“…Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good
You take what you need and you leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best…
Like my father before me, I will work the land
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand
He was just eighteen, proud and brave
but a Yankee laid him in his grave
And I swear by the blood below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat…”
July 20, 2015—That’s Virgil Caine from The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Caine was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. From the lyrics, I gather he didn’t own slaves, much like the vast majority of Southerners during the time. I wonder why Caine fought the war, and what he thought he was fighting for. I also wonder what he’d think about the Confederate flag controversy if he were alive today.
What does the Confederate flag symbolize to you? With the controversy still making headlines, it’s clear the flag symbolizes different things to different people. To some it’s an ugly symbol of racism and slavery. To others it’s a harmless yet proud symbol of home, hearth, and heritage. To still others it’s a simple symbol of defiance and resistance to tyranny. And to some Americans it means next-to-nothing. Many in the last group see the raging Confederate flag controversy as Michelle Obama apparently saw an American flag-folding ceremony a couple of years back: “All this for a damn flag?”
Whatever the case, the controversy has served to distract us from more urgent, important issues. It’s also revealed a pervasive misunderstanding of the Civil War and its critical role in fundamentally transforming the United States from a voluntary union of the states to a coercive union enforced by a strong, perpetually expanding central government. As history and economics prove, the latter is not sustainable because it crushes liberty, and hence peace and prosperity.
As for the fate of the Confederate flag, it’s easy to see which way the wind is blowing it: right off public flagpoles across the South. Before moving on, I will say this: Americans should never forget all of the many different things the flag is perceived to symbolize.
Now, one issue neglected during the weeks-long-and-still-running controversy was President Obama’s quiet removal of the anti-slavery and human trafficking provision from the imminent Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, at the same time he was loudly condemning the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery. Also, Dr. Tom DiLorenzo makes a strong case in his article “The Real Reason for the Anti-Confederate Flag Hysteria” that the “totalitarian socialist Left in America” and their neocon Republican enablers are using the controversy to divert “the public’s attention away from all the grotesque failures of leftist interventionism, from the welfare state to the government takeover of education to the war on drugs and beyond” (I strongly urge everyone to read Dr. DiLorenzo’s article).
But what I really want to focus on here is the Civil War and its causes. Repeatedly slipped into the coverage of the flag controversy is the echo-chamber refrain that Southerners were treasonous (they were not) and that the Civil War was solely about slavery and racism (it was not).
It’s possible to be both appalled by slavery and racism, and the Civil War itself. I am. It’s also possible to loathe slavery and racism and still see that the South had the right to secede. I do.
The Civil War was indeed in part about slavery. Some of the seceding Southern states said so themselves in their Seceding Ordinances. And yes, slavery did betray the founding principles of the Union. But more deeply, the war was rooted in political economy and the fear of losing political power as the Union expanded. The South wanted to extend slavocracy into the territories. They wanted greater representative numbers in the federal government. And then there were the tariffs, which South Carolina had battled since the 1820’s. South Carolina statesman and political theorist John C. Calhoun noted:
“The North has adopted a system of revenue and disbursements, in which an undue proportion of the burden of taxation has been imposed on the South, and an undue proportion appropriated to the North, and for the monopolization of Northern industry.”
In short, for decades the South resented and resisted the North’s Hamiltonian Big Government vision for the U.S., which was finally and fully implemented by the Lincoln administration. Remember, Lincoln imposed the first income tax. He also pushed Big Government cronyism and a nationalized central banking system, the precursor to the destructive, inflationary, redistributive-in-favor-of-the-rich Federal Reserve. “As rich as Jay Cooke” became a popular motto during the Civil War and after. Who was Jay Cooke? Cooke and his brother Henry (who ran a successful news business) were close friends of Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Jay Cooke set up an investment banking house when Chase was appointed. Cooke was then granted a monopoly on the underwriting of public debt. He went on to underwrite billions in government bonds during the war. Wrote Cooke’s father at the start of the war:
“I took up my pen principally to say that H.S.’s (Henry’s) plan in getting Chase into the Cabinet and (John) Sherman into the Senate is accomplished, and that now is the time for making money, by honest contracts out of government.” (my bold)
The Cookes were also friends of “war hero” and future President U.S. Grant (1869-1877), whose administration became mired in corruption while executing the Reconstruction, which further enriched Northern big businesses and bankers.
But what’s most appalling about the Civil War was the horrific amount of death and destruction. An estimated 750,000 soldiers died during the war. Some 50,000 civilians were killed, mostly Southerners. And as many as 200,000 slaves were estimated to have perished from the war’s fallout. As we’ve questioned before, could not the death and destruction been avoided?
Now, did the states have a right to secede? Though the Constitution fails to say either way, the contextually objective answer is yes. The South saw that the federal government no longer represented it’s interests. The right of secession is the Lockean, natural law tradition the U.S. was founded on. In this, the secession of the Southern states was no different than the 13 American colonies declaring independence from Great Britain. Independence was granted to each of the 13 colonies. After long, arduous debate, the Constitution was finally ratified by the colonies – barely. Would it have been ratified if the colonies thought it permanent and irrevocable? The states delegated power to the federal government, not the other way around. Could the states not rescind the powers they themselves delegated? And what of the resumption clauses some states included in their ratifications, stating that if the federal government abused its powers, the states could opt out of the Union? Thomas Jefferson himself envisioned eventual multiple republics in North America – that was the mindset of the writer of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote this:
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”
So the South in 1861 exercised what they believed was their natural right to secede – to break the “political bonds” of the union, and not for what the South believed to be “light or transient causes.” If they had not seceded, would there have been a war?
Technically, the Civil War was not even a civil war, as a civil war is a war waged to control a government. The South did not want to control the U.S. government. They wanted to secede from it. That’s why some historians refer to the war as the “War for Southern Independence,” the “War of Northern Aggression,” the “War Between the States,” or “Mr. Lincoln’s War.” The South sought independence from the Union, just as the colonies sought independence from Britain. Do we call the Revolutionary War a “civil war”? No. Why? In part because the colonies won. What would we call it if the colonies lost?
Lincoln necessarily called the South’s secession a “rebellion” for political purposes. If Lincoln had correctly called it a “secession” he would have had to have made a formal declaration of war. If Lincoln recognized the Confederacy for what it was – a newly formed government – he would have legitimized it. Furthermore, by calling secession a “rebellion,” Lincoln fell into another legal trap, because he couldn’t legally invade a state without the state’s consent, and the South certainly gave no consent to be invaded. Can the states be coerced without their consent? And what of Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution, which asserts that no state may enter into a treaty with another state without consent? Well, the Southern states seceded, so Article 1, Section 10 did not even apply to them anymore. Furthermore, some Northerners proposed Constitutional amendments to prohibit further secessions, thus recognizing that the Southern states indeed seceded.
We must also remember that many statesmen in the North talked about seceding from the Union first, as far back as the 1790’s and through the 1850’s (think Essex Junto, the Hartford Convention, and Northern abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison). Much of the talk centered on political economy as the nation expanded West. Again, it was about political economy and liberty. The question was: “If we don’t have power over the government, and hence liberty, why have a Union?” Until the Civil War, secession was arguably recognized as an acceptable mechanism for the advancement of self-government and liberty. A former president himself, John Tyler (1841-1845), was a vocal supporter of secession.
One final point on Lincoln. He chose war against the Southern states. Lincoln was confident South Carolina would fire on Fort Sumter if he provisioned the fort. Perhaps he was driven more out of concern for his legacy, or for the big business/banking interests backing him. Whatever the case, Lincoln betrayed the principles the Union was founded on, both by agitating for war and in the Constitution-trampling way he prosecuted it. The Civil War was a barbaric war of conquest and plunder, a template-setting foreshadowing of the horrors to come in the 20th century. Furthermore, Lincoln’s genocidal ruthlessness toward Native Americans is believed by some historians to have inspired Hitler himself.
Now, what’s the point here? Enter Shakespeare: “What’s past is prologue.” The best defense for liberty against tyranny is to understand the past so as not to repeat it. There will be secession movements in the future, as the debts mount and the tyrannies of the federal government increase. We have to understand the original nature of the union to understand how tyranny should be addressed. “If we don’t have power over the government, and hence liberty, why even have a Union?” Do you feel you have any power over your government? If not, why?
What the Confederate flag symbolizes should be important to us. But we cannot allow ourselves to become so distracted by what we subjectively think the flag symbolizes that we neglect the actual modern policies so detrimental to our liberty, peace, and prosperity.
So briefly, what exactly does the Confederate flag symbolize to you?
Is your answer simple? Or is it as complicated as the profoundly visceral emotion in the voice of Virgil Caine in the clip below (as expressed by The Band’s Levon Helm), who cannot raise his brother from defeat and death?
We will never even realize any chance of raising ourselves and our brothers and sisters of ALL races from defeat if we don’t even know what’s defeating us in the first place. Today, it’s certainly not a symbol, but rather our very own unsustainable, liberty-crushing federal government.
What does the Confederate flag mean to you? Comment below!
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