotten. To say it was nothing but slavery or murder or "just" anything else is ignorant. If I came from the south there are many things I would personally take pride in. The north is not innicent either. I suppose the acceptability of your pride depends on what it is you are holding your flag for. Just educate beyond the obvious and find exactly what there is to BE proud of.

A History Student - 10/6/2010

History is full of inspirational moments and moments of disgust. We can not judge the generations before us. They lived in a different time period than we do. The south should not and cannot repudiate their past. If anything, our entire country needs to learn from the mistakes that have been made. To erase history is an insult to every man, woman and child that has contributed to our history, good and bad.