The Right Side Won

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The Confederacy was not about freedom

Having lived in the South all my life, I'm used to people talking about how the South were the good guys in the Civil War. Sure, maybe they owned slaves, but they were fighting for freedom when they seceded! Freedom from big government and in defense of states' rights! Isn't that a noble cause? Doesn't that make the Confederacy the right side?

Not that all Southerners think that way (they don't) or that the view is limited to the South. Ohio libertarian columnist Thomas Lucente, for instance, has written about how great it would have been if the South had successfully seceded, striking a blow for limited government and freedom.

Even in the 21st century, this nonsense refuses to die. In May, Lee Bright, a South Carolina Republican running for the Senate, explained that secession was like leaving an abusive husband: 'kind of like a marriage, the South had decided it wanted to separate and the North said, 'We're not going to separate, and if you want to separate, we're just going to kill you.''

Conservative activist Dave Daubenmire declared in a recent column that 'the fight was over states rights more than slavery, and an argument can be made that the wrong side won the war' because government tyranny has 'exploded' since. Oh, and the Gettysburg Address would have been better if instead talking about the Union's jackbooted thugs, 'President Lincoln was referencing the brave Confederate soldiers who were fighting against big-government tyranny.'

Daubenmire and Bright are full of it. The right the 'slaveholding states' (as South Carolina called them when it seceded) were fighting to protect was slavery. And the Confederacy's idea of being abused was that people in the rest of the country were (gasp) criticizing slavery and had elected a president the slaveowners didn't vote for.

That's one thing I think makes the right-to-secede argument nonsense. Certainly there were a huge bundle of issues between the regions of the country but the one that kicked off secession was Lincoln winning the White House. Seven states seceded before Lincoln was inaugurated, so it's not like they objected to his policies ' just to the fact they didn't get the president they wanted. That's a flimsy legal ground for declaring the Union null and void.

The idea of the Confederacy as some libertarian states' rights utopia is a myth too. Like so many people today, the slave-holding states were fine with big government when it suited them. There was no states' rights outcry in the South over the Fugitive Slave Act or the Dred Scott decision, for instance. Both of them infringed on the laws and rights of free states, but the right to restrict slavery wasn't one the South had much interest in

And of course, there's the really big stinking myth about the Confederacy being some bastion of freedom ' slavery. Daubenmire and Bright might prefer to think slavery had nothing to do with the war, but the right the Confederacy was fighting for was the right to own black Americans and treat them as property. Just look at South Carolina's declaration of secession and the reasons it gives why the free states are the bad guys:

'They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes.' The free states have also 'denied the rights of property' by refusing to return escaped slaves, which violates the owners' Constitutional rights.

'They have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.'

They 'have united in the election of a man to the high office of president of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.'

Or consider Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who declared that all men are not created equal: blacks were inferior and slavery was their "natural and normal condition." The CSA, Stephens said, was 'based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.'

Unlike Bright, Daubenmire and Lucente, the Confederates back then made no bones about the real issues. Why would they? In their eyes, slavery was a white right and a great and glorious good that assigned every member of every race to their proper position. They were proud to secede for slavery.

I suppose it's some comfort that people who defend the South in the 21st century don't want to go quite that far.

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Updated May 22, 2018 1:43 AM UTC | More details


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