February 14, 1997 (see updated author's note below)

Confederate flag isn't 'a symbol of hatred'

By Steve Scroggins


The Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans received special vehicle license plates bearing a tiny Confederate flag. A protest promptly ensued and the plates were replaced.

New York's governor described the Georgia state flag as a "symbol of hatred" and had the flag removed from New York's state capitol. Two Georgia state senators retaliated by "yanking" down the New York state flag in the Georgia capitol. That last action defines the Georgians as "yankers" and the New Yorkers as "yankees."

These events, among others, illustrate that the symbol in question is widely misunderstood. Let's review.

Viewing the Confederate flag as a symbol of oppression and hatred can only be based on an incomplete historical perspective. Slavery was most common in the Confederate states, but let's not forget that slavery existed under the U.S. flag long before 1861 and continued exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation until the 13th amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1865.

The ugly deeds (slavery and others) perpetrated under each flag don't annul the ideals each flag represents. Those ideals and the honorable men who've defended them with their lives deserve our respect. If not for their courage and sacrifice, Martin Luther King, Jr. could never have challenged Americans to more completely live up to those ideals.

More recently, some hate groups have misused and despoiled the Confederate banner by causing some to associate it with racial supremacy and hatred.

The War Between the States is often mischaracterized as a war over slavery. The U.S. Army used the emotional slavery issue in its recruitment efforts, yet Lincoln had stated his willingness to allow continued slavery in order to preserve the union.

Remembering the war and its veterans doesn't celebrate slavery. We can all agree that slavery was wrong and is wrong. Abolition was an important issue, but it wasn't the issue for which most participants fought or died.

The larger issue of the Civil War was states' rights and secession. Disputes on policy (such as slavery) and federal authority over states induced the Confederate states to secede. Such a test of the secession principle was inevitable.

States originally joined the union with the explicit understanding that they could leave it at will or when it threatened their sovereignty. The war settled that issue; states cannot secede (in a practical sense, however, it remains their lawful right).

Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, or failing that, forces "unity" at the point of a gun.

Henceforth, Washington has seized more and more states' rights with 70,000 federal regulations and mandates. And as the states lose rights, so have the people.

Given this historical perspective, I view the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to tyranny and federal authority beyond its constitutional limits, not a symbol of hatred.

That view begets my internal contradiction. I pledge, as did Thomas Jefferson, eternal hostility to any form of tyranny. But I've also pledged allegiance to the flag representing one indivisible nation. [I no longer say the word indivisible...here's why]

The current questions: Should the Confederate flag be offensive to anyone? And if it is, should it defiantly fly over state capitols alone or as part of a state flag? Those who are offended seem to think their interpretation alone should settle the issue.

Not in our republic. Even government's proper functions and scope---a debate as old as Plato's Republic---remains hotly debated today. Consensus on the flag's symbolic meaning may be as elusive as consensus on government's proper boundaries.

Perhaps we should express our state sovereignty differently in order to achieve the paramount mission: the united resolve to restore and preserve our constitutional rights. But before changing Georgia's flag, we should expressly declare that resisting errant federal authority isn't wrong. In fact, we owe our descendents a government more like that which is articulated in the Constitution.

Only continued resistance to the relentless federal encroachment will assure that, as Abraham Lincoln said, "government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Copyright Ó1997 Steve Scroggins - All rights reserved.

Author's note: I've received more e-mail (mostly positive) about this topic than any other. That's proof that the symbol evokes strong emotions. I continue to grow and adapt my opinion on it and I have friends who disagree. Many of the writings of the time (see the CSV link below) confirm that continuing slavery was an important issue for many of the so-called "leaders" inducing the secession. But overriding that concern was the belief that the central government should not supercede the state's right to address that issue and many others such as tariffs and taxes. Furthermore, it's clear that the paramount issue for Lincoln and Grant was preservation of the Union at all costs (see below) and preservation of the South as a revenue source for the Federal government and northern shipping and manufacturing interests. The bottom line is that Lincoln and his northern supporters wanted to keep the southern states in the union for selfish economic reasons--periodSlavery was a secondary issue.  Any assertion that the war was solely over slavery is clearly misinformed. Read all you can and decide for yourself armed with facts.

"If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission, and offer my sword to the other side." --Ulysses S. Grant

Note: U.S. Grant owned slaves and did not free them until the passage of the 13th Amendment.

http://www.confederate.org/ || http://www.georgiascv.com/ || Confederate Home Page | History Curriculum Project | GA Flag Facts | Confederate State Flag Facts | http://www.scvcamp469-nbf.com/Q&A/civil_war_wasn.htm - A column by Walter Williams

"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."--Abraham Lincoln. March 4, 1861 Inauguration speech

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union." --Abraham Lincoln in an 1862 letter to Horace Greeley on his justification for the Northern War of Aggression against the constitutional secession of the South. In September 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation (effective Jan. 1, 1863).

What did the northern newspapers of the time have to say?

The commercial bearing of the question has acted upon the North...We now see clearly whither we are tending, and the policy we must adopt.  With us it is no longer an abstract question---one of Constitutional construction, or of the reserved or delegated powers of the State or Federal government, but of material existence and moral position both at home and abroad.....We were divided and confused till our pockets were touched.  ---New York Times March 30, 1861

The Southern Confederacy will not employ our ships or buy our goods.  What is our shipping without it?  Literally nothing....It is very clear that the South gains by this process, and we lose.  No---we MUST NOT "let the South go." ----Union Democrat , Manchester, NH, February 19, 1861

For the north, it was about money and continuing to collect tarrifs from Southern farmers and forcing them to use Northern shipping and Northern manufactured goods.

Mischaracterizing the War and Southerners

Case in point: In 1864 Lincoln was up for reelection. Some of his advisors urged him to suspend the elections because the Civil War was still raging. Historians praise him for refusing to do this, though the Constitution would seem to have given him no choice. Apparently it was mighty big of Honest Abe to abide by the Constitution once in a while.

He explained he’d made his decision on grounds that “if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered us.” The historians quote these words with warm approval. But they are nonsense.

The “rebellion” was a war for Southern independence. The South had no design to “conquer” the North, let alone to abolish elections. If anything, it hoped that the 1864 election would replace Lincoln with a new president who would make peace.

Though Lincoln’s words are nonsense, they are revealing. Like most war leaders, he grossly distorted and exaggerated the motives of his enemy.
He constantly insisted that the South wanted to “destroy” the Union, when it merely wanted to withdraw from it. He called honorable men like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee “traitors,” though they never betrayed anyone in their lives. He accused the South of “aggression,” when it was the South that was being invaded, and truly destroyed, by the Union armies. Having assured the country that he had neither the power nor the inclination to disturb slavery, Lincoln made the destruction of slavery his lofty war aim in the middle of the war.
---Joseph Sobran ( http://www.sobran.com )

See the book Was Jefferson Davis Right? by James Ronald Kennedy and Walter Donald Kennedy ( Pelican Publishing Co.) for a compelling presentation of the issues.

Do I wish the South had won the war? - I wish there had been no war and there wouldn't have been if the Lincoln administration had simply allowed the southern states to secede as was their constitutional right.  I wish the cause of state's rights had won but I think slavery and the moral argument to justify it---racial supremacy---was wrong and is wrong. I believe that slavery would eventually have ended on the states' own timetables as education and literacy became more prevalent and technology made slavery economically inefficient. The "Christian conscience" brought slavery to an end in Europe; the British navy shut down the Atlantic slave trade and the slave exporters of Africa were suffering for lack of market.  By 1850, the end of slavery was inevitable in the Christian world.  (See THE SLAVE TRADE by Hugh Thomas, published by Touchstone/Simon & Shuster) The nationalist empire that resulted from the War is not ideal, and though there's no other place I'd rather live, I'd prefer that we restore the principles (limited federal power) of the Constitution. If we don't hang on to the founding principles of the republic, and the states' preimminent rights relative to federal government, then we shall all become slaves of government tyrrany.

Does Heritage equal "Hate" and "Slavery"? - All the Confederate heritage groups and historical societies with which I'm familiar condemn slavery and racism and merely want to honor their ancestors and preserve history as it actually was. [See the 1989 Resolution of the Sons of Confederate Veterans {PDF format 192K}] However, perhaps some don't denounce racism prominently and loudly enough. See the links and epilogue below.  

No culture celebrates its faults and failures.  Do the Japanese celebrate Pearl Harbor? The Rape of Nanking? The Bataan Death March?  Do Oktoberfests celebrate Nazi atrocities and the holocaust?  Do Africans celebrate centuries of exporting their brethren into slavery?  Do Africans celebrate the slavery that continues to this day in the Sudan, Mauritania and the Ivory Coast?  Of course not, they celebrate the positive aspects and accomplishments of their cultural heritage and the same goes for southern American heritage.

Confederate Ancestry and motivations - In my roots search so far, I've found four ancestors who were Confederate veterans. Henry Theus and Mary Windham Theus had nine children. Their family sent seven sons to the war and only three returned (see my Genealogy index). They didn't own slaves. I didn't know them, but I don't believe they fought merely to preserve slavery. Supreme Court rulings had already declared slavery constitutionally legal. The south already had slavery and, as long as southern states remained in the union, northern and southern slaveholding states could probably have blocked any Constitutional amendment (requiring 2/3 ratification) to abolish slavery.

I think it had more to do with resisting the arrogance, coercion and threats of a distant central government, to protest unfair taxation and tariffs levied to benefit the north at the expense of the south, and to stand for a government that more closely resembled the ideals (states' preeminent authority) of the original U.S. Constitution. They were patriots who declared independence and then defended their homeland against an unconstitutional invasion.  The column above was to express continuing resistance to oppressive federal encroachment----with words in the arena of ideas. The biggest threat our freedom faces today is from within----creeping socialism and growing government.  As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”

"The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history...the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination -- that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue . The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves." --H.L. Mencken ( HL Mencken )

Specialty Tags & Bumper Stickers - The Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the SCV for various other states including Virginia and Georgia , have overcome protests and cleared the way to issue specialty plates for members. The plates have the SCV emblem which consists of the St. Andrew's Cross (Confederate battle flag) surrounded by the text "Sons Of Confederate Veterans" and the inception year of 1896. I'm now an SCV member and I've ordered the SCV license plate for my car.  I have a number of friends and acquaintances who happen to be black and I hope my character and goodwill toward them has been proven by my behavior. Given that so many people misunderstand this symbol, some might get the wrong idea about the message I'm sending (especially those who don't know me well) and that's regrettable. There are a significant number of angry and violent people out there who will lash out at this symbol (hate crimes if you will). I don't want to make a target of my vehicle nor endanger those who ride in the vehicle with me, but we as Southerners must stand up for our symbols and show by our behavior and goodwill that we do not represent hatred or supremacy.

Dealing with the "R" word - I understand that one local civics teacher at Westside High School (who does not know me personally) is telling his high school students that I'm a racist based on the content of the above column. Rather than rebutting my opinion with his own logic and opinion, he retreats behind the "R" word. That speaks volumes about his scholarship and abilities as a government teacher. Today's children don't get an adequate education in U.S. history or government and this fellow and myopic partisans like him are part of the problem.

"The Civil War wasn't just a victory of North over South; it was a victory for centralized government over the states and federalism. It destroyed the ability of the states to protect themselves against the destruction of their reserved powers. Must we all be happy about this? [Abraham] Lincoln himself -- the real Lincoln, that is -- would have deprecated the unintended results of the war. Though he sometimes resorted to dictatorial methods, he never meant to create a totalitarian state. It's tragic that slavery was intertwined with a good cause, and scandalous that those who defend that cause today should be smeared as partisans of slavery. But the verdict of history must not be left to the simple-minded and the demagogic." --Joseph Sobran (syndicated columnist)

"That erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all, it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible  to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.  That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else."                          --H L. Mencken

Epilogue - I think those who vandalize Confederate memorials and symbols---or assault the people who display them---are as guilty of "hate crimes" as anyone else who assaults or vandalizes another due to skin color, nationality, or whatever. Some people think this symbol is offensive enough that it "authorizes" them or justifies criminal actions in response to it. Wrong! Until the heritage groups and flag supporters come out and expressly, loudly denounce racism and racial supremacy, many who are offended will take "heritage" as a code word for segregation and racial supremacy. Education of the true history seems to be the only answer.  Stay tuned. --Steve Scroggins

See my April 12, 2000 column on state flag compromise.

See my April 14, 2000 letter about Confederate heritage ignorance.

A little flag humor by R.L.Day of The Macon Telegraph (RL stands for Raging Liberal): South Carolina rises again 5/04/00 and Fly Flag - but I won't salute 1/20/00

Last updated 02.06.2003

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