It’s fine to pay homage to Confederate ancestors, but the rest of the country needs to move on. Otherwise, the party that ended slavery will continue to embarrass itself.
Battles over Confederate monuments are flaring up again 152 years after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. It shouldn’t be a newsflash that the Civil War is over, but for some, Dixie still lives on and must be defended. If people don’t come to their senses, the violence by white supremacists protesting removal of a Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va., could be the opening salvo in a larger race war.
After last weekend’s trouble, it is time to bury Confederate romanticism for good. The primary reasons the Civil War remains a national controversy are because race remains a burning issue and it can be used to embarrass today’s Republicans, which is no small irony for the party that was responsible for ending slavery.
It is true that states from the old South are a key part of the conservative base that put Donald Trump in the White House, but no single geographic region defines the GOP coalition. Midwest, Northern and Western states are also vital to a winning electoral map, and it was the Yankee Great Lakes states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania — which had not collectively voted Republican since Reagan in 1984 — that put Trump over the top in 2016. More than 95,000 soldiers gave their lives to end slavery from those four states alone.
Most of us conservatives from the North are not falling on our swords to defend memorials to Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and others who fought to preserve the evil institution of slavery. The racist context is central to this saga, and the few people who don’t understand that don’t belong in the party of Lincoln.
There is an old Southern trope that the Confederacy’s purpose was to defend states’ rights against an overbearing federal government. That might be true, but the only states’ right that the rebels were worried about was slavery. They made this clear when they left the Union:
- Mississippi’s declaration of secession explicitly stated, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” the abolition of which would be “a blow at commerce and civilization.” The document further justified secession because the federal government “advocates negro equality, socially and politically.”
- The Texas declaration to secede maintained that it was an “undeniable truth” that blacks “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.”
- South Carolina’s declaration of secession protested that Northern states “denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and “encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes.”
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These are, and always were, indefensible positions. As the secession documents of 1860 and 1861 made clear, establishing the Confederacy was about maintaining slavery, period. Moving or taking down Confederate monuments is not erasing a misunderstood history but correcting it. It is also about correcting injustice.
For years, arguments about the Confederacy focused on whether the Southern battle flag should fly over statehouses and other public buildings. The inconvenient truth about this “tradition” was that it did not date to the war or attempts to honor the war dead, but became popular in the 1950s as a symbol of resistance in defense of racial segregation.
Georgia didn’t add the battle flag to its state flag until 1956 as a response to desegregation orders from Washington. In this dim light, Confederate memorials must be seen for what they are: celebrations of subjugation, objects of intimidation against African Americans, and a warning for blacks to stay in their place.
It’s relevant that most of the showdowns over removing Confederate monuments are in cities with large black populations such as New Orleans and Durham, N.C. Does anyone really believe that African Americans can feel at home in places that have prominent public memorials to those who waged war and defended the “right” to enslave their ancestors?
This question is driven home by the existence of Baltimore’s monument to slave owner Roger B. Taney. He was the chief justice of the Supreme Court who wrote in the Dred Scott decision of 1857 that blacks couldn’t be citizens and had no standing to sue in court, and that Congress didn’t have the power to ban slavery in the territories.
Those who want to pay homage to their Confederate ancestors can put roses on their graves, but it’s time for the rest of the country and the Republican Party to move on. It is disingenuous for America to boast about being the Land of the Free when it still lionizes those who committed treason against this nation to deny freedom to millions. The monuments to slavery should come down.
Brett M. Decker, a Michigander, is best-selling co-author of The Conservative Case for Trump. His great-great-great grandfather fought in the cavalry under Gen. William T. Sherman. Follow Decker on Twitter @BrettMDecker.
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