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A Reasonable Take on Confederate Flags, Monuments, and Statues

A former student of mine sent me a viral Facebook post recently that sought to answer much about the current debate over Confederate statues, monuments, and the short-lived country’s flag. The person posting it prefaced the entire thing by saying she had received it herself from an AP United States history teacher. Given that is one of the classes that I teach, I was intrigued.

For the most part, I thought it was an excellent post, doing a great job of highlighting some key historical realities to a debate that culturally has become nothing but emotionalism and accusations. For instance, the writer answered the question “what did the Confederacy stand for” by quoting that country’s contemptible vice president, Alexander Stephens:

“In his ‘Cornerstone Speech’ on March 21, 1861, he stated ‘The Constitution… rested upon the equality of races. This was an error. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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 normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.’”

Now, it’s certainly possible that there were significant figures in the Confederate government apparatus that felt differently than Stephens. But the fact that there was no notable pushback to his speech, coupled with the reality that the significant differences between the U.S. Constitution and the Confederate Constitution involved protecting the “right of property in negro slaves,” makes the purpose of the Confederacy fairly obvious.

Just like when pro-abortion advocates today say that they are “pro-choice,” the question is implicit: choice to do what? Sure, the Confederacy may have been about “states’ rights,” but specifically the right to do what?

In terms of monuments, the author makes a strong case that is respectful of the perspective of history and heritage:

“Monuments and statues pose little educational relevance, whereas museums, the rightful place for Confederate paraphernalia, can provide more educational opportunities for citizens to learn about our country’s history. The Civil War is important to learn about, and will always loom large in social studies curriculum. Removing monuments from public places and putting them in museums also allows us to avoid celebrating and honoring people who believed that tens of millions of black Americans should be legal property.”

It’s hard to fathom why any reasonable person would disagree with that position.

Personally, I think it is dangerous to begin arguing against Confederate monuments and flags on the premise that, “These people were traitors who went to war against the United States.” In other words, equating Robert E. Lee with Osama bin Laden. Not only is that morally outrageous, it is historically improper.

The desire of the Confederacy was secession, not rebellion. They were not seeking an overthrow of the government of the United States. They were seeking to leave and start their own government – a right, oddly enough, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence itself. I’m not arguing for the morality of their motivation, I’m merely explaining the principle of the claim.

Remember, it was New England states that had, at the Hartford Convention, threatened secession themselves during the War of 1812. They saw the conflict as southern-generated, southern-maintained, and northern-crippling. The Virginia presidents Jefferson and Madison had brought about the crisis that was obliterating the northern economies, and New England had seen enough. If they had voluntarily joined the union of states, they could voluntarily leave it.

Southern states drew on that same sentiment in making their case for secession a few decades later. But Lincoln and the northern leadership rejected the claim, classifying the union as compulsory not voluntary, and deeming secession to be treason.

This disagreement at least complicates any attempt to paint all Confederate participants as traitors. Lee, for example, was a decorated and beloved veteran commander of the United States military. He was a patriot. But when Lincoln asked him to lead forces to conquer his home state of Virginia, Lee declined. Instead he chose to protect his home state from what he viewed as Lincoln’s aggression.

And historical fidelity requires us remember that when the war ended, it was Lee, perhaps more than anyone else, that helped the country avoid the terrible pattern of countries torn apart perpetually by a civil war.

The viral post goes on to make a case for the inclusion of more race-sensitive curriculum in U.S. history. As an AP History teacher, I can vouch for the fact that much of what the writer requests is already in the textbook we use. I imagine they are in most others as well. Still, from my seat, I think the post is a worthwhile and good faith contribution to a needlessly divisive issue.

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