In the wake of nine racially motivated murders in South Carolina, attention has focused on displays of the Confederate battle flag. Many retailers have pulled Confederate flags from their inventory. A bipartisan group of politicians and public figures have called for the removal of the flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds.
To some, the flag represents a noble Southern heritage. To others, it evokes a vile history of racial violence. As a black libertarian, I see in the Confederate flag interwoven tragedies which echo through history.
The first tragedy is the most obvious, the one most cited, the one fueling the current debate. The Confederate flag reminds us of a time when human beings were bought and sold as chattel, when the rights of individuals were denied based on the color of their skin. The institution of slavery cannot be washed from Confederate symbolism. For that reason, it remains reasonable to question why anyone would want to associate themselves with that symbol.
The second tragedy is amplified by its obscurity, the fact that few seem to recognize or appreciate it. The original constitutional vision of the American republic took form in a compact between the several states, where they granted enumerated powers to a federal government and established a first of its kind dual-sovereignty. The ultimate check on federal authority was the capacity of the states to withdraw from the compact. Among the many causalities of the Civil War was this original vision of dual-sovereignty. Today, we pledge allegiance to a union “indivisible,” affirming the supreme authority of the federal government to dictate law among the states. We can argue whether the states retain certain powers in theory. But in practice, the feds call the shots in far more ways than the Founding Fathers ever envisioned. That’s largely a product of the Civil War.
Therefore, when I look at the Confederate battle flag as a black libertarian, I see tragedy for all parties concerned. I see the history of racism and human indignity which motivates the current debate. But I also see the loss of state sovereignty which compromised the Founding Fathers’ vision for republican government. To the extent people choose to fly the Confederate flag in honor of that latter heritage, I can’t fault them.
That said, let’s be clear why state sovereignty was lost. It was lost because the southern states delegitimized it.
Next: The moral right to invade…
Sovereignty is a loosely defined concept in our political discourse which tends to reference any claim to govern. However, the moral right to sovereignty emerges from a recognition of individual rights.
Nazi Germany held no moral claim to sovereignty, because that state rejected the moral basis upon which sovereignty stands. The Allied powers were within their rights to invade, remove the rights-violating Nazi state, and establish new means of security. Likewise in the Civil War, the southern states yielded any legitimate claim to sovereignty by engaging in institutional slavery, leaving the North with the moral right to invade.
There exists an undercurrent in libertarian circles which stands sympathetic to the South. It regards Lincoln as a tyrant and refers to the Civil War as “the War of Northern Aggression.” This misguided view places the cart of sovereignty before the horse of human rights. If we regard Lincoln as a tyrant for invading the South, we must likewise regard the Allies as tyrants for invading Germany. Sovereignty emerges from rights, not as an arena for their violation. There exists no “sovereign right” to violate another human being.
This is why we didn’t flinch from raiding Bilal Town in Pakistan, killing Osama bin Laden. The Pakistani claim to “sovereignty” held no legitimacy in a context where they harbored an enemy committed to violating the rights of American citizens. In this way, sovereignty between states is like fences between neighbors. You can only be a victim of trespass if you did not trespass first.
It’s with this view of both history and morality that I regard the Confederate battle flag as a complicated and tragic symbol. It represents our failings as a republic. We aspired to a grand vision of self-governance, and profoundly failed on multiple fronts. That said, the vision remains, and we continue to imperfectly pursue it. To the extent the Confederate flag inspires some toward a spirit of independence, it retains value. However, we should remember that such independence must be daily purchased with universal respect for the rights of others. The moment we trespass against a neighbor, we lose our sovereign claim. That’s the warning which the flag should herald today.