The Confederate Flag and a Proxy War on History

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

On June 17, reports emerged that Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof obtained his gun “legally,” so calls for gun control have largely fallen on deaf ears. But a photo of Roof posing with a Confederate battle flag has managed to become the impetus for a cause célèbre to banish the Confederate battle flag from public view.

The ubiquitous reason for the banishment? That the battle flag stands for slavery and racism and is not a characteristic of post-modern inclusivity.

The problem with this theme? The Confederate battle flag was inclusive enough to be the banner for people fighting for reasons unrelated to slavery or racism during the Civil War. But 21st century America is divided between those who are largely ignorant of this—due to the success of the leftist takeover of education—and those who once knew it but have forgotten it—due to the success of the left’s large influence on media-based propaganda.

Consider this—the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. It was the bloodiest war in our history, with approximately 600,000 killed. The vast number of people engaged in this war—on both sides—fought for reasons that were not monolithic.

Many in the North fought for stronger central government and more control over the southern region of the country, while many in the South fought for freedom from an overreaching central government and thus less intrusion from the North. These contributing factors to the war were exposed in 1832-1833 during the Nullification Crisis, in which South Carolina threatened to secede in reaction to what they saw as federal overreach via tariff administration.

South Carolinians believed the federal government overstepped its constitutional bounds via the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832 and so declared the tariffs null and void within the boundaries of their state. The Library of Congress quotes U.S. Vice President and South Carolinian John C. Calhoun describing the tariff acts as ” unauthorized by the constitution of the United States” and therefore “null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this State.”

President Andrew Jackson threatened to send in federal troops if South Carolina did not cease with the nullification push, and a “compromise tariff” in 1833 eventually settled the matter.

There are numerous other demonstrations of this strong central government versus states’s rights approach littered throughout the decades leading up to the war. Another examples is the 1830 Webster-Hayne debate–a debate between Senators Daniel Webster (MA) and Robert Hayne (SC) regarding the role of states versus the role of the federal government regarding the birthing of new territories and states along the Western frontier. Hayne focused on states’s rights of self-determination, while Webster focused on national power.

And on and on the history goes until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 seemed the final step in galvanizing both sides of the nation toward one position or the other. And this was not lost on those in that time. Rather, following Lincoln’s election, author Wily Sword notes that the New Orleans Bee reported: “Now is the time for all patriotic men to choose positions, for soon they must be found on one side or the other – for the Union or against it.”

And it was not just the Bee, but papers throughout that South that warned that Lincoln would oversee a federal overreach not simply loathed but absolutely abhorred by southerners.

And there was slavery. It followed cotton through the South and as cotton became “King Cotton,” slavery became the means that allowed plantation owners and other land owners to keep up with demand. Slavery exploded in the South as demand for southern cotton went from national to international.

Interestingly enough—and missing from the current coverage on the Confederate battle flag—the North’s economic interest in slavery at this point was considerable. In “Complicity: How The North Promoted, Prolonged, And Profited From Slavery,” Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank show how the northern financiers and ship owners tried to delay the war as long as possible in order to keep the money from slavery flowing their way.

Because of this, wealthy New York businessman—men involved in cotton, overseas trade, and industry—held a December 15, 1860, meeting on Pine Street in NYC, attempting to persuade southern leaders and planters from seceding. Urging them instead to wait “until some kind of compromise in the slavery controversy could be found.”

The Pine Street meeting took place just two years after affluent citizens gathered in Boston’s Faneuil Hall to applaud the “intellectual cultivation” and “eloquence” of Jefferson Davis, then a Mississippi Senator, soon to be the President of the Confederacy.

Part of the point is this—history is complicated, and the causes of many events cannot be whittled down to five or six words for a bumper sticker. Another part of the point is that even the listing of these numerous things does not begin to touch all the motivations for those whose minds turned to war in 1861.

Lastly, it must be noted that the Civil War was a war between a Republican North and a Democrat South. This is a convenient part of history that Democrats avert in the current flap over the Confederate battle flag.

Instead, as politicians like President Obama see an opportunity to grandstand on the flag, the banner that differed in significance from one southerner to another in the 1860s can now be banished as symbol of extremist hate without any fear of the word “Democrat” being attached to it. And GOPers who join Obama in the call—people like Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Karl Rove, and Governors Nikki Haley (R-SC) and Robert Bentley (R-AL)—unwittingly help the Democrats sweep these past skeletons out of their closets while no one is looking.

Follow AWR Hawkins on Twitter: @AWRHawkins. Reach him directly at


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