11 April 2010

Heirs to the Confederacy

In case you missed it, Confederate history has been back in the news thanks to the governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell, who declared April "Confederate History Month" in his state.  I've been trying to organize my thoughts about this ever since the news broke, and it wasn't until this morning in a fit of Prednisone-fueled energy that I was able to approach the subject.  What follows is the entirety of my contribution to an online forum discussion thread concerning the Confederate legacy and its place in today's national discussion:

A little late to the thread, but the subject has been on my mind lately.  Some observations and responses, in no particular order and directed at no one specific:

The most relevant lesson to take from Confederate history is that the overwhelming majority of whites who took up arms and gladly put their lives on the line...despite it actually being contrary to their own interests!  The Southern economy rested almost entirely on slavery; whites who did not own slaves to run their own plantations had few employment opportunities...which is why they were so poor in the first place.  The Northern economy was based on wage labor, where the absence of slavery permitted a more favorable environment of competition for gainful employment.  The average Southern white would have been better off without slavery and didn't realize it.

States Rights
Someone in this thread argued that Democrats hid behind "states rights" against Republicans, and that was entirely true.  What's important to remember, though (and I didn't see it noted elsewhere) is that after Franklin Roosevelt came to office, the ideologies of the two parties effectively switched.  Republican President Nixon was the one who adopted the "southern strategy" and brought the "states rights" shield back into prominence.  In a nutshell, what happened was his predecessor, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, had signed into law several pieces of legislation that exercised federal authority over racist Jim Crow laws.  Nixon couldn't repeal them, so he did the next best thing: he found a way to get out of enforcing or expanding them as best he could by arguing that the states had the right to operate as they saw fit "without interference from the federal government."

Southern Family Ties
One stereotype about Southerners is entirely true, and that is that they are very family-oriented.  Incest jokes aside, Southerners have traditionally stayed close to where they were born and place a higher value on extended familial relations than their more transient counterparts.  Even first cousins aren't necessarily a close relation today for many Americans (especially as families continue to move away from one another to seek jobs, go to school, etc.), but in the South, cousins are still largely treated as siblings.  It's in this context that one must appreciate the hand-me-down nature of family tales of their Confederate ancestors.

Furthermore, our society loves underdogs...sometimes, even when they lose (Rocky, anyone?).  Combine that innate sentiment with the close-knitted nature of Southern families, and you've got a recipe for hero-worshiping Col. Great-Gran-Pappy.

Stay Off My Blue Suede Shoes!
Trash talk the South all you want...but you leave The Dukes of Hazzard and Waffle House the hell alone!

Thomas Jefferson was a deist.  God existed to him, but mostly insofar as it gave a convenient answer to the unanswerable questions about our origins.  God set the world in motion; what mattered to Jefferson was what Man did with it.  I suspect that today, he probably would have been more of an atheist or agnostic, because it's likelier he would have been contented by less God-centric answers to those questions.  Then again, he may have found some peace in the idea of an unknowable God being out there somewhere.  I am certain he would balk at instructing children in school with a doctrine that rejects scientific evidence.

Convenient Federal Power
Going back to the 19th Century, yes, it's awfully convenient when the South thought that federal power was a bad thing.  They certainly didn't mind negotiating congressional agreements that permitted slavery to expand into new territories (I'm looking at you, Missouri Compromise) or the aforementioned Dred Scott decision that denied one state the right to liberate a fugitive slave from another state.  But then, we see this hypocrisy in their heirs today.  I'm constantly being presented with news articles about the federal programs that benefit the very Tea Partiers who are allegedly outraged at the existence of those programs.

Jon Voight & James Buchanan
Incidentally, I saw a clip of Jon Voight reading a letter addressed to the American people from Mike Huckabee's Fox show.  In it, he asserted that President Obama is "the first president to weaken America."  The first thought I had was, "What about Buchanan?"  Everyone talks about Lincoln and how he saved the Union, but no one ever says a damn thing about Buchanan, who determined that the South had a legal right to secede and that the Union did not have the legal right to prevent their secession--a rationalization for sitting idly by for literal months during his lame duck period.  Had he taken decisive action during his presidency, the Civil War may have been much briefer.  Instead, the secessionists had time to organize so much that they were able to select Jefferson Davis as the provisional President of the Confederate States of America an entire month before Lincoln's inauguration!  If standing by and allowing that to happen didn't weaken America, then I would love to know what measuring stick Voight is using to evaluate President Obama.

Rationalization Evolves Into Mythology
When Johnny Rebel didn't come home, his family had to decide what to tell themselves to make it acceptable.  Johnny couldn't have died in vain--he had to have sacrificed himself for something important.  This happens in every armed conflict; for that matter, any time someone dies in a way that doesn't jibe with what his or her surviving loved ones wish to believe.  And what they came up with to justify Johnny not coming home was that he died fighting to preserve the purest form of independence and freedom from governmental interference (never mind the obvious hypocrisy of the argument).  And that's what has been allowed to grow from a rationalization to an outright mythology in the South, and their heirs are desperate to envision themselves a part of that noble legacy.

Calhoun and I are not in agreement about nearly anything, but I readily admit that there's a great deal of admiration I have for how articulate and passionate his surviving words tend to be.  If you isolate them from any other understanding you have of the situations, there emerges a sort of logic to what he says.  I liken it to when I was in math class, and I would get the wrong answer by doing what I believed to have been the correct process.  It always turned out that my mistake was in one of the very earliest stages of my work, and that early mistake threw off the entire thing.

Robert E. Lee
One thing about General Robert E. Lee that is often overlooked is that he himself did not wish to secede; he only went along with the Confederacy out of a deep personal devotion to his home state of Virginia.  Lee's personal views on slavery have been a point of contention over the years.  Any criticism he might have offered of any value was kept from the public discourse, but some excerpts from private letters invite an interpretation of the man as having accepted the "peculiar institution" while simultaneously disliking it.  Why this matters is, it provides the necessary kernel of truth for the self-pardoning sub-mythology of the Confederacy as being about more than slavery.  If Lee could fight for the Confederacy despite not wanting to, or even believing in slavery, then there had to be more to it for him...and if there was, then there was something more to it for everyone else who participated, too.


  1. Glad you mentioned Jon Voight. I was shocked when I happened on the clusterFUX channel last night.

  2. Glad you mentioned Jon Voight. I was shocked when I happened on the clusterFUX channel last night.