Donald Trump was elected on a wave of unrestrained white nationalism that promised to “take back our country,” and in so doing “make America great again.” His pandering to white racial resentment throughout the campaign was open and unapologetic. To whites who felt that their social status had been reduced by the advances in racial equity achieved through decades of Civil Rights struggles; to those whom Republicans since Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” had pandered to with so-called “dog whistle politics”; to those who could not reconcile themselves to Obama’s election as president—that is, to the election of an African American to the nation’s highest office—Trump spoke their language of racial fury and overt prejudice.
It therefore came as no surprise when, as president, he defended the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville as including “some very fine people,” and expressed his support for “those people [who] were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” who he equated with founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. More recently, White House Chief of Staff called Robert E. Lee “an honorable man” and stated that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand.”
The controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments offers an opportunity to counter one of the biggest lies in American public discourse: the view that the Civil War was fought over the issue of “states’ rights” rather than slavery. It is common for whites in both the North and the South to argue that the Stars and Bars and Confederate monuments are symbols of “heritage, not hate.” In their telling, the Confederate rebellion was not about slavery and white supremacy, but instead an honorable attempt to stop a despotic federal government from abridging the rights of states guaranteed under the US Constitution.
Nothing could be further from the truth; and if Americans are ever to progress in eradicating the stain of racism, they must acknowledge that the Confederacy was not—never was and never could become—a noble cause. Although in defeat Southerners invented the myth that the Civil War was fought to preserve “states’ rights,” this rationalization was an ex post facto whitewash of the truth. In reality, the Confederacy was simply a treasonous revolt undertaken in defense of slavery. At the time of secession, the US Constitution did not prohibit slavery. Indeed, Southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had made quite sure that slavery would be preserved and protected in the original constitutional order.
The only state right that Southerners ever really cared about was the right to subjugate and exploit black people.
Six slave states and six free states sent delegations to the convention in Philadelphia (Rhode Island did not send any delegates). Each state was given one vote and nine votes were required to pass any measure, thus giving the southern states effective veto power in drafting the constitution. In addition, 25 of the convention’s 55 delegates were themselves slave holders, with a huge self-interest in preserving slavery. Of the 84 clauses in the original constitution, six concerned slaves and their owners and five had implications for slavery; and of these 11 clauses, 10 protected the institution of chattel slavery.
Although the clauses and their implications for slavery were openly debated, the framers were nonetheless shamefaced about the fact that the new constitution, ostensibly drafted to “secure the blessings of liberty,” in fact authorized the enslavement of 18 percent of the new nation’s inhabitants. Adopting what historians have called the “principle of non-disclosure,” the words slave and slavery were deliberately stricken from the original document, nor was there any mention of Africans or Negroes. In the original Constitution, slaves simply became persons “held to Service or Labour,” or simply “other Persons.”
Southern delegates used their veto power not just to preserve slavery’s existence at the time of ratification, but to render it impossible ever to subsequently eliminate slavery through constitutional means. Proposed amendments to the constitution required approval by two-thirds of both houses of Congress or two-thirds of all states; and to bolster the legislative power of the South, each state was given two senators regardless of population size, and slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportionment, even though they couldn’t vote. And if a proposed amendment somehow did manage to achieve the required a two-thirds majority in each chamber, ratification itself required approval by three-quarters of state legislatures. With six slave states and seven free states at the time of the Constitution’s adoption, the passage of an amendment to abolish slavery was thus inconceivable to the founders.
As time passed, however, territorial expansion created the possibility of many more than 13 states, and each additional state added to the union necessarily threatened the balance of power between slave and free states. With the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the 1846 Oregon Treaty, and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States came to span the entire continent.
Although the Missouri Compromise evaded conflict for a time by informally agreeing not to admit new slave states above the line that ran east-west through Missouri’s southern border, during the 1850s there were vicious battles—prologues to the war that followed—fought over whether territories such as Kansas were to be admitted as free or slave states.
The Confederate rebellion of 1861 did not stem from any direct threat to abolish slavery. Rather, it was a response to the new Republican Party’s platform, which simply proposed that no additional slave states be admitted to the union. Such a policy created the possibility that at some point in the distant future, free states might approach the three-quarters needed to amend the Constitution and possibly seek to abolish slavery. It was this remote possibility that drove Southern states to rebellion, not any immediate threat by federal authorities to overturn slavery in the states where it then existed. Indeed, in the run-up to Fort Sumter, President Lincoln made it quite clear that he was willing to compromise on the issue of slavery’s extension in order to preserve the union.
Thus the Confederate revolt was not about states’ rights, it was about protecting the institution of chattel slavery from a remote future threat. Proof of the centrality of slavery to the Southern cause lies in the Confederate Constitution itself, in which the cryptic references to persons “held to Service or Labour” were replaced with explicit references to slaves and Negroes. Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 3, for example, stated that “no bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed” (italics my own). Apart from these substitutions, the Confederate Constitution was identical to the original US Constitution in all respects.
The true purpose of the Southern rebellion was clearly articulated by the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in his “Cornerstone” speech, delivered on March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia. In it, he assured the crowd of white secessionists that “the new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Indeed, he went on to state that the new constitution’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”
As a graduate of West Point and an officer in the United States Army, Robert E. Lee had, of course, sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. As we have seen, however, the Republican Party platform posed no threat to the constitution and was in no way a violation of its provisions. It simply articulated a principled stand against the spread of slavery and did not call for abolition in the states where it then existed. The truth is that Lee chose to protect and defend slavery, and not the Constitution to which he had pledged his allegiance, an act that can only be defined as treason; and so it was for all those who joined him in revolt.
The idea that the Civil War was fought to preserve states’ rights was a postwar fabrication invented by defeated Confederates to elide the fact that their bloody sacrifices had not only been in vain, but their blood had been spilled for an ignoble cause. The only state right that Southerners ever really cared about was the right to subjugate and exploit black people. Before the Civil War, when Northern states passed laws granting the protections of citizenship to runaway slaves within their jurisdictions, they adamantly opposed that state right.
The truth is that Robert E. Lee chose to protect and defend slavery, and not the Constitution to which he had pledged his allegiance.
White Northerners, of course, are not blameless when it comes to the perpetuation of racial inequality in the United States. Indeed, after the Civil War they were complicit in acquiescing to the myth of states’ rights. Although Northerners initially took vigorous actions to enforce black civil rights throughout the South, when Southerners responded with an unceasing campaign of terrorism and guerilla warfare the Northern political classes ultimately grew tired of the effort, and after 1876 abandoned Reconstruction. In so doing, they left African Americans to their fate at the hands of former Confederates.
From that point onward, whites outside the South ceased to challenge the states’ rights narrative, and turned a blind eye to the creation of a new system of racial subordination. Blithely ignoring the endemic discrimination and violence perpetrated on African Americans in the South, whites increasingly focused their attention on the business of prospering in the nation’s new industrial economy. As black out-migration from the South accelerated in the 20th century, racial attitudes hardened in the North and West as well; through housing ordinances, redlining, and other methods, Northerners built their own de facto system of racial segregation and exclusion.
Donald Trump’s defense of white nationalists and their efforts to prevent the removal of Confederate monuments provides an opening finally to tell the truth about the Southern rebellion. The time has come to challenge the myth of states’ rights promulgated today by neo-Confederates and their sympathizers throughout the nation. Assertions that symbols of the Confederacy somehow represent a proud “Southern heritage” or symbolize the resistance of freedom-loving states to the oppressive predations of a too-powerful federal government must be categorically and publicly rejected.
The United States never had the benefit of a truth commission in the wake of the Civil War, nor was there ever any formal accounting for the systematic violence done to African Americans during Reconstruction and under Jim Crow. For years, in polite discussions whites simply have “agreed to disagree” about the real causes of the Confederate revolt, and averted their gaze from the system of racial injustice that replaced slavery. It is thus imperative at this time that Donald Trump and the white nationalists who support him be directly and openly challenged in their claim that Confederate symbols represent heritage and not hate, and that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights rather than slavery.
The plain truth is that the Confederate states launched an unconstitutional armed insurrection against the legitimate government of the United States that resulted in the death of more than 700,000 Americans, more than in all other American wars combined. A revolt to preserve slavery is not something Americans should honor with stately monuments or florid displays of the Confederate Battle Flag. In reality, these symbols are tokens of a bloody war fought in defense of a dehumanizing institution, whose only purpose was to enrich a class of wealthy property owners while giving otherwise oppressed poor white Southerners someone even lower on the totem pole to look down upon. It is not a pretty picture.