In a Team of Rivals, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H Seward predicting that:
“when the stars and stripes wave over [the confederate capitol of] Richmond…you will have to look mighty hard to a find a man who was a secessionist, or an aider of the rebellion”
Indeed such a turn had happened before:
He [Seward] recollected that when he was was a boy in the early 1800s, his parents had told of “the vast number of Tories” who opposed the government during the American revolution; yet, thirty years later, “there was not a tory to found in the whole United States”.
And we’ve seen similar things happen since; after WWII few people in France would have publicly expressed pride at having collaborated with the occupying Germans.
Yet Seward was wrong. One might expect an attempt to build a racist state that upheld slavery and launched a war that killed hundreds of thousands to be universally reviled. Yet in the Southern States it is often valorised. It’s true that in the twenty-first century explicit support for racism, slavery and segregation is confined to an often violent fringe. Yet a milder form is surprisingly common.
Even as a tourist visiting historic sites in Richmond and Charleston, I was struck by how often the issue of slavery was sidestepped and the Confederacy’s ruinous decision to rupture the Union was presented in a sympathetic. Its symbols, especially its flag, are widely displayed. Streets are named for Confederate commanders and politicians, and large statues to them still stand. There is actually a High School in Tennessee named after the founder of the Klu Klux Klan. A clear majority of South Carolinians support having the Confederate flag displayed in front of their statehouse.
The last forty-eight hours have left this seeming especially distasteful. A racially motivated terrorist attack in Charleston has left nine dead. The church that was attacked was a symbol of the long struggle for black equality. It’s predecessor was banned during the time of slavery and was only able to legally exist because the Confederacy was defeated. Yet it is on a street named for a Confederate general.
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates lays out the full ugliness of continuing to venerate such a dark legacy:
The Confederate flag’s defenders often claim it represents “heritage not hate.” I agree—the heritage of White Supremacy was not so much birthed by hate as by the impulse toward plunder. Dylann Roof plundered nine different bodies last night, plundered nine different families of an original member, plundered nine different communities of a singular member. An entire people are poorer for his action. The flag that Roof embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace, does not stand in opposition to this act—it endorses it. That the Confederate flag is the symbol of of white supremacists is evidenced by the very words of those who birthed it:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…
This moral truth—“that the negro is not equal to the white man”—is exactly what animated Dylann Roof. More than any individual actor, in recent history, Roof honored his flag in exactly the manner it always demanded—with human sacrifice.
This is clearly true. Indeed, it’s depressing that otherwise reasonable people disagree with it.
Nonetheless, while implicitly endorsing racism may be the most distasteful aspect of this phenomenon, it’s not the most surprising. That’s how oddly it sits with ideas about American patriotism.
The former Confederate States are the heartland of a brand of American conservatism that insists that people loudly proclaim not only America’s brilliance but its unique brilliance. It also has an expansive view of what one can do to out oneself as secretly not loving America: supporting gun control, believing in universal healthcare and being sceptical about using force abroad are apparently among them.
Yet staggeringly, somehow excluded from this list is flying the flag of a rebel group that tried to destroy the United States. One can apparently insist you are proud to be an American but also celebrate a movement whose success would have stopped you being American. On an innocent matter this would be massive inconsistency. On one as loaded as this it’s rank hypocrisy.