Update: You know you’ve made a good argument…and hit a nerve…when somebody responds by repeatedly calling your post “trash,” but never tries to refute the argument.
A couple more interesting essays have come to light concerning the Confederate Flag debate: Bruce Levine’s The Confederate Flag Was Always Racist and Kevin Levin’s The ‘Cornerstone’ of the Confederate Flag. Reading these two essays got my mental wheels turning about the portrayal of both the Confederate Flag and the Confederacy. Outside of the academic realm, deep in the bosom of the “Southern Heritage” crowd, the Confederacy represents a noble stance against tyranny and invasion. Those same groups defend the flag for those aforementioned reasons. To them, the flag is the symbol of the Confederate soldier who fought in freedom’s name. Unfortunately, that outlook is a falsehood padded by willful neglect and lies of omission.
Since the tragedy in Charleston, much has been said about the ‘Cornerstone’ of the Confederate Flag. This is a reference to a speech known as “The Corner-stone Speech,” delivered by Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America. In the speech delivered in Savannah, GA on March 21, 1861, Stephens told the audience this about the new Confederacy.
Our new government (Confederate States of America) is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
This is the past, the history, that the Confederate Flag represents. It is undeniable. This presents a problem for the tens of thousands of people who dedicate themselves to the memory of their Confederate ancestors. To recognize, to accept his truth about the Confederacy’s cause, is to accept that their ancestor was linked to it. I do not mean to suggest that each Confederate soldier went into battle to preserve the institution of slavery and white supremacy. A northern and southern soldier’s reasons for going into battle are maddeningly complex and range from conscription to a desire for adventure. However, a soldier’s personal reasons for going to war are not mutually exclusive to the cause for which he fights. A cause dictated by the country he fights for.
Many in the “Southern Heritage” community who have been confronted by Stephens’s speech do whatever they can to ignore or discredit it. Many of them choose to point the finger and make statements such as “Lincoln was a racist too!” Some go so far as to say that we know the speech today only as it was dictated in the newspapers, so it cannot be trusted. These types of counter arguments are simply modes of deflection in order to embrace a more romantic view of the Confederacy. For this, they look to the soldiers and their statements.
On Tuesday, April 23, 1861, Robert E. Lee was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the military and naval forces of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Upon his appointment, Lee gave this solemn and humble acceptance speech, depicted in the movie Gods and Generals. Lee’s speech to the Virginia Secession Convention was short, yet poetic, and an excellent example of Lee’s character.
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention: Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred had your choice fallen on an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.
Statements such as these are what “Southern Heritage” advocates cling to argue the righteousness of the Southern cause. It is a romantic view of honorable men who were called upon to protect their homes and humbly accepted the task. However, what is typical and very much the reality of the Confederacy, was the speech given immediately after Lee’s address. Sent as an ambassador from the newly dubbed Confederate States of America, Vice President Alexander Stephens took the podium as Lee sat down. In his speech to the Convention, Stephens laid out the platform of the new Confederate government eloquently. He attempted to calm the nerves of many Virginians apprehensive about joining the Confederacy. Among the issues brought up, Stephens addressed the issue which brought about the most hostility between the North and South.
…One good and wise feature in our new or revised Constitution is, that we have put to rest the vexed question of slavery forever, so far as the Confederate halls are concerned. On this subject, from which sprung the immediate cause of our late troubles and threatened dangers, you will indulge me in a few remarks as not irrelevant to the occasion. The condition of the negro race amongst us, presents a peculiar phase of republican civilization and constitutional liberty. To some, the problem seems hard to understand. The difficulty is in theory, not in practical demonstration; that works well enough-theories in government, as in all things else, must yield to facts. No truth is clearer than that the best form or system of government for any people or society is that which secures the greatest amount of happiness, not to the greatest number, but to all the constituent elements of that society, community or State. If our system does not accomplish this; if it is not the best for the negro as well as for the white man; for the inferior as well as the superior race, it is wrong in principle. But if it does, or is capable of doing this, then it is right, and can never be successfully assailed by reason or logic. That the negroes with us, under masters who care for, provide for and protect them, are better off and enjoy more of the blessings of good government than their race does in any other part of the world, statistics abundantly prove. As a race, the African is inferior to the white man. Subordination to the white man, is his normal condition. He is not his equal by nature, and cannot be made so by human laws or human institutions. Our system, therefore, so far as regards this inferior race, rests upon this great immutable law of nature. It is founded not upon wrong or injustice, but upon the eternal fitness of things. Hence, its harmonious working for the benefit and advantage of both. Why one race was made inferior to another, is not for us to inquire. The statesman and the Christian, as well as the philosopher, must take things as they find them, and do the best he can with them as he finds them.
The great truth, I repeat, upon which our system rests, is the inferiority of the African. The enemies of our institutions ignore this truth. They set out with the assumption that the races are equal; that the negro is equal to the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be legitimate. But their premises being false, their conclusions are false also. Most of that fanatical spirit at the North on this subject, which in its zeal without knowledge, would upturn our society and lay waste our fair country, springs from this false reasoning…
Unfortunately, Stephens’s speech did not make it into the final cut of Gods and Generals. Imagine for a second how interesting that scene would be. It would depict Robert E. Lee giving a heroic and noble acceptance speech. Then, Lee sits down and listens to Alexander Stephens outline the cause for which the former will fight. It would have definitely been more accurate. In remembering the flag. accuracy is exactly the point.
It is often said by many that the Confederate Flag is the flag of the Confederate soldier who sought only to defend his home. That it is an honorable flag worthy of praise and recognition. Those same arguments usually come with the caveat that the flag’s past as a symbol of racial oppression is a distortion. That racist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, tainted the flag and wrongly used it in their crusade for white-supremacy. To “Southern Heritage” advocates, banning the flag from public view for those reasons is to wrongly subject Confederate veterans to public shame and to forget their noble acts. In truth, white-supremacist groups are not distorting the flag…they are embracing it.
The cornerstone of the Confederate flag is white-supremacy. It is a battle-flag that represents men who fought for a country who’s political objective was to preserve and expand slavery. The flag flew at the head of an army which defended that cause. Without that cause, the army need not assemble and the flag unfurl. So the question is, why is that flag unfurled today? Does it fly in a museum, classroom, or historical exhibit for educational purposes or does it fly in remembrance of the Confederate soldier and their “cause?” If it is the former, then it has immense value to society for it provides a learning opportunity. If is the latter, then it serves no function in civilized society for it represents oppression, racism, and inequality. In either case, the cornerstone rests firmly. To argue otherwise is intellectually dishonest.