That Flag


“My ancestors fought for the question of who was supreme, the federal or the state government. They felt South Carolina freely went into the Union and had the right to opt out, like an independent country.”

“Would you ask the Jewish community to accept a smaller swastika flag? This is the flag of treason against the United States government, and it should not be celebrated or put in any kind of prominent position.”

There, in a nutshell, is why the controversy over if and where and how high the Confederate battle flag should fly at South Carolina’s capitol has continued to elude a resolution acceptable to all of the state’s citizens. The first opinion comes from the state senator Glenn McConnell, a white Republican from Charleston; the second, from the state representative Fletcher N. Smith, a black Democrat from Greenville. But the central question —whether the flag should be honored as a testament to the courage of Confederate soldiers and Southern “heritage” or should be banished as a symbol of racism—has already flummoxed much more prominent national politicians.

During the primary season Gov. George W. Bush resolutely, steadfastly refused to express an opinion on the subject, invoking the principle of States’ Rights (a principle that seems to fade away with the morning dew when a state starts making noises about, say, legalizing marijuana or gay marriage). Meanwhile, the flag issue all but derailed Sen. John McCain’s straighttalk express, leaving the war hero to pronounce himself firmly on both sides.

The flag has at least had the happy side effect of re-creating the old civilrights-era coalition of African-Americans and white businesspeople, one of modern America’s more effective agents for change. The state legislature did work out a compromise that managed to please at least some people on both sides. And Senator McCain did in the end display rare political courage in admitting that he had been wrong, and calling for the flag to come down.

Unfortunately, not all of the senator’s partisans followed his lead. In fact, a journal edited by one of his leading advisers in the state, Richard Quinn, perpetuated some rather shameful historical distortions in making its case for the flag. The journal in question is the Southern Partisan Quarterly Review , which—in between defending slavery, vilifying Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and bashing gays—has picked up the old saw that the entire Civil War was fought not over slavery but over States’ Rights and the preservation of the “Southern way of life.”

The reasons the Civil War came to pass will probably be debated for as long as our nation endures. Yet I would submit that they lie as much in what W. J. Cash called the mind of the South as in anything to do with economics or States’ Rights. That is to say, the Civil War was fought over slavery. It was not fought over some abstract defense of Southern rights so much as it was over the South’s frustration that it could not persuade the rest of the United States to acquiesce in its “peculiar institution”—an institution that it always suspected in its own heart was at best untenable.

The proof lies in the very denial, defensiveness, and projection now permeating the “heritage” argument. It was more than coincidence, for instance, that the flag first began to fly above Southern capitols in the early 1960s. The supposed reason was the centennial commemoration of the Civil War, but the real point was to send a message to the growing civil rights movement.

Any reading of the mountains of speeches, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and editorials written by the South’s leaders prior to the Civil War reveals the same ferocious denial. As the secession crisis neared its climax, they turned out more and more pamphlets defending slavery as an institution that benefited blacks and whites alike, one endorsed by the Bible, the Constitution, and all science and nature.

Gone was the old attitude of the Founding Fathers from the region that slavery was an embarrassing holdover from colonial days that should be allowed to die a natural death. Instead, many of the South’s firebrands even clamored for the resumption of the Atlantic slave trade.

Such is the implacable logic of injustice. The more disagreeable slavery became to white Americans, the more harsh and odious became the methods necessary to preserve it.

Yet the legal right of Southerners to own slaves was never seriously threatened before the Civil War. Even after the Republican victory in the 1860 elections, abolitionists remained a decided minority in the North. Lincoln made it clear again and again, in the months between his election and his inauguration, that his first priority was to preserve the Union.

Southerners did fear Northern abolitionist conspiracies, and it seemed as if their worst nightmares had come true when it was learned that John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 had been backed by a group of prominent Bostonians. Still, the collective shiver that ran through Dixie was more the product of deliberate political fear-mongering than any objective concern. Brown’s raid, after all, was ineffectual, condemned in much of the North, and quickly suppressed by federal troops.