Jul 10th 2014

Oh Mercy Me, I Do Declare, I Have the Vapors

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Excuse me, for I thought when I woke up this morning the year was 2014. Yet a headline today reads "University Plans to Finally Remove Confederate Flags From Campus." In the article we learn that Washington and Lee University is leaving the age of muskets to join the rest of the world.

That a confederate flag is flying anywhere is an affront to all Americans, at least those who live in the 21st century. Southerners claim a deep national pride in the good old United States of America but ironically celebrate their ancestors' efforts to dissolve the very union of states whose flag they now so proudly fly. They honor a campaign to dissolve our country but claim the mantle of patriot, wrapping themselves in the very Stars and Stripes the South sought to leave behind. That makes no sense. The contradiction is always swept under the rug, but that must stop. Now is a good time to close this chapter of hypocrisy and inconsistency. A southern loyalist cannot be a patriot; the two ideals are mutually incompatible. You cannot simultaneously love the United States and love the idea of dissolving the bond between states that constitute the country. To claim both is insane, the equivalent of declaring that you love all Chinese food but hate chow mein. The claims are each exclusive of the other and therefore by definition both cannot be true. You can't be proud to be among those who wanted to secede from America while claiming to be proud to be American. That is crazy.

Few things could be more absurd than simultaneously flying Old Glory and a flag of the Confederacy. Forget not that when a state seceded from the Union one of the first acts was to destroy the Union flag, that is, the flag of the United States, atop the state capitol building. The moniker Old Glory comes from 1831 when Captain William Driver, a shipmaster in Salem, Massachusetts, unfurled on his ship a brand new banner with 24 stars prior to embarking on a voyage that would eventually lead to the rescue of the mutineers of the Bounty. He was so taken by the magnificent flag waving to the ocean breeze that he yelled "Old Glory." He took the flag with him when he retired to Nashville. When Tennessee seceded from the Union, Rebels were determined to find and destroy this flag. So let us not romanticize what secession meant; it was anti-American by every definition; Rebels were set on destroying the symbol that represented the union they sought to dissolve. That is the very same Stars and Stripes that they now so proudly wave as patriots. The inconsistency and hypocrisy are horribly ignorant of our history. Flying a Confederate flag with the American flag is no less absurd than if Japan flew the Stars and Strips next to the flag of the Rising Sun.


Let us take one issue off the table immediately. Certainly one can rightly honor the bravery of fallen soldiers no matter whether they wore blue or grey. We can appreciate the rare military genius of Robert E. Lee, and the loyalty and dedication of Stonewall Jackson, George Pickett and Nathan Forrest. These generals and the men they led fought valiantly, with integrity, with honor, for a cause in which they believed passionately even if we despise that cause.

But honoring the man's bravery or military insights is not equivalent to honoring the cause for which he fought. The cause championed by the South should cover every American with shame. Have no doubt that the South was at war to dismantle our nation, to dissolve our Union. Some southern loyalists try to skirt this historic reality by claiming they did not seek to harm the United States, only secede from it. But that is patently absurd because with the ability to secede comes disunion as an inevitable consequence. Proof is seen not only in the number of confederate states who left the union, but in that later in the war states even tried to secede from the Confederacy.

For this goal of secession, of which nobody should be proud, more than 630,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in four years of hellish war. To put this in perspective consider that the entire population of the United States at war's end was 35 million, putting war casualties at nearly 2 percent of the total populace. Equivalent rates of casualties today would result in 5 million dead or wounded, dwarfing our losses in World War II, or any other war.

Why did 2 percent of our population suffer death or maiming? Over the issue of state sovereignty and the interpretation of the 10th Amendment (ratified in 1791). The text is simple enough: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." But we also have the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the Constitution, which say,

"This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding."

Simply put, 11 southern states seceded from the Union in protest against federal legislation that limited the expansion of slavery claiming that such legislation violated the tenth amendment, which they argued trumped the Supremacy Clause. The war was indeed about protecting the institution of slavery, but only as a specific case of a state's right to declare a federal law null and void.

The inherent tension between Article VI and the 10th Amendment of the Constitution has kept lawyers busy and wealthy since our founding, and the argument goes on today. But the South went a significant step further than arguing a case. In seceding from the Union those states declared the U.S. Constitution void. The president of the United States, sworn to uphold the Constitution, had no choice but to take whatever measures were necessary to fulfill his commitment. So war came.

So what exactly about that sordid history would lead one to fly a Confederate flag over a state capitol building, or paste one on a F150 bumper or wear one on a T-shirt, or unfurl one over a campus quad? Is the South proud of its efforts to protect slavery? Or attempting to ruin the United States through dissolution? For starting a war in which 2 percent of the population died? For losing the war? These are odd banners to carry around for nearly 150 years.

Perhaps the pride comes from the fact that the South stood up to a greater power, at least checking or slowing the pace of an expanding federalism. But even that does not pass the smell test; by starting but then losing the war the South created the exact opposite effect, solidifying federal power like never before.

But damn if the South does not hold on to the war as if they never actually lost, fighting incongruously for a hopeless cause of questionable value while simultaneously wrapping themselves in the American flag! So we get oddities like universities still flying a Confederate flag; or in 2010 then-Governor Robert McDonnell of Virginia proclaiming April "Confederate History Month" without ever mentioning slavery. When questioned about this curious oversight, McDonnell lamely explained that "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia." Really? If slavery was not among the most "significant" issues for Virginia, exactly what other state right was being violated by federal law leading to the Civil War? Does McDonnell even know the history of the war? Sadly, McDonnell was the not the first governor of his state to explicitly omit slavery from lofty declarations. Former Republican Virginia Governor Republican George Allen also failed to recognize slavery when making a similar proclamation. Seems to be a disease of Republican governors, a historic irony given the role of the young Republican Party in the war.

The South started and lost a war that nearly destroyed the United States in pursuit of a terrible cause. Let it go. Let. It. Go. LET. IT. GO. You fought well but lost decisively. Your cause was unjust. Your actions were treasonous. There is no part of the Confederate cause of which to be proud. There is no moral high ground here. Waving the American flag while fiercely defending the effort to destroy what that flag represents is untenable. Make a choice; be a proud American or a proud Confederate. You cannot possibly be both. Washington and Lee University has come very, very late to this party.




  

 


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