Over the weekend the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an editorial on the current debate about Confederate iconography by Frank Hyman. It’s an interesting editorial in that it doesn’t fall into any of the popular categories on the subject. After establishing his bona fides as a white Southern male Hyman gets to his point. The problem with revering the Confederate flag and the Confederacy generally comes down to the following:
The Confederacy — and the slavery that spawned it — was also one big con job on the Southern white working class. A con job funded by some of the antebellum one-percenters, and one that continues today in a similar form…. With low wages and few schools, Southern whites suffered a much lower land ownership rate and a far lower literacy rate than Northern whites….
My ancestor, Canna Hyman, and his two sons did own land and fought under that flag. A note from our family history says: “Someone came for them while they were plowing one day. They put their horses up and all three went away to the War and only one son, William, came back.”
Like Canna, most Southerners didn’t own slaves. But they were persuaded to risk their lives and limbs for the right of a few to get rich as Croesus from slavery. For their sacrifices and their votes, they earned two things before and after the Civil War. First, a very skinny slice of the immense Southern pie. And second, the thing that made those slim rations palatable then and now: the shallow satisfaction of knowing blacks had no slice at all.
Certainly northern and even some southern observers before and after the Civil War offered their assessments about the extent to which the institution of slavery stymied economic opportunity for non-slaveholders, but we should be cautious about applying our own value judgments to the past.
First, the author seems to accept the assumption that the lack of slaveownership meant that they had no stake in the preservation of the institution. A non-slaveowner may have been part of an extended family that did own slaves. Non-slaveowners also had opportunities to lease slaves for various purposes. And, of course, it only took the purchase of one slave to move someone into that elite category. This is not to suggest that such a transition happened often or that from our perspective the distribution of wealth in the South was not unfair. We are free to draw our own conclusion.
But the idea that this arrangement was a “con job” dismisses the perspectives of ordinary people. It strips non-slaveholders and poor whites of any agency or ability to assess their world and take appropriate action. They are rendered simply as pawns in a larger game. It smacks too much of evil Wall Street bankers manipulating innocent 401-K investors and homeowners out of their mortgages. We can only imagine what con jobs future generations will claim were at work in 2015.
The author seems to admit given the evidence provided that we don’t know anything about how Canna Hyman or anyone else from the family who left home viewed the war. What we do know from an incredibly rich body of scholarship is that the Confederate government enjoyed support from slave and non-slaveowners alike well into the war. This is something that needs to be understood. We need to understand it on their own terms.
Our ongoing debate about Civil War memory, and Confederate iconography in particular, is about how our communities currently reflect and commemorate the past. It is about our values. We don’t need to make excuses about what our ancestors did or did not do. This is true regardless of whether that ancestor was the largest slaveowner or the poorest yeoman farmer.