Friday, December 3, 2010

Nothing to Celebrate

As a historian, my usual instinct is to welcome an event that draws attention to the past.  Then I read this article in the New York Times about the South Carolina Secession Gala to be held in Charleston on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, complete with “a 45 minute theatrical play re-enacting the signing of the original Ordinance of Secession.”  In the re-enactment, Republican state senator Glenn F. McConnell, President Pro-Tempore of the South Carolina senate, will take the role of Convention chair.  The event is sponsored by the South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

I’ve encountered the SCV before. Back in 2006, a one of its members, in a letter in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, stated flatly: "Slavery was not a major issue" in the Civil War.  As I noted in reply, any reasonable reading of the secession documents clearly reveals that the protection of slavery was the motive behind secession.  How do we know that?  They said so.

While the Confederacy’s modern apologists shy away from the subject of slavery, the Confederates themselves did not.  The South Carolina secession declaration plainly states the centrality of slavery. The statement of the causes of secession includes the complaint that

the non-slaveholding States … have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

Those things had been going on for years, so why secession in December 1860?  They were clear about that, too.  It was the election of Abraham Lincoln,

a man … 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.

Lincoln’s Republican Party, they said, was committed to the idea that “a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.”  As a result, they said, “The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.” (It is worth noting that the adjective they used to describe themselves was “slaveholding.”  It was that characteristic, and no other, that they believed distinguished them.)

This is not a close call.  South Carolina seceded to protect slavery.  The people who made that decision said so.

But SCV members, in their desperation to separate the Confederate cause from the infamy of slavery, insist that some other reason, like high tariffs rates, was the real reason for secession. (I have it on good authority that this nonsense is even peddled by some economics professors, but I know of no respectable historian today who holds that view.)  One SCV member wrote back in 2006: "It was economics and tariffs that prompted Lincoln to force the South to remain in the Union."

As I noted in my reply, even if that were true (and it is not), it tells us nothing about why Southerners seceded.  At the South Carolina secession convention, delegate Lawrence Keitt stated it as plainly as is possible: "The tariff is not the question which brought the people up to their present attitude…. Our people come upon this on the question of slavery…. It is the central point from which we are now proceeding."  Not a single delegate contradicted him.

When all else fails, the SCV fall back on their ultimate trump card: the "valor" and "courage" of individual soldiers.  I have no trouble with descendants of Confederate veterans honoring the memory of their ancestors.  It is possible for an individual to fight with bravery and honor in a flawed cause.

What I find most interesting about this gala celebration, however, is that it gives the lie to the argument that the SCV is all about honoring the valor of Confederate veterans.  This event commemorates not a military engagement, not personal martial bravery, but a political decision (and an utterly disastrous one at that, regardless of what one thinks of the cause).  And that decision, as the historical record clearly shows, was to separate from the Union for the purpose of defending the institution of slavery.

There can be no pretense, no hiding behind military courage in this instance.  This event proudly supports and celebrates the decision that precipitated the worst bloodshed in all of American history.  It supports the act of people who forthrightly declared that they hoped to create a "Confederacy of Slaveholding States."  One hundred and fifty years later, it is appalling that any American could fail to see how wrong that is.  The secession of South Carolina is no cause for celebration.


  1. I have lived in the south my entire life, and still cannot understand the romanticism of the civil war. I especially fail to comprehend the downplaying of slavery's importance to the infrastructure and culture of the south. That the economy had pinned its basis on agriculture and the slave labor used to keep it going is a matter of record and to downplay that is a discredit to factual history and to every descendant of a person who was held in slavery.

    True tariffs, a shift to a more industrialized economy in the north, played a part, but so did the expansion into the west, with slave states vying for more like themselves for a bigger influence in national politics. Ah wait, more slave states...slavery was an issue even there.

    Attempting to rewrite history by ignoring the ugliness it contains is sadly nothing new, as later generations don't want to admit to the "sins of their forefathers." However I am of a mind that we should remember the good the bad and the ugly of our past. How better to learn from it. People like the SCV should know better to expect everyone to buy their version. I just hope that few do.

  2. This "celebration" reminds me of how a well known fraternity (was it Kappa Sig?), in the 50s and 60s, and maybe even later, had as their major annual social event a Confederate Ball, complete with full dress uniforms, grand ball gowns, and even a few "slaves". I always felt this event had more to do with having an excuse to dress up in beautiful get-ups and re-enact a part of Gone with the Wind than politics, but like the SCV, it required going into complete denial about the facts so that everyone could have a good time. In the case of the fraternity, the national organization finally had to threaten the southern chapters with completer expulsion to get the practice stopped. Apparently there are no similar sanctions that can be brought against the SCV.

  3. I think you may be responsible for the excellent editorial in the Herald Journal today. Thanks for that.

  4. I saw your comment before reading the editorial and thought it must be coincidence. But then I read the editorial and saw how closely it followed this argument and used some of the same evidence. So maybe.

    Either way, I was glad to see the H-J say what it did. Brace yourself for the letters to the editor that will follow.

  5. I think you are correct on all points. The larger question is why did so many families with young men, the overwhelming majority of whom held no slaves and many with little economic means give their lives to this cause. In my opinion, and this may help somewhat to explain the romanticism that exists,they were motivated by the memories of lost causes past; of their struggles with the English that brought them to America. There is an ethos that runs deep here and I think the aristocracy in the South understood that and used it to their advantage.

  6. I think the best answer to your question I've seen is in Edmund Morgan's book, _American Slavery, American Freedom_. He argues that the American idea of freedom developed in the colonies alongside the institution of slavery, and that in some respects, slavery helped define freedom for whites; i.e., to be free meant not being black and a slave. This helped unite whites behind the idea of freedom across socio-economic classes. I think that helps explain why, as you note, it was easy for the southern aristocracy to convince non-slaveowners that abolition threatened them too: it meant reducing them to the status of the freedmen.