The CSA and Symbols: Learning from History
Since a crazed, hate-filled and cowardly gunman killed nine black Christians in Charleston, South Carolina, the PC police have been in attack mode on anything associated with the Confederate States of America. The South Carolina General Assembly quickly voted to removed the Battle Flag from a Confederate Soldiers’ Memorial on the State House grounds. Now, critics want to destroy a massive carving on Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta featuring Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Some are even demanding the rethinking of events associated with Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and others because they were slave owners.
Ben Hallman at the Huffington Post tells us how we are supposed to think: “The Confederacy was the most vile and harmful political invention in United States history. It was founded on the explicit principle that slavery is the ‘natural and normal condition’ of black people, and that they should be ruthlessly exploited to the benefit of their white masters.” Hallman and others see Confederacy as synonymous with slavery and racism, and tell us to despise all things Confederate. His is a very simplistic view of history.
Slavery was a horrible institution that most of us, thankfully, cannot begin understand. But if we are going to remove symbols and emblems associated with it, we better look at the Stars and Stripes before hunting down anything with the initials CSA. Slavery, of course, existed in the United States from colonial times until ratification of the 13th Amendment. Twelve presidents owned slaves at one time or another, including George Washington and U.S. Grant. Actually, slavery existed longer in the Union than the CSA, since the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slaveholding states remaining loyal to the Union. For a good study on the war, causes, and effects, see Robert Higgs, “The Bloody Hinge of American History.” For anyone interested in the growth of the federal government under Lincoln and the Republicans, see Joseph R. Stromberg, “Civil War and the American Political Economy.” For a scholarly argument that war was not necessary to gain emancipation, see Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating the Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. A review of the book can be found here.
Of course, the Stars and Stripes has also presided over many horrific acts and policies dealing with removal of American Indians, imprisonment of Japanese Americans in WWII, and the torturing of prisoners at Gitmo. Such examples are abundant.
If we want to hold the USA and CSA to our modern standards and sensibilities, both will be found lacking. But in both the CSA and the USA we can find men and ideas worth studying and considering. Libertarians have long realized this. For example, Professor Randall Holcombe points to many provisions of the Confederate Constitution that limited government power and that would serve us well today. Robert E. Lee rightly remains internationally respected as a brilliant tactician, a gentleman, and man of honor. The Independent Institute has long championed William Lloyd Garrison, his demands for the abolition of slavery, and his contributions to liberty.
Bottom line: We need to pause before we banish all symbols of our past that don’t comport with modern thinking. Our history has rough edges and embarrassments we don’t want to repeat. But there’s plenty to learn from great men of the North and the South, the Blue and the Gray.