As we debate what to do with monuments that honor leaders of the Confederate States of America, it might be helpful to review who some of the heroes of the confederacy were, what exactly they were fighting for, and which sides’ motives were worthy, even then, of honor.
It begins with our four-year Civil War. In that horrific conflict, more than 620,000 Americans lost their lives fighting each other on our own soil. More American men died than in WWI, WWII, and the Korean War combined. Notwithstanding the carnage, President Abraham Lincoln was relentless in his pursuit of total victory. But why? What did the Confederacy stand for? Why was Lincoln so determined to win? Was Lincoln just power mad like Napoleon and so many European leaders whose conquests were all about personal wealth and power?
No, Lincoln’s fight was all about principle. So what was at stake in the Civil War? What principles in Lincoln’s mind justified such a gory loss of American lives?
In our Declaration of Independence, our Founding Fathers proclaimed as self-evident truths that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” But, as a result of political expediency and compromise designed to convince the Southern states to join the new Union, these ideals did not make it into our Constitution. As General Charles C. Pinckney, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from South Carolina, said, “If the Constitution should fail to ensure some security to the Southern states against an emancipation of slaves, I will be duty bound by my state to vote against it.”
Lurking in our Constitution was a fundamental flaw, a birth defect that would threaten our ancestors’ lofty aspirations. That malignant defect was our infant nation’s acceptance of the enslavement of human beings. Indeed, one historian called the issue of slavery at the Constitutional Convention “the sleeping serpent coiled underneath the table.”
President Thomas Jefferson unintentionally lit the fuse of the Civil War in 1803 — six years before Lincoln’s birth — when he bought the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon, opening up vast new lands in the interior. At the time, slave and free states were balanced in the Union, nine free and eight slave. Between 1803 and 1845, the territory of the United States tripled in size, and the most debated and incendiary political issue in our nation was whether new states would be free or slave. Northern abolitionists fought for free states, but the South pushed to protect their interests in Congress and their comfortable, lucrative social order and way of life — built upon slavery and cotton.
SLAVERY, EMBEDDED IN THE ECONOMY
In 1800, the United States exported $5 million worth of cotton — 7 percent of the nation’s total exports. By 1840 it had risen to $63 million and by 1860, cotton exports were worth $191 million — 57 percent of the value of all American exports. Cotton was king, the new “white gold.” The South and its 75,000 cheap-labor cotton plantations had become a cotton empire. Nearly 4 million slaves were in bondage, and slavery was an essential element in Southern prosperity. Human bondage had become embedded in the economic fabric of our nation.
After 1850, common ground in Congress between North and South evaporated. Legislative politics became an acrimonious high-stakes contest with the survival of the plantation South at issue. Tempers flared. On May 22, 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina viciously attacked Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate with his heavy walking cane. Brooks’ fury stemmed from Sumner’s fiery speech against slavery two days earlier. Brooks became a hero in the South. Constituents sent him hundreds of canes, one inscribed with the exhortation “Hit him again!” The Richmond Enquirer editorialized that Sumner should be caned every day.
By 1850, slavery was on full march in the West. The country was being blown to bits. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed new states to decide whether to be slave or free, was gasoline to the embers. No longer might slavery be just a historical embarrassment. It threatened to prevail politically and permanently throughout the nation.
1857 brought more fuel to the flames. A Southern-dominated Supreme Court decided the infamous Dred Scott case, holding that Congress had no power to ban slavery. Justice Roger Taney’s ugly opinion proclaimed that blacks were “beings of an inferior order . . . [with] no rights which white men were bound to respect.” Slaves were “property” with neither legal rights nor standing to complain about their plight.
In 1858, Lincoln announced for the Senate. He immediately attacked the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the very real possibility that slavery could spread throughout the country.
LINCOLN’S ‘HOUSE DIVIDED’
“I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free,” he said in his famous “house-divided” speech in Illinois at a convention of the newly formed Republican Party. “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”
Lincoln lost his bid for the Senate, so he set his sights on the presidency. Despite winning just 39.9 percent of the 1860 popular vote, a million votes less than his three opponents, Lincoln won with 180 electoral votes – with not one from the South. Abraham Lincoln was poised to be sworn in as president, and because of his well-publicized “house divided” speech, the South anticipated the worst.
The militant South Carolina Legislature in particular had been expecting Lincoln’s election and voted on Dec. 20, 1860, to dissolve the Union and create in its place a Southern Confederacy, “…a great slaveholding confederacy, stretching its arms over a territory larger than any Power in Europe possesses.” Part of the larger plan was to annex Cuba as a slave state and aggressively expand the Confederacy into Mexico.
South Carolina’s momentous decision triggered an avalanche of secession. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas followed. In six weeks, all of the lower South had severed its ties to the Union; on Feb. 4, 1861, commissioners from those states met in Montgomery, Ala., to create a cooperative federation to be known as the Confederate States of America. By the summer of 1861, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee joined the Confederacy, reducing the Union from 34 states to 23. As far as the Confederacy was concerned, the United States as created by our Constitution no longer existed.
ENFORCING WHITE SUPREMACY
The overriding purpose of the Confederacy was to protect the right of its members to own slaves and to enforce white supremacy. To test this point, one need look no further than the statements of its leaders in its first year. Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s first President, explained it this way: “The labor of African slaves was and is indispensable to the South’s economic development. With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course so as to avert the dangers with which they were openly menaced.”
From The Mississippi Secession Convention: “A blow at slavery is a blow at civilization. We have no choice but submission to the mandates of abolition or dissolution of the Union.” Alexander H. Stephens, the Confederacy’s first vice-president said, “Our new government is founded upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new government, is the first in history based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Article I of the Confederate Constitution prohibited its government from enacting any law denying or impairing the right of property in Negro slaves. Article IV mandated that any new territory or state joining the Confederacy must permit and protect the institution of human bondage. The line had been drawn.
The war was far worse than anyone could have imagined. It raged on for four gruesome years, and for three and a half of those it appeared that the South would prevail — not so much by winning, but simply by not losing.
Many in the North were worn out by the conflict, shocked by the bloodshed and dispirited by the Union Army’s lack of success. Lincoln turned up the heat in 1862 by announcing the Emancipation Proclamation. Effective Jan. 1, 1863, this controversial decision freeing the slaves in the South radically changed the nature of the war. The North’s purpose was no longer just to preserve the Union, but now also to free the slaves and to end slavery as a way of life.
Jefferson Davis called the Proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” The Confederacy did not surrender until beaten on the battlefield, four years after its soldiers fired the first shot against the United States.
‘GREAT LESSON OF PEACE’
Lincoln’s three-part interlocking goal was to preserve the Union, to end slavery, and to save for humanity the idea that free people can govern themselves under the Rule of Law, without kings and queens and tyrants to rule them. Much more than just the U.S. was at stake. Lincoln explained why he was so determined to win in a message to Congress in May 1861:
“What is the war for? Why are men going out to kill? On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men -- to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life…. It is now for [our people] to demonstrate… that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets…. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war... And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy,... can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes.”
Lincoln made these objectives clear again in 1863 in one of the greatest speeches ever made: The Gettysburg Address. His goal was to reaffirm the idea that all men are created equal, and to remind us that our national business remained unfinished. Listen to his opening words: “Four score and seven years ago, our Fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now, we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
After elegant praise of those who fought the battle for liberty, he closed with soaring optimism: “that this nation, under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Perish from the earth? Yes, that is what Lincoln feared, and why he believed humanity had no alternative but to win the fight.
NEVER BE FORGOTTEN
Democratic ideas like ours had been pursued before, in Greece five centuries before the birth of Christ, and in Rome during the Roman Republic. But these ideas had been crushed by kings, emperors, totalitarians and tyrants for 17 centuries, until we boldly set out in 1776 to try them again.
The magnitude of the stakes at risk in our Civil War was enormous. Would citizenship, liberty and democracy survive? Driven by the goals of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln never faltered in his quest to confront tyranny in favor of liberty and the Rule of Law.
Those who argue in good faith that slavery and the Civil War are part of our history and must never be forgotten are correct. To understand the present, we must understand the past, especially if we expect to form “A more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
But the issue is how and where. Shall we honor the leaders of the Confederacy with monuments in public places? Or is their legacy best preserved in museums and academic courses in American history? May an informed debate decide the issue.
All Americans in the 18th Century inherited slavery as an American institution. But some created a system under our Constitution that set us on a course to abolition, whereas others went to battle stations to protect slavery. This distinction might create a line between those for whom public monuments are appropriate, and those for whom they are not.
The facts report, you decide.
Judge Stephen Trott of Boise sits on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.