Although the American Civil War ended in 1865, its significance and causes remain the subjects of passionate discussion and debate. This was evidenced by the recent controversy involving State Rep. Todd Clodfelter and his public use of a personal laptop computer with a Confederate battle flag emblazoned on its screen while he was attending a harassment and ethics training session in the House wing of the State Capitol.
The flag offended state Rep. Geraldine Peten, D-Goodyear, who was sitting behind him and could see the Confederate battle flag. Peten, who is African-American, characterized it as “intimidating.”
Clodfelter eventually agreed not to display the Confederate flag on his computer while working on the floor of the House wing, but he defended the flag as representing something different to him than slavery and racism.
Apologists for the Confederacy and those who believe that public display of the Confederate battle flag is appropriate claim that the flag simply represents their heritage. They often claim that the southern slave-owning states seceded as a means to preserve their independence and the constitutional right of self-government. We often hear from Confederate apologists that the act of secession was to preserve states’ rights.
All of those arguments are false. They are part of a re-branding effort that began in the South after the war. They don’t reflect the original reasons southern politicians led their constituents to commit treason against the United States.
All one has to do is examine the words of those southern politicians to see that the war had little to do with states’ rights or the constitutional right of self-government. “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader” (James W. Loewan and Edward H. Sebesta, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2010) is a compilation of primary source documents from Confederate leaders and southern politicians before, during and after the Civil War. It uses their words to convincingly show what the Confederacy was really about.
Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens was a vociferous and eloquent advocate of slavery. In a speech given in 1856, the-then U.S. senator for the state of Georgia proclaimed:
“The negro is inferior to the white man, nature has made him so ... in the social and political system of the South the negro is assigned to that subordinate position for which he is fitted by the laws of nature.”
In March 1861, Stephens, the newly-elected vice president of the Confederacy, said:
“Our new government is founded exactly on 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 moral condition.”
“The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader” reveals how secessionists repeatedly justified dissolution of the Union as the only appropriate response to the efforts by northerners to stop the spread of slavery in the territories, and to Abraham Lincoln’s election.
The “constitutional right” that secessionists claimed was under threat in their Causes for Secession was the right to own “property” — slaves — in the southern states and within other parts of the United States.
The act of secession and the long, bloody war came about because the southern ruling class desired slavery to flourish and spread. Any effort to spin the reasons for secession and war as an abstract “constitutional right to self-government” is disingenuous.
The Confederacy was founded, and the war was fought, to preserve and expand slavery. The public display of the Confederate battle flag by a member of the House of Representatives was more than a thoughtless act. It was the paying of tribute to racism and slavery.