The violence perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, has reignited debate in the United States surrounding the legacy of the Confederacy, the self-proclaimed nation of eleven Southern US states whose secession precipitated the American Civil War.

As of 2015, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, over 1500 monuments to the Confederacy existed across the US. These markers take many forms, from state counties named after Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis, to official Confederate holidays and military bases named for Confederate soldiers. Most controversial are the statues occupying public spaces from town squares to university campuses.

While many argue that the preservation of Confederate statues amounts to the exaltation of white supremacy and fascism, those against their removal view it as an attempt to erase history. As cities across the US are mobilising to tear down statues and monuments honouring Confederate figures, often under cover of night, it is worth reexamining the complicated space that the Confederacy has occupied in the American consciousness, particularly in states formerly under its control.

Confederate origins: Slavery and Southernness

The Confederacy, or self-declared Confederate States of America, occupied a region now considered part of the American South. The birth of this nation reflects rifts that had existed prior to the formation of the United States. Thanks to differences in climate between the rocky, frigid New England coast and the swampy Southern seaboard, the economies of the American colonies diverged considerably. The Southern climate resembled that of the West Indies, and the plantation slave labour system popular in the Caribbean was successfully replicated and institutionalised in the South.

This in turn fostered the divergence of Northern and Southern societies and identities. As slavery had never taken hold in the North to the same extent, the North became a mercantile region supportive of democratic self-government. In turn, Southern society closer resembled the highly stratified structures of ancient Greece, with a cultivated white aristocratic class supported by large-scale black slave labor.

charleston slavery capitol building
The South Carolina senate voted by a two thirds majority to remove the confederate flag from atop the Charleston capitol building on July 6, 2015. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Slavery was such a delicate issue that it was never explicitly addressed in the formation of constitutional government. Instead, the existence of slaves factored into calculations related to proportional representation in the House of Representatives: each slave counted for three-fifths of a person, skewing both Congress and the Electoral College in favour of the interests of the slave states. It’s no coincidence that twelve of the first fifteen presidents were, in the view of constitutional scholars Michael Stokes Paulsen and Luke Paulsen, “slaveholders, from slaveholding states, or Northern men of Southern sympathies.”

The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1861, propelled to power by a powerful Northern network of abolitionists, represented a radical de-prioritisation of Southern interests. The group’s zealous anti-slavery views and increasing national prominence directly threatened caste-based Southern society. The Confederate secession can thus be understood as a reactionary, rather than a revolutionary, impulse whose reason for existence was to defend the pro-slavery status quo.

Confederate origins, a revisionist history: States’ rights and Southernness

However, rather than explicitly defend the morally untenable, the Confederates essentially rebranded. As Charles J. Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, argues, the new nation’s raison d’être was not to prop up slavery, but to defend states’ rights—the principle that individual American states “are the ultimate arbiters of what is or is not constitutional and that the states are thus always free to ignore federal law.”

This principle arose from debates surrounding the ratification of the US Constitution. In the view of the “anti-federalists”, who opposed ratification, a centralised federal government would be, in the words of Patrick Henry, “incompatible with the genius of republicanism,” inevitably eroding individual liberties. By contrast, the elevation of state power would provide the necessary check needed to protect democracy from degradation.

The institutionalisation of states’ rights as a constitutional theory under secessionist leader John C. Calhoun provided legal justification for this perspective. This aegis of the Confederate cause completely redefined the legacy of the American Civil War: the majority of Americans now believe that the Civil War was fought not over slavery, but over states’ rights.

robert e lee statue slavery
Protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted as the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was slated for removal. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Though the saying goes that “history is written by the victors,” the American Civil War presents a challenge to this axiom. As noted sociologist James W. Loewen, American history textbooks have argued for generations that Confederate secession occurred in support of states rights. “Publishers mystify secession because they don’t want to offend Southern school districts and thereby lose sales.”

This threat is quite real, considering that Texas alone contains ten percent of the nation’s public school students. Loewen goes on to cite a passage from school textbook “The American Journey,” in which the rationale for Confederate secession “is completely vague: White Southerners feared for their ‘rights and liberties.’” However, if one references the primary source material of secessionist documents, it is clear that the intent to secede was to reinforce white supremacy. Consider this passage from the Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede From the Federal Union:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

Southern statues recast

If the Confederacy clearly supported white supremacy, then the installation of Confederate monuments reflect attempts to reinstitute this ideology. This conclusion is borne out by data tracking the erection of Confederate statues. Two periods, 1900-1920 and 1950-1970, showed a significant spike in the speed of statue installation. The first period saw the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the institution of Jim Crow laws, designed to deprive black Americans of civil rights, while the second period coincided with the civil rights movement.

Furthering the point that these statues served a specific ideological intent, most Confederate statues are of rather low quality. These sculptures of “generic soldiers” were in fact mass-produced and hastily distributed across Southern towns too poor to commission a marble statue.

Understanding the nature of the Confederacy is vital if the country is to come to terms with its past. American historian Jon Meachem describes one litmus test by which the country could choose which monuments should remain standing: “Was the person to whom a monument is erected on public property devoted to the American experiment in liberty and self-government?” Others recoil at such perceived iconoclasm. In the words of the 45th President of the United States, “Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington? Jefferson? So foolish!”

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