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The Confederate Conundrum
Last relevant on April 18, 1865, the Confederate battle flag has seen a surprising amount of press in the past week in the wake of some nut-job with a bad haircut, whose name will not be mentioned on this blog, shooting up a church full of black people because of his own delusional fantasies. So, naturally, attention has been turned towards a flag being flown by the government of South Carolina which had nothing to do with the shooting.
For the people demanding that the Confederate battle flag be taken down the flag represents treason, hatred, and racism because one of the reasons that southern states like South Carolina seceded from the Union in the first place was the fear that a Republican President, Abraham Lincoln having just been elected, would stop the spread of slavery into new states as the country expanded. They were also upset about northern states like Wisconsin nullifying the Fugitive Slave Act and refusing to enforce it in many cases. These are uncontroversial historical facts, but to focus on them at the exclusion of all other facts at the heart of southern secession is without good sense.
Virginia, for example, did not secede until after Lincoln launched his illegal blockade of southern ports. Now why would they wait to secede if they were solely concerned about the issue of slavery? Surely they would have seceded right alongside their fellow slave-states before Fort Sumter and the blockade if that were their sole concern. This is not to mention Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee who seceded even later than Virginia. Again, that these states were indeed concerned about slavery is not in question, but if slavery was the only issue they cared about it seems reasonable to assume that they would not have waited until April or May of 1861 to secede.
So the catalyst for Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee to secede was obviously Lincoln's illegal and aggressive blockade of southern ports, alongside a concern over the issue of slavery, but what else could possibly convince the southern states that it was finally time to cut ties with the northern states? What other issue could have been far more controversial than the spread of slavery since the founding of the United States? That issue is obviously tariffs. Now the people who want to bring down the Confederate flag will scoff and say that nowhere were tariffs mentioned in any of the secession declarations, and that tariffs were actually at historic lows at the time the southern states began to secede. They will point this out, and then they'll mention the speech by Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, where he states that slavery is the cornerstone of the Confederacy. They will, however, completely ignore the inaugural address of Jefferson Davis where slavery is never mentioned and he makes clear that the position of the Confederacy is peace with the United States and the "the freest trade which our necessities will permit." To Davis then, the cornerstone of the Confederacy, which was indeed a slave-nation, was peace and free trade. The Confederate Constitution, which will also be ignored, unless it is mentioned as legalizing slavery, also outlaws tariffs, which shows that the entire Confederacy was concerned about tariffs.
Now it's a fact that tariffs were relatively low at the time the southern states began seceding, so on what basis am I claiming that tariffs were a concern? The cornerstone of Lincoln's Presidential campaign was a high tariff. In Lincoln's own words, "I am humble Abraham Lincoln. My policies are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a National Bank, in favor of the Internal improvements system, and in favor of a high protective tariff." That's what Lincoln campaigned on, and that's what Lincoln got. The Morrill Tariff, which more than doubled the tariff rate, was signed into law by James Buchanan shortly before Lincoln's inauguration, and tariffs were increased even further during Lincoln's administration.
All this talk of exactly why the south seceded aside, however, one might say that it is a simple fact that the Confederate States of America was a slave-owning nation, and that this means that their flag should offend all right-minded people for its obviously racist meaning. This is a fact, and it's entirely sensible to see this and come to the conclusion that the Confederate flag represents slavery, oppression, and racism. However, if one holds to this view then one should be consistent and hold to the view that the United States flag also represents slavery, oppression, and racism. The United States of America after all was a slave-owning nation for nearly 100 years, and that doesn't count the time before the states seceded from Great Britain.
The objection to this claim might be that the colonies didn't declare their independence from Great Britain solely for the reason of preserving slavery, and so their cause was nobler. I've already shown that slavery wasn't the sole issue in the minds of the southern states upon their secession, but surely slavery itself is the crime and not whether a group secedes to preserve slavery in particular. In this the colonies are as guilty as the southern states, and so the United States was born, just as the Confederacy was born, a slave-nation. Furthermore, we can once again turn to Abraham Lincoln for his views on just who the United States government was meant for: "Senator Douglas remarked . . that . . . this government was made for the white people and not for negroes. Why, in point of mere fact, I think so too." So here we have the "Great Emancipator" baldly stating that the United States government does not and should not have anything to do with black people.
The next objection to equating the United States flag with the Confederate flag is that the U.S. obviously evolved and its flag has stood for other things over time including the abolition of slavery. I will grant that the U.S. flag can stand for other things as well, including the abolition of slavery. However, if we accept that the meaning of the U.S. flag can evolve and change over time then there's no reason we can't also accept that the Confederate flag's meaning has evolved and changed over time. There is no question that the Confederate flag has become a symbol that represents southern culture in all its aspects and between all races.
If we accept this theory of flag symbolism evolving over time, however, we also have to accept the good with the bad. Yes, the U.S. flag can stand for the abolition of slavery, but it must then also stand for the oppression of people around the globe that continues to this day. How many innocent civilians are being killed in the Middle East with the U.S. flag waving nobly over their corpses while you read this? Perhaps the U.S. flag stands for the utter destruction of Iraq, the deaths of millions of innocent Iraqis over more than two decades, and the systematic destabilization of an entire region. Perhaps flying Old Glory is insensitive to these people. Perhaps the U.S. flag is insensitive to Japanese people who were herded into internment camps in the U.S. during WWII while countless innocent civilians were bombed and vaporized in Japan itself. These are just a few examples of the atrocities that the U.S. flag has flown over.
The simple fact is that no symbol can be objectively boiled down to a single universal meaning, because every individual will see something different when they look at it. Some will look at the Confederate flag and see hatred, whereas others will see a representation of Southern culture. Some of us will simply see a defunct flag. We're all correct, but none of us gets to impose our own interpretation on the others.