Tomorrow marks the anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, which ended the American Civil War. The day is set to be marked with controversial celebrations in the American South, notably Virginia. It has also been the punching bag du jour of misguided pundits who believe the Southern rebellion, and any remembrance of it (save for history book vilification), is unpatriotic.
Of course, any such pundit perusing any such history book would quickly learn the opposite. The Confederacy’s insurrection was a violent example of some of the most sacred American principles, the bedrock on which a good deal of our country is built.
To be clear, the Confederate States of America needs to be separated from slavery. The Southern states’ stated ideals are what we’re concerned with, and not the culture with which they coexisted. Slavery was a great evil and will forever be an indelible stain on our country. But it was the country’s evil, not just the South’s: the North was complicit in the crime by its inaction, and even those politicians who spoke against the “peculiar institution” weren’t innocent; most were motivated by the money that slave labor brought into Southern coffers and the political power it bought. They championed abolition on behalf of their careers, not their morals. Abraham Lincoln himself favored accommodating slavery, and only reluctantly freed American slaves when the country was deep in war and compromise was hopeless.
Though slavery was certainly part of the mix, widening economic and political disparities between Southern and Northern states contributed at least equally to the war, especially as industry became concentrated in the Northeast. As any high school student knows, the fighting was over states’ rights, not slavery. In that way, the Confederates weren’t much different from their ancestors. The American Revolution was fought against a paternalistic, overwhelming centralized government which the Founders felt had grown out of touch with their needs and wishes, taxing them without providing for them. In a fit of rebellious independence, the wealthy Southern planter class threw off strict rule in favor of being able to decide their own fate. George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were not much different in that violent desire for self-determination than Robert E. Lee. Southern farmers have never dealt well with authority.
Having secured their freedom, our Founders set about making sure that no central government would ever again threaten the freedom of the people to chart their own course. To this end, they established three branches of government, to prevent any one from becoming too powerful, and adopted the Bill of Rights to protect the freedoms of individuals from state action. Washington himself chose not to serve a third term as President, for fear of establishing a new monarchy.
Confederate leaders hardly broke this mold; in fact, they fit very well inside of it. They were Southern farmers who chafed against a strong government which neither understood them nor cared to accommodate them, yet still taxed them and demanded obedience. They took up arms against what they believed to be an unjust establishment and tried to free themselves from it, for the sake of their individual autonomy.
Author Jeff Schweitzer writes, via The Huffington Post, that this whole business was un-American and that “the cause championed by the South should cover every American with shame.” But what cause was that, of which to be so ashamed? The freedom of American states to govern themselves? The freedom of citizens to protest a government which didn’t consider their welfare, but rather governed by edict? The ability of maligned Americans to protest a ruling class which had grown distant and disinterested? These causes are anything but shameful; they’re the ideals around which our country was constructed.
Of course, Mr. Schweitzer may not trust high school history books. It’s true, few of them have won Pulitzers and they’ve certainly been mistaken in the past. Maybe he’d be more interested in reading a recognized authority on the subject. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, in our Declaration of Independence:
“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another… Whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.”
Mr. Schweitzer believes that “Southerners who claim a deep national pride celebrate their ancestors’ efforts to dissolve the very union of states whose flag they now so proudly fly,” but this is wide of the mark. The remembrance isn’t of an effort to dissolve our country; it’s of a historical realization in practice of those very ideals and abilities which make our country great.