It seems strange to me that those marching and protesting in the name of limited government and states rights would choose a Confederate flag as one of their symbols. We have Libertarian-leaning economists such as Thomas DiLorenzo and Walter Williams who celebrate the Confederacy and its leaders as the last bastion of limited federal power in the face of the Lincoln administration, which turned the nation toward “big government” with all of its inherent evils attached. For these guys, it’s the beginning of the end. [It's also one of the best examples of stepping out of your field of study and looking silly.] For most people who take part in political rallies such as the one this past weekend the flag represents the last stand of limited government, respect for individual and state rights and perhaps even a final gasp before the evils of modernity took hold.
Such overly simplistic distinctions may work well to reinforce our tendency to view the Civil War and much of the rest of our past as battle between good and evil. On the other hand, it makes for some really bad history. No one who understands the history of antebellum America could possibly make the mistake of drawing such sharp distinctions given the fact that it was the Southern states who were pushing for the power of the federal government during the 1850s to protect the institution of slavery through legislative acts such as the Fugitive Slave Act and court cases such as the famous Dred Scott decision. Northern states, on the other hand, insisted at times that states had the right to resist the Fugitive Slave Act by passing Personal Liberty Laws which effectively nullified the power of the federal government in their respective communities.
So, is the record of the Confederacy one of limited government and respect for individual rights? The record includes:
- Conscription (before the United States)
- Tariff (higher than the 10 to 15 percent rate proposed by Hamilton in his Report on Manufacturers (1791)
- Confederate National Investment in Railroads (amounting to 2.5 million in loans, $150,000 advanced, and 1.12 million appropriated)
- Confederate Quartermasters leveled price controls on private mills and were later authorized to impress whatever supplies they needed.
- Government ownership of key industries
- Government regulation of commerce
- Suspension of habeus corpus (According to historian, Mark Neely, 4,108 civilians were held by military authorities)
John Majewski describes this government as “Confederate war socialism”.
Ever since South Carolina’s Rep. Joe Wilson insulted the president and his office during Wednesday’s Health Care speech, the newspapers can’t get enough of his connection with the Sons of Confederate Veterans as well as his outspoken support for the public display of the Confederate flag and “Confederate honor.” Today’s NYT’s column by Maureen Dowd takes this news thread to drive home an essentially reductionist connection between Wilson’s nutty little outburst, his personal past, and the broader history of his home state of South Carolina:
The congressman, we learned, belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag waving above South Carolina’s state Capitol and denounced as a “smear” the true claim of a black woman that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the ’48 segregationist candidate for president. [Therefore] Wilson clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber.
Others have tried to situate Wilson into a broader historical narrative that includes the likes of John Calhoun, Preston Brooks, and South Carolina’s own place in the story of secession, Civil War, and Massive Resistance. These narrative memes are so predictable, but ultimately tell us next to nothing about what motivated Joe Wilson’s outburst. Oh…I get it. Because Calhoun, Brooks, and Thurmond are so easily lumped together in some vague reactionary category we might as well throw good old Wilson in there. Dowd and others draw much too close of a connection between between Wilson’s past and the broader history of the state that he represents. It’s almost silly that it even has to be pointed out. SCV members are not necessarily card carrying racists; in fact, I read plenty of news reports of members who voted for Obama back in November. It also doesn’t follow that those who identify with the Confederate past by flying a flag on private property are engaged in racial commentary or attempting to role back the clock to the Jim Crow Era. How much do you think Dowd and others know about the SCV to be able to imply such a connection? Please don’t get me wrong, this is not meant in any way as a public statement of support for the SCV or a signal that a Confederate flag is going up on my front porch. I’ve made my position clear on both the SCV and the flag on this blog.
I get the sense that the many reports that have implied such connections present Americans with another opportunity to play with our Civil War memory.
New Release: “Duty, Honor, and Tears” by Mort Kunstler – Yep, I’ve definitely seen this before. Click here, here, here, here, and here.
Update: I don’t mind having to admit a mistake every once in a while, but this time I really dropped the ball. I thought I had confirmed this story with a sufficient number of SCV websites, but Karen Cox tells me that the entire story is apocryphal. Ruth Ann Coski, who used to work at the Museum of the Confederacy, carried out the necessary research and discovered that the crown was made by Varina Davis. It looks like the Myth of the Lost Cause is indeed just a myth, but I would still like to know why Pope Benedict is standing in front of a Confederate flag.
I had no idea that Pope Pius IX sent Jefferson Davis a hand-written note along with a crown of thorns during his brief imprisonment following the war. The note included the following: “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” and supposedly the crown was handwoven by the thorn. Robert E. Lee, pointing to his own portrait of Pius IX, is supposed to have told a visitor that he was “the only sovereign…in Europe who recognized our poor Confederacy.” The crown is located in a museum in New Orleans. Apparently, Pope Benedict is continuing the Catholic Church’s tradition of sanctifying the Confederate cause. So, it looks like the Myth of the Lost Cause wasn’t a myth after all. I had no idea.