Nikki Haley recently ignited a firestorm by defending the fine people of South Carolina who banded together after the horrific white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof killed nine members at a black church in Charleston in 2015. Roof notoriously held the Confederate flag* in a photo with his manifesto, and Haley said he had “hijacked everything that people thought of. … People saw it as service, sacrifice, and heritage.”
Southerners have an affection for the Confederate flag that has little to do with concrete history. After all, the flag commonly referred to as “the Confederate flag” was not the official standard of the Confederacy but rather the second Confederate Naval Jack and the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.
So where does this affection come from? The answer is both complicated and disturbing. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan have adopted this version of the Confederate flag, and the myth of the Lost Cause — a false version of history that valorizes the Confederacy — has also popularized the flag. It remains unclear exactly how this flag became the most recognizable Confederate symbol, but some have reasonably argued that the KKK’s influence in the 1920s played a large role.
Many, if not most, who fly the flag today have no intention to support the system of slavery or racism that the South fought to defend and expand. In fact, during the height of the Confederate monuments debate in 2017, black Americans favored keeping Confederate statues (44 percent to 40 percent). Indeed, a group of mostly black people organized in Dallas to protect the statues.
“I’m not intimidated by Robert E. Lee’s statue. I’m not intimidated by it. It doesn’t scare me,” former city council member Sandra Crenshaw, a black woman, told CBS Dallas-Fort Worth. “We don’t want America to think that all African Americans are supportive of” removing the statues. She denounced as “misguided” the idea that “by taking a statue down, that’s going to erase racism.”
Yet some do defend the Confederate flag due to the false “Lost Cause” narrative about the Civil War. According to this narrative, the South was right to secede from the Union and did so for reasons besides slavery. Some suggest the South was in a “second war for independence.”
This does not square with the facts. The early secession documents do mention issues besides slavery, but they root the cause of secession in the defense of slavery. South Carolina’s declaration of causes for secession warns that “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.” When Abraham Lincoln becomes president, the document warns, “The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”
Slavery was not only mentioned in the secession documents, but the expansion of slavery had also become the key national issue in the decade leading up to Lincoln’s election in 1860. While southerners warned that Lincoln would destroy slavery, the South had succeeded in overturning key precedents limiting the spread of slavery into new territories.
The Founders acknowledged the tension between their principles of equal human dignity and freedom and the institution of slavery, but they compromised on the issue in order to hold the union together. The Constitution set a date for the end of the slave trade, and the Founders agreed that new lands incorporated into the United States would be free from the horrible institution of human bondage.
The Northwest Ordinance, one of the earliest American laws adopted before and after the ratification of the Constitution, explicitly forbade “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” from the Northwest territory — which would become the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana. This established a precedent that new territories incorporated into the United States would be free from slavery.
Yet as America gained southern land and as southern slave-holders wished to move west, new slave territories were established. Kentucky split off from Virginia and Tennessee split off from North Carolina. The Mississippi Territory was split in two to form Alabama and Mississippi. From 1812 to 1850, states were admitted to the Union in pairs, one free and one slave at a time, to maintain the balance of free and slave votes in the Senate.
In 1820, Congress drew a line in a great compromise. Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state, but any state north of latitude 36° 30′ would enter the Union as a free state. This compromise allowed the North and the South to settle on the issue for a time.
Another great compromise came in 1850. In that year, Congress passed five bills that helped avert a civil war: Texas entered the Union as a slave state, California entered the Union as a free state, the New Mexico and Utah Territories were opened to “popular sovereignty,” the slave trade was banned in Washington, D.C., and a fugitive slave law cracked down on escaped slaves.
“Popular sovereignty” referred to the idea that residents of a state would determine whether or not that state should have slavery. Slaves had no vote, of course, so I put the term in scare-quotes. While admitting New Mexico and Utah on these terms seemed to violate the Missouri Compromise, the true blow to that compromise came in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up territory north of the Missouri Compromise line to “popular sovereignty.” It resulted in a free-for-all migration to Kansas, where bands of pro-slavery and anti-slavery migrants flocked to the state and fought with one another. This “Bleeding Kansas” presaged the Civil War.
While the abolitionist movement was growing in the North, the South influenced federal policy and pushed it in an expansionist direction. The horrific Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) put this in stark relief. In the decision, the Court ruled that black people “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution.” The decision framed it in explicitly racist terms, describing blacks as an “inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race.” That decision also struck down the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional.
When the South seceded from the Union, it wasn’t primarily about state’s rights or tariffs, and it wasn’t even really about slavery per se — it was about the expansion of slavery and the imposition of the pro-slavery stance on the entire country. Having defeated the North handily in law and policy, the South lost decisively in the election of 1860. Yet Abraham Lincoln did not campaign on a platform of abolition, but on a platform of restricting slavery from expanding into the territories.
It is important for Americans to realize that the Confederacy was not a noble cause. It was all about defending slavery as a positive good and expanding that “peculiar institution” into new lands.
However, this is not to say that the soldiers fought for slavery. We know from the letters of both Union and Confederate soldiers that they primarily fought for their homes and families. The Confederacy was founded to expand slavery, but many noble men had reasons of their own to fight even on the side of slavery.
Those who fly the Confederate flag to celebrate Southern pride may indeed take pride in the noble intentions of those soldiers on the ground, even though they should not take pride in the Confederacy itself or the cause of slavery for which it stood. Americans can also be impressed and inspired by the military feats of Robert E. Lee and by Lee’s noble efforts to heal the Union’s wounds after the war.
Nikki Haley was right to say most people in South Carolina see the Confederate flag as representing “service, sacrifice, and heritage.” Supporters of the Confederate flag should not be demonized as racists.
However, Americans should reject the false “Lost Cause” reading of history. The Confederacy was not in the right, and conservatives do themselves no favors when they attempt to tie the important cause of states rights to the pro-slavery South. This only feeds the left’s false narrative that all calls for a smaller federal government and more local control are secretly driven by racism.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.