The South has always had to defend itself, first in the halls of Congress, then militarily on the battlefield, but since 1865, in the annals of history. For surely today we are seen as the most defensive region in the country but that’s because we are the most attacked and maligned region in the country. The smears and denigrations have greatly increased in recent months with the latest campaign to erase our past with the destruction of Confederate monuments and memorials.
It’s unfortunate that we’ve been forced to defend ourselves, our region, our history and, most particularly, the “Lost Cause” against attacks from without but, sadly, also from assaults by those who might be in sympathy with us. Almost no one will defend the South and the cause of the Confederacy. These days, they are running from it like the plague.
Recently on “Hannity,” Newt Gingrich, who holds a Ph.D. in history and who might be seen as one who understands the true history of the South, said that the Confederate flag represented those who “defended slavery and slave-trading.” I was stunned. Obviously one could make a halfway acceptable argument on the slavery issue, but slave-trading?
Since he gave no explanation, we can only assume what he intended. If he meant the domestic slave trade, that practice had been ongoing since colonial days and involved every slave state in the Union. The international slave trade, by far the worst, came to an end in 1808 by an act of the U.S. Congress. In fact, the Confederate Constitution outlawed the foreign slave trade, and the first bill vetoed by Jefferson Davis involved that detestable exchange. The president of the Confederacy had no desire to re-open the international slave trade.
Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, wrote in an article entitled “Mothball the Confederate Monuments,” that there is “no reason to honor Jefferson Davis, the blessedly incompetent president of the Confederacy. New Orleans just sent a statue of him to storage — good riddance.” I guess we should expect as much from a man who wrote a book in praise of Lincoln and credited him for “saving the American Dream.”
There is no good reason to denigrate President Davis over these current issues, especially by one who clearly has no understanding of the man or his presidency and the enormous difficulties he faced in trying to win independence for the South. It is only because of the slavery issue that Lowry made such inappropriate remarks.
Jefferson Davis was a man greatly respected in the United States before the war, far more than Lincoln. If a nationwide poll could have been taken in 1860, the vast majority of Americans would have recognized Mr. Davis, but Mr. Lincoln not so much. Davis had tremendous experience in government – West Point graduate, military service, both houses of Congress and U.S. secretary of war, a stint that has been praised by many historians as one of the best in American history. His restructuring and modernizing of the U.S. army created the nucleus that Lincoln later built up to the largest army in the world. So Davis was an obvious choice to lead the new Southern nation and to be able to hold it together for four exhausting years against overwhelming odds is a feat worthy of praise, not derision.
As for slavery, it was legal and protected in the Confederacy; this much is true. But it was also legal in the United States and had been in America since Jamestown, including the four years of “civil war,” and remained so throughout Lincoln’s life. In fact, Lincoln did more to protect slavery – by pushing for the Corwin Amendment – than he ever did to abolish it. Slavery was only abolished in December 1865 with ratification of the 13th Amendment, which Lincoln had very little to do with, coming eight months after his assassination. In short, the U.S. flag flew over legalized slavery, and the international slave trade, far longer than did the Confederate flag.
But in our current hypersensitive, politically correct society, it is becoming nearly impossible, as well as undesirable, for anyone to defend the Confederate States of America. The minute anyone says anything remotely positive about the Confederacy, they are immediately attacked with two of the biggest and sharpest arrows in the PC quiver: the race card and the slave card.
Those who are so critical of the South and the Confederacy, whether on the political Left or the Right, are guilty of what historians term “presentism” — the application of modern thoughts and attitudes to interpret the past.
So, if we can separate emotions from logic, then we can have a rational discussion and defend the Confederacy without supporting slavery. No respectable person today is arguing in favor of slavery and attacks on anyone for doing so is just another example of race-baiting, which is as bad as racism. For in our modern era, racism is seen, quite correctly, as the vilest mindset one can have, so by accusing someone of it, especially without any evidence and for simply holding a different opinion on a historical question, is just as revolting.
We can praise our Confederate forebears for the vision they had for governing their republic and the protections they built into their Constitution to ensure the country remained true to its principles. In short, Southerners, through the Confederacy, sought to keep Jefferson’s Republic alive from political forces bent on killing it.
In Jefferson’s America, which lasted roughly six decades, the states had a tremendous amount of autonomy. It was among the freest and most prosperous places on Earth.
Lincoln’s America, and the Republican political vision for the future, was the opposite, a centralized nation consisting of internal taxes, high tariffs, a standing army, profligate spending and a national debt. And when Northern citizens questioned Lincoln’s War, many were jailed without charges or trial, including newspaper editors who printed critical opinions.
The South sought to keep Jefferson’s governing vision in place, and the only way that could be accomplished was through secession and building an independent nation of their own. So in 1861, the Confederacy was born with a constitutional convention in Montgomery, Ala.
The Confederate Constitution crafted by the Southern framers was nearly identical to the U.S. Constitution except for some important changes, which only made the Confederacy more Jeffersonian, not less.
The states were greatly strengthened and better protected against federal encroachment. Protective tariffs were outlawed. Spending was strictly controlled. The president had a six-year term but could only serve one, saving the country from nasty re-election bids …
The South’s attempt at self-government failed, not because of the flaws in Jeffersonian governance but because of an illegal invasion by a superior power. The Confederates fought valiantly against overwhelming odds for their independence. That is why the Confederate battle flag is seen around the world as a symbol of defiance of tyranny.
The example of our Southern forefathers should be one of honor, right along with our colonial ancestors, not one of shame and disgrace. They tried to protect the Jeffersonian Ideal but, as Lincoln desired, it has perished from the Earth.
Ryan Walters is and independent historian and the author of The Last Jeffersonian: Grover Cleveland and the Path to Restoring the Republic