How the South Lost the War But Won the Narrative

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A piece of racist literature from the ’90s… 1990’s, not 1890’s.

It’s well worth talking about, given recent events, how certain factions from the South have indeed lobbied, largely successfully, to cover up, obfuscate and twist the history of the Civil War and their “peculiar institution” (a phrase that was used in the South, as well as the North) in order to continue to fight for ideas that should have been buried along with Jefferson Davis.

Tony Horwitz’s piece in TPM is well worth a read and I’d add a few historical tidbits.

Good to see that many news outlets have given the context that the confederate battle flag we’re talking about was not flown over statehouses regularly until it was brought out of attics (and Klan meetings) by Southerners in the 1950’s and 60’s in direct response to the civil rights movement and school desegregation. It didn’t fly over Southern capitals during the war or in the 90+ years since the war, until white Southerners felt a challenge to their de facto apartheid regime and pushed back by being less covert about their white supremacist tendencies.

Some of those who invoke the “heritage, not hate” mantra are disingenuous. On the day of the shooting, I was in rural east Texas, touring a small town with a businessman who displayed the rebel flag on his truck. After telling me “it’s heritage, not hate,” he proceeded to refer to a black neighborhood as “Niggertown” and rant against the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Scratch a heritage lover and reveal either a racist or someone completely snowed by Southern propaganda. Horwitz cites polls that show Americans in general have a basic misunderstanding of the reasons for the Civil War.

But a deeper problem remains, and not just among those who cherish the Confederacy. Nationwide, Americans still cling to a deeply sanitized and Southern-fried understanding of the Civil War. More often than not, when I talk to people about the conflict, I hear that it was about abstract principles like “state sovereignty” and “the Southern way of life.” Surveys confirm this. In 2011, at the start of the war’s sesquicentennial, the Pew Research Center asked more than 1500 Americans their view as to “the main cause of the Civil War.” Only 38 percent said the main cause was slavery, compared to 48 percent who answered states’ rights.

In my experience this misunderstanding of history is partly to blame on the urge to dismiss the simple (but sometimes correct) answers in a Gladwellian effort to find the hidden, more complex and sophisticated answers (“Freakonomics”). The only problem is that the rhetorical diminution of slavery as the prime factor in the secession of 13 Southern states is factually incorrect and an absurd acceptance of Southern propaganda created to deny the real history and to indemnify Southerners for their role in the Civil War and the massive injustice they fought to perpetuate.

The sick truth is that Southern slaveholders and their representatives in the U.S. government (with their Northern enablers) pushed from 1776 till 1861 to expand their free labor system, protect it from any encroachment on it or even hint of threat to it (gag rules on Congressional speeches and the delivery of abolitionist mailings) and also to glean any advantage they could get from their slave populations (economic or political).

Beginning with the Continental Congress promising colonial slaveholders that it would not be ironic at all to fight for freedom for the new nation but continue to keep and import slaves, continuing with the 3/5 compromise in order to incentivize the Carolinas and Georgia to ratify the Constitution, “compromises” in 1820 (over Missouri), 1832 (John C. Calhoun’s nullification crisis) and 1850 (the great compromise that solved nothing and solidified regional factions) were forced by Southern states with almost feudal economies, whose political power in Congress was artificially propped up by the counting of their chattel slaves as if they were 3/5 of a full voting citizen (seriously, imagine Iowa with each cow counted as 3/5 a citizen and you see how demented that gift to the South was), in order to prevent disunion even earlier than it eventually happened.

It is worth noting that state conventions to discuss secession began in the late 1840s and kept meeting despite every compromise designed to hold the union together through 1861. The inevitability of the Civil War was set just about right from the beginning of the nation by (1) the Founding Father’s (Jefferson and Madison especially) mistaken belief that slavery would expire by its own weight eventually, and (2) their willingness to compromise with the slave power in order to appease them while waiting for slavery to end in the South as it ended in the North. No act of appeasement was enough to slake the thirst of the slave powers for expansion of their property rights. Absolutely every question in government from 1800 through Fort Sumter was seen through the prism of how the United States of America could be both an exceptional experiment in egalitarian democracy dedicated to liberty and the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and also completely dedicated to the enslavement and subjugation of an entire race of people.

With the Civil Rights struggle, scholars of the Civil War era gave new emphasis to race and slavery, and this trend has continued ever since. The evidence is overwhelming that Southern states seceded and fought to maintain slavery. Don’t believe me; believe the words of secessionists and Confederate leaders. Among the most often cited is Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens who in 1861 declared the Founders “fundamentally wrong” in judging all humans equal. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—the subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

For 70 years from inception of the nation till the Civil War, the South did not really except the core concept of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, they just cynically gained whatever they could from the Union, while essentially going their own way. Southern rhetoric defended slavery both as right, moral, appropriate and the best possible existence for black people as they used the property rights protections granted in the founding documents and propounded by the courts as an ironclad legal defense for their actions. Then after losing the war they took up a propaganda effort to say that the war was the fault of the North victimizing them, that slavery wasn’t all that important (or bad) and that racism had nothing to do with any of it (and was in fact even worse in the hypocritical North).

This disingenuousness continues today and has been spread by the Southerner’s grasp on the political power of the Republican Party – the party that arose in the 1850’s in response to the nation’s untenable position on slavery and was ironically captured in the mid-20th century (the “Southern Strategy”) to be the defender of the heritage of segregation.

The heritage Southerners defend is really just the cynical manipulation of our political systems to maintain their hold on power in a separatist tribal society that shits on the ideas of equality and democracy.

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