What The Confederate Flag Stands For – An Essay by Chris S.

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And now for your consideration….

What The Confederate Flag Stands For  by Chris S.

In the wake of the racist terrorist attack that killed nine people, including a state senator, in Charleston, South Carolina, our nation has once again entered into a debate over racism and the power of symbols. After the attack, the Confederate flag-which adorned the license plate of the shooter-continued to fly over the South Carolina State House.confederate-flag-flyin-high1

Since then, SC Gov. Nikki Haley has called for the flag’s removal-a reversal from her former position-as have many other politicians on both the right and left. Businesses such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears have pledged to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise on the basis that the symbol represents racism, slavery, and terror.

While the reception to these decisions has mostly been positive, some object to the removal of the Confederate flag. Many argue that the flag represents Southern pride, not racism, and that getting rid of the flag simply serves to erase history.

In this article, I will address the most common objections of Confederate flag proponents, and show that it is the veneration of this symbol, not its removal, that truly contributes to an erasure of history.

Objection #1: The Confederacy fought for states’ rights, not slavery.

This is the most common argument used to justify the display of the Confederate flag. It is also a myth.

There is a very simple way to settle any debate over whether or not the Civil War was fought over slavery. One merely has to take the Confederates at their word. Confederate leaders were very explicit about what motivated their cause. It had nothing to do with tariffs, and everything to do with preserving white dominance over blacks.

In what became known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens articulated the ideology that motivated his cause:

“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; 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 normal condition.

. . . look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgement of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws.”


Stephens’ words leave little room for doubt. He says that the desire to preserve slavery was the “immediate cause” of the conflict between the North and South, and he takes pride in being a part of “the first government ever” to be based on the “natural” fact of white dominance over blacks.

Of course, Stephens was just one man. What did others say about the causes of the war?

Every state’s declaration of secession mentions slavery as the primary concern. Here is South Carolina’s:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.”

And Mississipi’s:

“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. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…”

And Lousiana’s:

“As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of an­nexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”

And Alabama’s:

“Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republi­can party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as it change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new princi­ples, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions—nothing less than an open declaration of war—for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and. her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”

And Texas’:

“…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states…”


How is it then that so many Southern apologists argue that the South fought against tariffs and for states’ rights, and that slavery was at most a secondary concern? A big giveaway in these arguments is that they rarely cite primary source documents. They rely on second-hand interpretations that were invented years after the war was ended. Reading the primary source documents relevant to the causes of secession clearly show that the Confederacy was formed out of a desire to preserve slavery and white dominance, and that this was the primary cause, not a secondary one.

Furthermore, the declarations of secession above also show that the Confederacy, far from being in favor of states’ rights, was actively hostile to the concept when it didn’t get them their way. In many of the declarations you can see objections to Northern states refusingto enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northerners to return escaped slaves to their Southern masters, and to Northern states giving blacks citizenship. This was unacceptable to the South, which needed Northern cooperation if they were to preserve their “peculiar institution.” The rights of free states to handle the issues of slavery and African-American rights as they wished was not at all respected among the slave states.

Whitewashing the true reasons for the formation of the Confederacy is perhaps the most common tactic in justifying the display of the Confederate flag. It’s important that people understand the real reasons for the formation of the Confederacy, so that they know how this symbol started out.

Objection #2: The North was racist too, so if you remove the Confederate flag, you may as well remove the American flag.

Yes, the North was racist. Yes, Abraham Lincoln cared less about ending slavery than about preserving the Union. Yes, slavery still existed in some form in some Northern states.

But to equate the Confederate flag with the U.S. flag is a false equivalence. As previously shown, the Confederate flag isn’t seen as a symbol of hatred simply because the Confederacy tolerated slavery. It is seen that way because preserving slavery was the sole purpose of the Confederacy. This government only existed for a short time, and the “cornerstone” of its existence was the belief in white dominance over blacks. While slavery existed in the United States for a very long time, and was a crucial part of its economy, preserving slavery was never the sole purpose of the United States government. It never existed primarily to preserve slavery.

The American flag means a lot of things to a lot of people. To some it means freedom, to others it means imperialism and oppression. One could argue that the extermination of the Native American population has tarnished our flag more than anything else. But it has never stood solely for the dominance of one group over another. America has always been about far more than that, thus the flag cannot be equated with the Confederate flag, which was created for one reason and one reason only.

Objection #3: Even if the Confederacy fought primarily for slavery, symbols change all the time, and displaying the flag now is simply a mark of Southern pride.

There are many reasons to be proud of one’s Southern heritage. The Confederacy is not one of them. It would be easy to find another symbol that does not have the same history as the Confederate flag to represent Southern pride. Why use one that has been used as a symbol of racism and hatred for so long?

The Confederate flag didn’t stop being used as a symbol of racism the moment the Confederacy lost. The Klan flew the flag on many of their midnight raids. It continues to be used by white supremacist groups today.

And the Confederate flag didn’t start flying over the South Carolina building until 1962, the eve of the Civil Rights movement. Though the official justification was that it was to mark the centennial of the start of the Civil War, many interpreted the move as a show of rebellion against black civil rights, which was opposed by most white Southerners at the time.


Clearly, this symbol started out as a symbol of bigotry, was used as a symbol of bigotry for many decades after, and continues to be used by white supremacists as a symbol of bigotry today. So why is it so important to some (mostly white Southerners) to display it as a symbol of pride today? Pride in what?

Have those who are determined to display this flag considered how it might be viewed by African-Americans? Some African-Americans around today lived through the terror of the Klan.

Few rational people would argue that displaying a swastika would be appropriate, even though it started as a symbol of peace. Most recognize that it would be insensitive to Jews, who suffered so much, to display such a symbol. So why don’t Confederate flag defenders realize that by displaying the flag, they are showing the same type of disrespect?

Objection #4: Removing the flag is simply erasing history.

Actually, as shown above, it is primarily defenders of the flag who have erased history by denying the symbol’s association with slavery and white supremacy. The only reason that the flag is still displayed with any regularity in the South (and less often, in the North) is that history has already been erased. It has been altered to make white people feel more comfortable. It has been altered to make excuses for the wrong side in the worst conflict in our history, a conflict that killed almost as many Americans as all foreign wars combined.

No one is arguing that museums, history books, or other resources about the Confederacy be destoryed. No one is advocating book burning. What we are advocating for is that people stop honoring the Confederacy, because it was a treasonous, white supremacist hate group. No one argues that refusing to display a swastika somehow erases the history of Nazi Germany. So why would refusing to fly the Confederate flag jeopardize our understanding of the history of the Civil War? If anything, our understanding of history could only be improved when we stop honoring and making excuses for such a hateful group, and see them for what they really were.

Objection #5: Removing the flag wouldn’t stop racism.

Well, of course it wouldn’t. But it would be a nice step. How would you feel if your state flew the flag of a secessionist government that was created for the sole purpose of disenfranchising your race of their natural rights? How would you feel if you constantly had to drive down roads named after generals who fought and died to keep you in chains? How would you feel if your child went to a school named after a man who tried to keep them from getting an education?

John Stewart put it beautifully:

“In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named after Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s-that’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. You can’t allow that. Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina and the roads are named for Confederate generals. And the white guy is the one who feels like his country is being taken away.”

“Racial wallpaper” may be my new favorite phrase. When your society honors devout racists-not just those who, like Thomas Jefferson, were racists who made other contributions to society, but people whose entire ideology was about preserving white dominance-that has got to have an effect on actual racism within your society. How can it not? Does anyone think that if Germany flew a Nazi flag over their buildings, that wouldn’t have any effect on the level of racism within the country?

Objection #6: Banning the Confederate flag would be a violation of freedom of speech.

I actually agree with this. But very few people are advocating for a full-on ban of the flag. Most are simply saying that states shouldn’t fly it, and that people should reconsider displaying it.

I agree that a ban would be unconstitutional. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to criticize people for displaying this symbol. Freedom of speech means they can fly the flag all they want, and others have the right to call their choice to do so racist, or at least insensitive and ignorant.

That said, some have argued that the federal government could ban state houses from flying the flag. Judge Andrew Napolitano of FOX News appeared on the Daily Show last week, and made the point that while people have the right to freedom of speech, governments do not. Since flying the Confederate flag represents an ideological position, government buildings have no business flying them, argues Napolitano.

So there you have it. Hopefully I have clarified some of the myths surrounding the flag, and shown that the objections to removing the flag do not hold up. The Confederacy was a treasonous group created for the sole purpose of preserving slavery; denying this fact serves to erase history, and honoring the Confederacy is insulting to all Americans, especially those whom the Confederacy fought so hard to keep in chains.

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20 Responses to What The Confederate Flag Stands For – An Essay by Chris S.

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks for posting this! Sorry about the length.

  2. Steve says:

    I have thought about this, and from here on I only support the American flag on government institutions. The confederate flag has no more business over taxpayer owned soil than the Mexican flag, the UN flag, or a rainbow flag.

    However, what people put on their private property, their home, their car, their bodies, that is entirely up to them and their right to do so.

    In the meantime, those debating this issue should consider the following. Those who are against the confederate flag need to allow into their hearts the understanding that not everyone who supports the flag is a racist. Those who support the confederate flag need to allow the understanding in their hearts that the flag does represent racism to some who view it. There is middle ground here if we listen to each other and stop listening to those in government who would use these issues to divide us. Our divider in chief being amongst the worst of them….

  3. Chris says:

    I agree with most of your comment, Steve.

    “Those who are against the confederate flag need to allow into their hearts the understanding that not everyone who supports the flag is a racist.”

    True, however, I think dividing people into “racists” and “non-racists” is reductive and unhelpful. I think everyone, including myself, has racist ideas. Support for the Confederate flag strikes me as being based on racist ideas–primarily, the idea that white nostalgia or “Southern pride” takes priority over the feelings of those who were victimized under the Confederate flag.

    Of course I don’t believe most Confederate flag supporters hate black people. But their support of the flag indicates that they think, even if only on a subconscious level, that the concerns of black people are not as valid or meaningful as the concerns of white people.

  4. Steve says:


    You’re missing the offer of compromise in my statement. There are people who support the confederate flag for non race based reasons. It has a certain rebel flair. Now that southern governors are taking the flag down, those who oppose the flag should give some benefit of the doubt to those who supported it, just as those who support the flag need to understand that for some it is a symbol of oppression. This is my idea of a political compromise, or an olive branch, that would help our country heal.
    I’m sure this wasn’t your intent, but I could perceive this as you slapping the olive branch away based on your opinion of what is in peoples’ subconscious. It makes me wonder if people of liberal persuasion are capable of compromise for the greater good?

    I also realize you’ve had this conversation with Jack before on what makes a racist and whether we all have some racism in our hearts. Racist has become a dirty word though, and saying we’re all racist because we have a slight tendency to prefer our own is kind of like saying we’re all perverts for having sexual thoughts, at least in my opinion. I get where you’re coming from though and I hope you can get where conservatives are coming from as well.

  5. Chris says:

    Steve, I think most people who support the flag do so because they don’t know the truth about the causes of the Civil War and the reasons for the formation of the Confederacy, as detailed in the article. In those cases, you’re right that those who support the flag are not doing so out of racism.

    However, if someone does know that the Confederacy formed primarily to preserve slavery and white dominance, and that its leaders boasted of this fact, and still continues to display the flag as a mark of pride…well, I think that’s a racist action, in that the speaker would be showing disrespect for African-Americans. That may not be the person’s intent, but its the result of their actions.

    I also think that the fact we are having this debate shows that there has been a systemic problem in which true history has been erased in order to make Southern whites feel more comfortable about their heritage, at the expense of our awareness of how hard the Confederates fought to keep blacks down.

    “saying we’re all racist because we have a slight tendency to prefer our own”

    Wait, I don’t think I’ve said that.

    I don’t like the phrase “we’re all racist.” Racist is best used as a way to describe actions and thoughts, not people. I’d prefer “we all have racist beliefs, which causes us to behave in racist ways.”

    Second, I don’t define racism as “a slight tendency to prefer our own.” Most racism goes beyond that and involves making unfair value judgments of people based on their race. It’s also taught, rather than natural. A slight preference for one’s own doesn’t make one cross to the other side of the street when they see a black person approaching. That indicates a belief about black people that is learned.

    • Post Scripts says:

      “Second, I don’t define racism as “a slight tendency to prefer our own.” Most racism goes beyond that and involves making unfair value judgments of people based on their race. It’s also taught, rather than natural. A slight preference for one’s own doesn’t make one cross to the other side of the street when they see a black person approaching. That indicates a belief about black people that is learned.” Chris S.

      And that would be a perfectly accepted standard if it was universally accepted. However, racism seems only exists in the white community…same goes for hate crimes.

  6. Chris says:

    Jack: “And that would be a perfectly accepted standard if it was universally accepted. However, racism seems only exists in the white community…”

    I sympathize with your critique here, Jack. There are many leftist academics who define “racism” as “prejudice + power.” Under that definition, only the more powerful group–in this society, whites–can be racist.

    I disagree with this definition. I do think that we as a society should focus more on racism when it is backed up by power, thus I agree that racism is MORE of a problem in the white community than the black community. But I also think racism is a problem in every community, and everyone has racist ideas, including blacks.

    I think the definition of racism as “prejudice = power” is counterproductive to the aims of progressives, as it only gives conservatives ammo to say “See! They think it’s impossible for blacks to be racist! Double standard!” When really, I think even the most leftist academic would recognize that blacks are perfectly capable of having prejudice against whites, and acting on it, they just don’t define that as “racism.”

    I think it’s hard enough getting people to accept that they have racist thoughts without making them feel like they’re being called Bigot von Hitler, so the definition of “prejudice = power” just confuses the issue even more so.

    “same goes for hate crimes.”

    The latest hate crime stats (from 2013) don’t necessarily back that up:

    “Of the reported 3,407 single-bias hate crime offenses that were racially motivated, 66.4 were motivated by anti-black or African-American bias, and 21.4 percent stemmed from anti-white bias…

    Law enforcement agencies identified 5,814 known offenders in the 5,928 bias-motivated incidents. Of these offenders, 52.4 percent were white and 24.3 percent were black or African-American.”

    That seems to show that black offenders accused of anti-white hate crimes are identified frequently relative to the percentage of blacks in the population.

    • Post Scripts says:

      Chris if that’s what the stats say then that’s fine, but you wouldn’t know it by the media reporting; they have created a perception that is inconsistent with your facts.

  7. Tina says:

    Chris asks, “How is it then that so many Southern apologists argue that the South fought against tariffs and for states’ rights, and that slavery was at most a secondary concern?”

    First of all the word “apologist” has taken on negative baggage and so I object to this description of those of us who would like the whole truth of the period to remain in our shared history.

    The future KKK made sure slavery became the central issues.

    You talk about fighting against tariffs as if it were incidental rather than crucial for the survival of the South. Your tendency to brush off this important part of the history indicates a prejudice, learned in our schools and propagated by the Democrat Party as a means to an end. Yes, Democrats have a long history of using racism a political/societal weapon as if they had no part in it and as if they do not propagate the same principles today.

    Just as you have no appreciation for the oppressive nature of taxes now imposed on modern business and the benefits to all citizens that lower taxes would create, you have no appreciation for the plight of Southern landowners of the period.

    You also like to brush aside the history of the formation of the Democrat Party and the creation of the KKK. Your Party members brush aside the transference of Democrat oppression through covert mean, ie, convincing black Americans that they cannot make it on their own, convincing blacks (POC) that they need the federal government for survival, and convincing blacks that since they are being oppressed “still” by Republicans, they always should vote Democrat. Also the left has achieved control of the historical narrative by controlling what is taught, and what is not taught, in public schools. The revision/distortion of history has served the party well in a couple of decades.

    This is a denial of history, a brushing aside of facts, and a terrible continuation of oppression of the black man (And the poor). You’ll excuse me if I take exception to your article’s premise that, “…the veneration of this symbol, not its removal, …truly contributes to an erasure of history.” I object to the suggestion that racism is the likely “power” behind the flying of the confederate flag offering the church shooter’s license plate as an indicator.

    This despicable act was perpetrated by a single person and is not an indicator of Southern sentiment or morality. The words of church members following this event is more indicative of the Southern sentiment and experience today, flag or no flag.

    Republicans continue to be politically intimidated by liberal Democrats who shamelessly use events like this in an attempt to raise their political power and fortunes. I don’t think that’s what you’re up to Chris, but I do think the powerful leadership that determines the Democrat narrative is. I offer up the suggestion that racial division and unrest has been ginned up during Obama’s term through the scratching of old wounds. The extreme left will not allow Americans to heal regarding her history and past despite the tremendous efforts to right old wrongs.

  8. Tina says:

    We have a problem in America that will explode into our whole society unless it is addressed. It isn’t the statistics but the narrative that is troubling. The new sense of violence against whites entitlement among black youths and the black on black gang violence that’s ignored is a big problem:
    The American Thnker:

    According to a video posted to the Facebook account of QbabyOfTeamQ, a white man attending a July 4 concert in Fountain Square, the heart of downtown Cincinnati, was beaten bloody and unconscious. Unfortunately, I am not able to embed the video because YouTube has taken it down, with a notice: “This video has been taken down as a violation of YouTube’s policy on shocking and disgusting content.”

    Perhaps the most inconvenient truth of all in today’s America is the deliberate fostering of a race war – egging on black male youths to believe that society is so rigged against them that violence is a legitimate response. The predictable result is that racial violence – almost exclusively black-on-non-black (including whites, Asians and Hispanics) – is commonplace, and ignored by national media.

    More here.

    <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/news/report-82-shot-14-killed-in-chicago-4th-of-july-weekend-shootings/&quot;

    Guns were featured in this article but the race of the perpetrators was not. We can't solve problems that are not accurately reported and identified.

    I know white on black crime is immediately labeled as a hate or racist crime in the press and by leftist politicians despite the evidence. I'm not sure about whether black on white crime is labeled a hate crime in the justice system. I know it's rare to find it reported by the press.

    I'd be interested in the crime, sentencing, and time served statistics that follow crimes of violence and murder. How often does black on white crime get labeled as a hate crime? How often does black on black crime get labeled as a hate crime? Are the stats skewed by labeling practices? I don't know the answer to any of these questions but I do know that ignoring real problems to push a political war is dangerous and irresponsible.

  9. Chris says:

    Tina: “You talk about fighting against tariffs as if it were incidental rather than crucial for the survival of the South.”

    Can you provide a direct quote from a Confederate leader in which they claim that tariffs were a motivating factor in secession?

    I’d be surprised if one exists, since Southerners wrote the tariff of 1857 which the nation was then operating under. Southern anger over tariffs did motivate the nullification crisis of the 1830s, but that was long over by the time the Southern states started seceding.

    So not only do I think fighting against tariffs was not crucial to the survival of the South in the lead-up to the war, I think it wasn’t even incidental. There is no evidence I am aware of that shows Southerners were upset over tariffs at the time they seceded.

    I’ve provided plenty of direct quotes from Confederate leaders showing that they rebelled over slavery, not tariffs. If you can show me a direct quote from a Confederate leader showing otherwise, I’ll reconsider my position.

  10. Tina says:

    Chris the following history serves as evidence that the sentiment and causes of the Civil War were more complex than the slavery issue. I found no direct quotes regarding tariffs…yet. Lincoln’s justification was uniting the country and the South was interested in the Constitution and States Rights:

    Tariffs “Benefits For The North”:

    From the time of the first Congress in 1789 to the outbreak of the Civil War there was dissension between the northern and the southern states over the matter of protective tariffs, or import duties on manufactured goods. Northern industries wanted high tariffs in order to protect their factories and laborers from cheaper European products. Demanding that “American laborers shall be protected against the pauper labor of Europe,” tariff proponents argued that the taxes gave “employment to thousands of [American] mechanics, artisans, [and] laborers.”

    The vast majority of American industry was located in the northern states, whereas the economies of the agricultural southern states were based on the export of raw materials and the importation of manufactured goods. The South held few manufacturing concerns, and southerners had to pay higher prices for goods in order to subsidize northern profits.

    The collected tariffs were used to fund public projects in the North such as improvements to roads, harbors and rivers. From 1789 to 1845, the North received five times the amount of money that was spent on southern projects. More than twice as many lighthouses were built in the North as in the South, and northern states received twice the southern appropriations for coastal defense.

    The sectional friction caused by the tariffs bills eventually led the country to the nullification controversy of 1832, during which South Carolina declared the tariff laws null and void. John C. Calhoun, the father of nullification, developed the theory of secession and detailed the steps by which a state could sever its relationship with the Union and remove itself from the unfair power of the central government. Federal authority prevailed in the nullification crisis of 1832, but the theories developed by Calhoun would be invoked again when the country split apart in 1861.

    Tariffs and Secessionism?

    The connection between the Morrill Tariff and secession has been hotly debated since 1860-61, with several participants in those events actually taking it up themselves. The immediate debate centered around whether the Morrill Tariff stood a chance of passing in either the lame duck session, or the new Senate after Lincoln’s inauguration. We will likely never know that answer for certain, as the resignation of the senators from six secessionist states on January 21, 1861 also removed several likely opposition votes to the tariff bill, and hastened its adoption with relative ease a month later.

    We do know for certain, contrary to the claims in Loewen’s article, that the secessionists did contemplate and debate the tariff issue at length. Tariffs almost always came up as a secondary consideration to slavery. The territorial question and fire-eater invective against the abolitionists dominated the secession conventions of the original seven Confederate states, but on more than one ocassion the secessionists made their anger with the impending Morrill Tariff bill clear and explicit. When mentioned it was usually treated as a parallel grievance against the North. On December 25, 1860 the South Carolina secession convention issued an invitation to the legislatures of the other southern states, citing as its rationale “the consolidation of the North to rule the South, by the tariff and slavery issues.”

    A more elaborate discussion came from neighboring Georgia, where Alexander Stephens, the future Confederate Vice President who actually opposed his state’s secession efforts despite his later reputation in the Confederate government, argued that the South and other tariff opponents in the western agricultural states would have enough votes to stop the tariff in the Senate if they remained. Robert Toombs, then a Senator and soon to be the Confederate Secretary of State, deemed the House version of the Morrill Tariff “the most atrocious tariff bill that was ever enacted, raising the present duty from twenty to two hundred and fifty percent above the existing rates of duty.” As the convention progressed Toombs continued to rail against the “infamous Morrill bill” and managed to insert an anti-tariff clause into the otherwise virulently pro-slavery Georgia Declaration of Causes for secession.

    When weighed against the sum of other evidence, it is difficult to maintain that the tariff was the lone, central issue of the secession crisis by any measure, but at least in the modern era most historians who follow the tariff thesis do not do this. It is therefore something of a strawman to expunge all discussion of the tariff on account of its later connection to “Lost Cause” historiography, and some historians who attack the tariff thesis are guilty of this tendency. Tariff politics at any time in history are notoriously complex, and analysis of them requires both political knowledge and an understanding of their economic effects. There was something afoot with the tariff on the eve of the Civil War, and dismissing it from the discussion without the requisite analysis does as much of a disservice to our knowledge of that event as the resurrected chimera of a long-abandoned “Lost Cause” mythos.

    A measured and factually grounded take of the tariff issue reveals its dramatic resurgence between 1858-61 as the national political climate collapsed and pre-war sectional divisions reached a fever pitch. The issue directly contributed to those divisions, particularly as it arrived in the Senate during the “Secession Winter” to add its own havoc to a rapidly growing perfect storm. Though it is not a complete or full explanation of the Civil War itself, it should be viewed as an indicator of the war’s complexity. Simplistic, single-issue explanations of large political and military upheavals seldom work under scrutiny, and the tariff is one such sign of how the economic dimensions of secession overlapped and intertwined with the Civil War’s moral questions about slavery and political questions about sectionalism.

    “Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late… It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision… It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.” – Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne, CSA, January 1864

    “The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states.” – Charles Dickens, 1862

    “It is stated in books and papers that Southern children read and study that all the blood shedding and destruction of property of that conflict was because the South rebelled without cause against the best government the world ever saw; that although Southern soldiers were heroes in the field, skillfully massed and led, they and their leaders were rebels and traitors who fought to overthrow the Union, and to preserve human slavery, and that their defeat was necessary for free government and the welfare of the human family. As a Confederate soldier and as a citizen of Virginia, I deny the charge, and denounce it as a calumny. We were not rebels; we did not fight to perpetuate human slavery, but for our rights and privileges under a government established over us by our fathers and in defense of our homes.” – Colonel Richard Henry Lee, C.S.A.

    “As for the South, it is enough to say that perhaps eighty per cent. of her armies were neither slave-holders, nor had the remotest interest in the institution. No other proof, however, is needed than the undeniable fact that at any period of the war from its beginning to near its close the South could have saved slavery by simply laying down its arms and returning to the Union.” – Major General John B. Gordon, from his book, Causes of the Civil War.

    “Had the cotton gin of Massachusetts inventor Eli Whitney not come on the scene in the late 1700’s, African slavery in this country was most likely doomed. The antislavery and emancipation feeling in the South was ascendant, but thwarted by profitable slave-trading and hungry cotton mills in New England which gave rise to more plantations in the South, and the perpetuation of slavery. And after years of treating the American South as an agricultural colony, New England set out in 1861 to strip it of political power.” – Bernhard Thuersam- Director Cape Fear Historical Institute NC.

    “I tried all in my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, for twelve years I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind; it would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came, and now it must go on unless you acknowledge our right to self government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence.” – President Jefferson Davis, CSA

    “When the South raised its sword against the Union’s Flag, it was in defense of the Union’s Constitution.” – Confederate General John B. Gordon

    “Everyone should do all in his power to collect and disseminate the truth, in the hope that it may find a place in history and descend to posterity. History is not the relation of campaigns and battles and generals or other individuals, but that which shows the principles for which the South contended and which justified her struggle for those principles.” – Robert E. Lee

    “It was necessary to put the South at a moral disadvantage by transforming the contest from a war waged against states fighting for their indepdence into a war waged against states fighting for the maintenance and extension of slavery…and the world, it might be hoped, would see it as a moral war, not a political; and the sympathy of nations would begin to run for the North, not for the South.” – Woodrow Wilson, “A History of The American People”, page 231

    “If they (the North) prevail, the whole character of the Government will be changed, and instead of a federal republic, the common agent of sovereign and independent States, we shall have a central despotism, with the notion of States forever abolished, deriving its powers from the will, and shaping its policy according to the wishes, of a numerical majority of the people; we shall have, in other words, a supreme, irresponsible democracy. The Government does not now recognize itself as an ordinance of God, and when all the checks and balances of the Constitution are gone, we may easily figure to ourselves the career and the destiny of this godless monster of democratic absolutism. The progress of regulated liberty on this continent will be arrested, anarchy will soon succeed, and the end will be a military despotism, which preserves order by the sacrifice of the last vestige of liberty.

    They are now fighting the battle of despotism. They have put their Constitution under their feet; they have annulled its most sacred provisions; The future fortunes of our children, and of this continent, would then be determined by a tyranny which has no parallel in history.” – Dr. James Henly Thornwell of South Carolina, in Our Danger and our Duty, 1862

  11. Tina says:

    Sorry, forgot the links but have run out of time for now. I will attempt to recover them this afternoon if time permits.

  12. Chris says:

    Interesting stuff, Tina. Thanks for providing that information.

    The article you cite at length seems to acknowledge that slavery was the primary issue, which makes me take their arguments about the tariff more seriously. Still, most historians I’ve seen seem to agree that had the Southern states not seceded, the Morrill tariff never would have passed. The Morrill tariff was a result of secession, not a cause.

    Then again, one could say the same of slavery. Lincoln had no real intent of emancipating all slaves prior to the Civil War, yet Southern propaganda convinced many that they were in danger of losing their entire way of life.

    When it comes down to it I think the primary issue of the Civil War, even more than

  13. Chris says:

    Dang, accidentally hit submit. I wish there was an edit function.

    As I was saying, I think the primary cause of secession, even more than slavery, was the South’s own paranoia. They were convinced that the North was going to take their slaves, even though they weren’t. They were convinced that the Morrill tariff was going to destroy them economically, even though they had enough votes to kill it. Any way you slice it, the Cindederacy’s actions were irrational and treasonous. Their flag represents racism, slavery, hatred, and fear.

  14. Tina says:

    Standing up for states rights…irrational and treasonous.

    So sayeth the big government socialist who seems to lack real understanding of his heritage.

  15. Chris says:

    Tina: “Standing up for states rights…irrational and treasonous.”

    What a shame. I had hoped based on comment #13 that you were interested in engaging in this debate in an honest and fact-based manner.

    I explained very clearly why the specific “rights” Confederates saw as under siege were not in any true danger from the North. Lincoln posed no real threat to slavery prior to the war, and the Morrill tariff only passed because the Southern states had already seceded.

    You chose to ignore these arguments, and then unfairly created a strawman to attack. I don’t know why you feel that reflects well on you or your position here. All it does is show that you are either uninterested in or unable to provide real rebuttals to the challenges to your political ideology.

    That ideology apparently includes believing that the Confederacy did not commit treason, and that they should be honored for fighting for “states’ rights.” You and I both know that no state has the “right” to keep slaves, and you and I both also know that preserving slavery was the primary justification for secession.

    If you would like to rebut the actual points I raised instead of attacking me, please let me know.

  16. DEWEY says:


    HELLO what about Robert E Lee’s Opinion?

    There were 3 flags of the confederacy

    The flag in question was none of them

    That flag was the VA battle flag of Robert E Lee.

    Lee called the flag later a flag of TREASON. He did not want the flag flown. At his funeral in 1870, there was no VA battle confed flag at his request.

    So the flag in question was banned by Robert E Lee…..That is what that flag meant to the actual army.

    Now we have 9 people dead shot in a church by a man who has pictures of himself with this flag and his beliefs from the Racists Council of Conservative Citizens.

    That flag meant none of what you claim.

    Here is what the Republican descendent of Jefferson Davis Delegate said in the SC house during the debate.


    That Flag is down, take the rest down from Federal and public property. It is A treason flag.

  17. DEWEY says:

    I think it is time to discuss the majority of “Conservative” organization, their writings, and history.

    Racism is there. One can not erase the meaning just because they may not be racist or at least think they are not. The Bible is the KKK doctrine as well.

    Fred Koch father of Charles and David founders and funders of the Tea Party was an originating member of the John Birch Society.

    The counsel of conservative citizens is a very public racist org.

    The Billboard of Gen Nathan Forrest put up in Selma for the anniversary was put up by a racist but explained away as innocent.

    The Turner Diaries are common reading for conservatives.

    The Confed flag is mostly flown by racists.

    Why the side stepping?

    Many of the Republicans and Democrats who did the right thing by taking that flag down may loose their seats due to gerrymandering all the racists into GOP winning pockets. They did the right thing.

    Just sayin

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