Astute historians caution us about applying modern sensitivities to past cultures. For instance, we should not condemn the Roman Empire for its warlike proclivities, its version of slavery, and the gladiator games as well as many other aspects of the Empire we today find objectionable. We probably should even be hesitant about condemning the Romans for martyring Christians. Simply put, the Romans in these and many other circumstances acted in thorough compliance with accepted precepts of the Empire, and its religious and cultural mores; but, we shouldn’t glorify past behavior that we find objectionable today.
George Santayanaa philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist who lived from the mid-19th century into the mid-20th century taught that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Without necessarily condemning past cultures for immoralities we would not accept today, we must guard against at our peril repeating those failures in our present time. The horrific massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, and the cultural phenomena among many white citizens leading to, and resulting from, the senseless attack provide pertinent examples of the peril to our society because some of us cannot faithfully remember the past.
The Cornerstone Speech
Cornerstone has two interlocking definitions: (1) A stone that forms the base of a corner of a building upon which the structure is constructed in a plumb fashion and (2) An important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends or is based.
Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, delivered a two-hour oration in Savannah, GA, on Mar 21, 1861. This tour de force occurred a few weeks before Confederate forces began the Civil War (or Southern Insurrection / Rebellion / Revolution) by firing on the US Army at Fort Sumter, SC. Vice-President Stephens explained the fundamental differences between the “new” Confederate and “old” US Constitutions, and he enunciated many purported deficiencies in the US Constitution and grievances the Confederacy held against the duly constituted US government. Some of these grievances had degrees of merit, e.g., tariffs on raw materials and manufactured products exported into the primarily agricultural southern states. At that time long before income taxes tariffs constituted an important source of revenue for the Federal government and often were highly resented.
More importantly, this oration became known as the Cornerstone Speech because of Stephens’ assertion comparing the US and Confederate Constitutions: Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.
Stephens further insisted: The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
We can be confident that Vice-President Stephens thoroughly understood the primary cause of the southern revolution and believed that slavery was a fundamental quality of the Confederacy. Accordingly, when I hear people maintain the Civil War was not about slavery but was instead about states’ rights, I think to myself and sometimes speak out to the effect that slavery was the primary states’ right under contention; hence, following along with Vice-President Stephens, slavery was inescapably the primary cause of the conflict. Somehow, in the minds of all too many people, this historical fact has been either overlooked or willfully obfuscated.
Union and Confederate forces exemplified many feats of valor on the battlefield. I have no empathy with persons who maintain, as has happened after the events in Charleston, that the Confederate battle flag symbolizes the honor and bravery of valiant ancestors fighting for the “noble” cause of states’ rights. Even so, I will not apply modern sensitivities abhorring slavery to persons who fought for the Confederacy, nor do I discount their bravery. However, I strenuously object to any attempt to sugarcoat the contention that the Civil War was not primarily about slavery.
We should keep in mind that honoring ancestral bravery for an ignoble cause by today’s standards carries a great inconsistency: How many of us honor the bravery of Nazi soldiers who were members of Waffen SS units or who served as concentration camp guards? Further, how many of us would honor the bravery of the 9/11 terrorists who flew airliners into the Twin Towers? After all, the Nazis and the 9/11 terrorists believed in their government and religion.
In summary, therefore, can we honestly separate bravery from pursuit of an ignoble cause, such as slavery?
My thought on the linkage between erroneous concepts of the Confederacy and modern expressions of racism throughout the US, but especially in the South, must await another post. We should, however, rethink the idea of flying the Confederate battle flag and displaying other Confederate symbols on public properties, including state capital buildings and grounds, and vehicle license plates. A large proportion of our citizenry black and white associate these symbols with modern expressions of racism. Such governmental Confederate symbols, therefore, should be expeditiously and gracefully removed.
I am an advocate of almost unrestricted freedom of speech; accordingly, if people wish to plaster Confederate symbols all over their vehicles and fly the Confederate Battle Flag on their private properties, I say Laissez les bon temps roulez (Let the good times roll.): I and many other like-minded persons will continue to laugh at such symbols and pity the people who display them, which is our right of free speech. In my better moments when under the influence of my better angels, I might even pray that the Holy Spirit will act upon today’s Confederate sympathizers to bring them to modern sensibilities.
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