The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and are not indicative of any official positions of Better Angels or The Conversation.
This Piece is part of a symposium. The other two parts can be found at the links below.
In Virginia in the 1960s, Sheldon Vanauken affixed to his car a little confederate battle flag on which was lettered: CIVIL RIGHTS IN THE CSA (Confederate States of America.) Vanauken was a college professor, a lover of the South, an activist for civil rights, and a defender of the Confederacy. If you find this combination perplexing, you’re not alone. For most Americans today, on both the right and left, the Confederacy is a symbol of racism, pure and simple. The idea that someone could be a defender of both civil rights and the Confederacy seems inexplicable. Yet he was, and he was not alone. Nor is he alone today.
Vanauken understood something important that most of us were never taught. Vanauken understood that the Confederacy and its values were not defined primarily by the evil of slavery. He understood that the South seceded not simply to preserve slavery but, more importantly, to preserve the Southern peoples’ independence and agrarian way of life. Racism, tragically, was rampant in the South, as it was in the North as well. But Vanauken understood that along with this deplorable racism, Southerners displayed other qualities of virtue and worth—such as a love of liberty and self-determination, courage and determination—qualities worth honoring and remembering.
It is a principle of Better Angels that we engage not with our opponent’s worst arguments but with their best. Might we not adopt the same approach in thinking of the Confederacy’s cause, criticizing not only what was awful about it but also recognizing what was good in it?
I can imagine that some readers are already fuming. If what I have written seems outrageous, I can only ask forbearance and an open mind, in the best tradition of Better Angels. To me, the Civil War is like that famous image of the rabbit and the duck. Looked at one way, the image is clearly a rabbit. But shift focus just a bit, and the entire image changes its meaning. If we hope to discuss and debate the Civil War and its legacy in a non-polarizing way, I would argue we need to better understand both points of view.
Like many Southerners of his generation, my grandfather referred to the conflict not as the Civil War, but as the “War of Northern Aggression.” I can see why. The Southern States saw themselves as exercising their natural right of political self-determination, deciding for themselves what sort of political structure they wished to form, just as the thirteen colonies did in breaking away from England in the Revolutionary War. In this way, the South saw its cause as one of liberty, and the North’s opposition as transparent hypocrisy. After all, in 1776, should England have crushed America’s desire for independence on the grounds that some of the colonies practiced the evil of slavery? Most of us would say no.
I know how hard it is for some people to view it this way. Most of us have had it drummed into our heads that the Civil War was about ending slavery. And indeed it was about slavery, specifically slavery’s expansion and future. But it wasn’t only about slavery, or even primarily about slavery, and it certainly didn’t begin as a war to abolish slavery, and there is evidence Lincoln would have ended the war with slavery intact. As Lincoln wrote in a private letter in the middle of the war (1862):
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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.
As Lincoln’s words make clear, the Civil War was above all a war to decide if states could leave the Union and determine their own political destiny, or if a more powerful federal government would crush a people’s desire to be independent and free.
This point of view is essential to understanding why a small but passionate minority continue to defend the Confederacy in general and Confederate Monuments in particular. To those who see the War as exclusively about slavery, the monuments can only be seen as symbols of racism, and those who defend them can only be seen as racists. So I understand why so many of my progressive friends are outraged about this issue. But to those who see the monuments as symbols of independence and self-determination, of courage and sacrifice, they become a source of pride. Slavery was indeed wrapped up in this desire for self-determination and sacrifice, and any monument that celebrates a Confederate war hero also, to some extent, risks excusing slavery. The debate about monuments should continue. But I believe that it should be a debate.
I would humbly ask: Ought we to take down the Vietnam War Memorial too, because some U.S. soldiers committed atrocities in that conflict, and the military as a whole did awful things? Is it wrong to feel pride in winning World War II, even though we used two nuclear weapons to end that conflict, killing more than 100,000 civilians?
History is complicated. There are valid arguments to be made on both sides of the Confederate Monuments debate. Personally, I think the positive attributes of the Confederacy are great enough to make the monuments worth keeping. It’s perfectly reasonable to disagree. But to those who feel differently than I do, I caution an approach which impugns the other side as racists. As Greg Steinbrecher recently argued, calling people racists never helps. And in refusing to recognize the best motivations of those who defend monuments, there is a risk in driving them into more extreme positions. In a horrible irony, extreme criticism risks radicalizing the criticized. This is a danger we need to be more aware of. It’s possible for our actions to create the monsters we fear.
For those who argue that the monuments are discredited because they were put up not to express Southern virtue, but affirmation of Jim Crow laws and as a kind of middle-finger to civil rights, I can only express a humble request to look more carefully at the historical record. There was a spike around 1910, at a time of accepted segregation in North and South. But 1910 was also 50 years after the war, a time when many who lived through the conflict had recently died. Is that not a natural time to remember, and to fear forgetting what was at stake? As one defender of the Confederacy put it in 1904:
[Confederate Monuments] will lift from these brave men the opprobrium of rebel, and stand them in the line of patriots. This is not alone a labor of love, it is a work of duty as well. We are correcting history.
I see nothing in this sentiment about race. What I do see is a desire to correct the record: that fighting for independence as the South saw it was a noble endeavor, one worthy of respect and admiration, as worthy as George Washington’s fight against the British. To be labeled as a “rebel” and disgraced after the war as ignorant racists is a reputation worth fighting. Fifty years after the war the South continued to view its cause as just. Had we lost the War of Independence to England, would we not do the same, even today preserving the memory of that noble if doomed effort? Might we not even wish to erect a stature to the losing general, George Washington, despite the fact that he owned slaves? Wouldn’t we be remembering his doomed fight for freedom and not his tragic ownership of slaves?
I believe that Lincoln’s invasion of the South was a mistake because I believe that every people should be allowed to exercise the right of political self-determination. Remember, Lincoln did not wage the war to end slavery but to preserve the union, slavery or no slavery.
But even worse than the war was the aftermath of the war. As we’ve recently been forced to relearn once again in Afghanistan and Iraq, “winning the peace” is often harder than winning the war. And like Afghanistan and Iraq, inadequate thought was given to the reality of what would happen after the Civil War. However righteous the cause of abolition was, the idea that former slaves and former masters would settle into a stable society on equal footing and without enmity was as naive as the disastrous prohibition movement fifty years later. Perhaps Northern whites thought they had done their moral duty by the end of the war simply by abolishing slavery, but without a practical plan for “winning the peace”, they abandoned the former slaves and left them subject to the rage of a conquered people. Many northerners in 1865 were just as racist as many southerners in 1865. Frankly, many of them couldn’t have cared less about the newly emancipated slaves once they had freed themselves from the guilt of slavery itself. They failed to provide the freed slaves the support and resources they needed. They failed to provide the land many had promised. The aftermath of slavery as it actually unfolded was a lose-lose for all involved.
It is no surprise that the trauma of foreign occupation gave rise to ISIS in Iraq, and it is no surprise that the trauma of federal occupation gave rise to the rise of the KKK and Jim Crow in the South. In the course of human events, compelling compliance at the point of a gun has rarely produced a good and stable result. Could it be that slavery was brought to an end in a way that nearly ensured another 100 years of racial tension and hostility in the South? Could it be that slavery was brought to an end in way that a significant portion of Americans felt the shame of occupation? Could it be that slavery was brought to an end in a way that increased rather than reduced hatred and contempt?
I can hear many of my readers sighing in exasperation and disbelief. Didn’t we have no choice but to confront the evil of slavery?
We certainly did have a moral obligation to confront the evil of slavery. But we always have a choice about how we confront evil. There’s no doubt that the United States was in a terrible position in 1860. There was no good solution to the problem of slavery, only bad and worse ones. But I think we chose the worst possible: military conquest of a people seeking self-determination.
The invasion of the South is one of the great tragedies of US history, along with the genocide of the Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. I think that from today’s point of view we can regret forcing the South to stay in the union and crushing their desire for autonomy. We can recognize that there was a better and more just way to end slavery.
It is perhaps pointless to speculate about alternate history, but I like to believe that had the US allowed the South to secede and form the Confederate States of America, it could have used its extensive economic power to pressure the Confederacy to emancipate, an approach which other powerful trading partners like England surely would have supported. With the ending of British slavery in 1843 and Russian serfdom in 1861, no other major world power accepted slavery. And as Donald Livingston has recently argued, there were plenty of prominent advocates for emancipation within the South itself. The South’s adherence to slavery was clearly on the wrong side of history, and slavery’s days were numbered in any case. Had we found another way, one more respectful of the legitimate desire of many Americans to form their own separate Confederacy, we might have had to endure slavery longer than was just, but we might also have avoided 100 years of Jim Crow and racial terrorism in the South. It is quite possible that the way we ended slavery was worse not only for Southern whites but for slaves as well.
Abraham Lincoln is rightly considered a sort of patron saint for the Better Angels organization. The closing of his First Inaugural address is one of the greatest expressions of political empathy and solidarity in US history, and Better Angels is right to take its name and to take inspiration from its words. But it’s important to remember that for some Americans, Lincoln is a symbol not of healing but of violence and invasion. After all, when the South failed to be moved by Lincoln’s call for unity, he waged war upon them, leading to more American casualties than in any other conflict and almost half of all war casualties in our history.
And though the Civil War ultimately brought an end to the grave evil of slavery, it did so at a tremendous cost which I think is rarely recognized and that I’ve felt a need to draw attention to. The way slavery was ended practically ensured the continuation of racism in the South. We’re still living with these costs, and perhaps the best way to begin to heal from them is to recognize them honestly and refuse to repeat the mistakes of the past.
We should commit as a nation to never repeat the sins of our past, to never resolve our differences through violence. If the State of Texas or California desired to secede in the future, should the Federal Government stop them through invasion and war? True conflict resolution rarely comes at the point of a gun but rather through hard conversations made safe and productive through empathy and mutual regard, even in cases where we feel oppressed or grieve for the oppression of others. Lincoln’s depolarizing rhetoric is rightly an example and beacon for all of us. His genuine desire to approach opponents not as enemies but friends and members of one family is rightly at the very heart of the work of Better Angels. But when push came to shove, Lincoln chose violence. This darker side of Lincoln should be acknowledged as well, and that side is one we should never embrace.
This has been a hard piece to write. It’s a difficult and unpleasant subject, and for me there’s not much to be proud of in either side of the Civil War. The reality of 4 million slaves and 600,000 dead is overwhelming. It has also been a hard piece to write because of the inevitable misunderstanding and misinterpretation of my argument which I fear will result. But I wrote it because I think it’s important to give voice to a segment of the US population which feels pride in the central aspect of the conflict: the noble struggle for self-determination. I don’t expect to persuade many that the South’s cause was just. But I do hope to persuade others that such a view does not necessarily imply racism and that believing in the South’s Cause, properly understood, is a view worthy of respect.
Whenever the monuments were erected or for whatever reason, the only thing that really matters is what they mean to people today. If they were erected for noble reasons but today are only symbols of racism, they should come down. But I don’t think that’s the case. For me, the happiest possible outcome of the debate about Confederate monuments would be a healing consensus that despite the evil stain of slavery, there was at least a kernel of truth in the South’s cause that all Americans can empathize with and feel good about. We should never allow the Confederacy’s (or the North’s) complicity with slavery to be forgotten, but nor should we allow that complicity to blind us to what was good in the Confederate States of America.
To my progressive friends I would ask: the next time you here of someone defending a confederate monument, is it possible that that person is not a racist but simply proud of their ancestor’s struggle for independence and liberty? We can and should disagree and debate about the historical record, but perhaps we should extend the benefit of the doubt to the sincerity and goodwill of such a defender of the South. Perhaps such a defender is indeed a racist. Or, much more likely in my view, he or she is a person of good will, proud of a part of his heritage which is usually neglected or disparaged. If we can accept that, the debate and conversation can begin.