The flap over whether the Confederate flag should fly over the South Carolina state capitol raises an interesting question: Should Old Glory be permitted to fly over the nation’s Capitol in Washington, D.C.?
After all, while the Confederacy lasted only 4 years, the U.S. flag represents a nation that had an official policy of allowing slavery for more than 75 years. Don’t forget: slavery was protected by the U.S. Constitution until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
Should we let the U.S. government off the hook simply because it defeated the Confederate States of America in the War Between the States? It’s hard to see why we should. Let’s examine why.
From the first grade in every public school in America, students are taught that the reason that Abraham Lincoln waged war against the South was to free the slaves. If only it were so! At the inception of the war, Lincoln himself repeatedly emphasized that it was secession, not slavery, that drove him to wage war against the Confederate states: “We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.”
Here’s another way to look at this: If the South had freed the slaves immediately before seceding, would Lincoln have permitted the Confederate states to peacefully leave the Union? Not on your life!
Moreover, if Lincoln was so concerned about the plight of the slaves, why did he wait until the latter part of 1862 to issue the Emancipation Proclamation? Why was the proclamation limited only to slaves in the rebelling states, and why did it not extend to the areas that had been re-occupied by the North?
Lincoln’s mindset toward blacks is revealing. Here’s what he said during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858: “I will say then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people. I will say in addition, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races and that I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white man.” ( The Lincoln-Douglas Debates [Harper-Collins, 1993]; pp. 356-57, cited in Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the Civil War [Open Court, 1996]; p. 116.) (It makes you wonder why Republicans often refer to themselves as the “party of Lincoln.”)
We should also never forget Lincoln’s abominable dictatorial conduct during the war. Initially raising a war army without congressional consent, he actually had members of the Maryland legislature arrested and jailed without trial simply because he suspected they might vote for secession. He also unlawfully suspended the writ of habeas corpus and unconstitutionally refused to obey judicial orders issued by the Supreme Court.
Faced with a shortage of voluntary support for the war, Lincoln instituted a draft to man his army. But how did his draft differ in principle from Southern slavery? Didn’t it force men to serve (and even die for) Lincoln and the U.S. government? Isn’t that what slaves did for their masters in the South?
For that matter, how was Lincoln’s income tax different in principle from slavery? Didn’t it force people to devote a certain portion of their lives to the state? What if the percentage had been set at 100? (The Supreme Court later declared the tax unconstitutional.)
Perhaps most shameful was Lincoln’s support of Sherman’s horrific and unforgivable actions in the South. Sherman’s goal, in his words, was to “make war so terrible” to the people of the South that “generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.” In their infamous March to the Sea, Sherman’s forces pillaged and plundered, taking or destroying all food in their path and often setting fire to people’s homes. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty,” he said, “I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking.” Who can doubt that if a war-crimes tribunal had existed in the 1800s, Sherman and Lincoln would surely have been indicted for the vicious and brutal war that they waged against Southern civilians?
We also shouldn’t forget that while Lincoln was sending hundreds of thousands of young men to their deaths on the front lines, he safely ensconced his own son on the staff of General Grant. Some role model!
Finally, we should never forget the U.S. government’s treatment of Jefferson Davis, former U.S. Senator and president of the Confederate States of America, at the end of the war. While Lee, as the most distinguished general of the defeated Confederate army, was treated with dignity and respect, such was not the case with Davis. To the U.S. government’s everlasting shame, Davis was arrested as a common criminal, jailed for two years under miserable circumstances (including shackles), and threatened with execution as a traitor. (Fortunately, sound minds ultimately prevailed, and Davis was released from prison and never put on trial.)
Yes, slavery was indeed an abominable institution, and it deserves universal condemnation. But let us never permit that to dissuade us from condemning the U.S. government’s wrongful conduct during the Civil War as well, especially since it set the stage for much worse federal conduct in the future.
Should the U.S. flag continue flying over the Capitol? It ain’t worth fighting about.