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Rejection Of Flag Exposes Larger Truths About The Confederacy


The sudden disfavor in which the Confederate flag finds itself is a reminder of a larger truth, or perhaps it's a larger untruth. The Southern cause in the Civil War - so often wrapped in nostalgic talk about a way of life, a theory of the Constitution, a position on tariffs - the cause of the Confederacy was in fact blatantly racist and all about slavery. For a reminder of this fact, we're indebted to Professor James Loewen, a professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, who writes in The Washington Post this week about the myths of the Confederacy that are enshrined in memorials and even in textbooks. James Loewen's in the studio here.

Welcome to the program.

JAMES LOEWEN: Glad to be with you.

SIEGEL: First I want you to describe at least one of the documents from the Civil War era that you cite, documents that make it very clear that secession was all about preserving slavery and white supremacy.

LOEWEN: The most important single document has to be the first one, which is from the state of South Carolina, and it's called Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.

Nothing could be more on point than that, and they immediately refer to the fugitive slave clause in the Constitution - no person held of service of labor in one state under the laws of thereof, et cetera. And then they list the states that upset them. They list some 16 states, from Maine and New Hampshire down to Wisconsin and Iowa, that have enacted laws that mess around with this fugitive slave act. They then accuse the Northern states of other little bitty states' rights. For instance, they accuse New York of no longer allowing what's called temporary slavery, namely the ability of Southern plantation owners to go see Broadway plays and bring along their cook. New York is now saying, we're trying to run a free state here, if you bring your cook, she's going to go free.

SIEGEL: So there's no doubt that it's about slavery, is what they're complaining about in South Carolina.

LOEWEN: It's about slavery and it's against states' rights.

SIEGEL: Yeah because New York, under states' rights, would be able to do as you choose.

LOEWEN: That's right.

SIEGEL: You sent me Googling. I found the Mississippi declaration of secession when they talked about slavery was needed for commerce and civilization because in the warm climate there - and I'm quoting - "by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun." That's a deep racism that's being expressed there.

LOEWEN: Absolutely. I actually lived in Mississippi for seven years, and it does get hot down there, but it turns out, as a sociologist, I know better. I think they knew better at the time.

SIEGEL: You cite a historian's study of Kentucky, which during the Civil War in that state, almost three times as many people fought for the Union than for the Confederacy, but Confederate monuments outnumber Union monuments 72-2. How do you explain the triumphant memorialization of the Confederacy?

LOEWEN: Isn't that astounding? There's all kinds of counties in Kentucky that sent 10 times as many people to the United States as to the Confederacy, and yet they wind up with a Confederate monument and no United States monument.

SIEGEL: I guess one could argue that the real monument to the Union is the country we live in. The Union did win the war after all, and so we live in a society where there isn't slavery.

LOEWEN: That's true. We have to say, on the other hand, that that Union, the Union we all live in, has been marred by persisting white supremacy all these years. It is astonishing, if you think about it, that our textbooks, our Army bases and many Northern states are still completely overrun by Confederate symbols and Confederate thinking.

SIEGEL: Army bases - you mean Army bases that are named after Southern generals.

LOEWEN: Fort Benning, for instance. That's a major base in Georgia. Henry Benning was a secessionist from the beginning. He helped lead Georgia out of the Union. After he succeeded in that, he then became an ambassador for slavery. I think we're the only country that ever named a whole bunch of bases for folks who were on the other side.

SIEGEL: For the past - more than 30 years, I've lived in Arlington, Va. A few blocks away from where I live is Jefferson Davis Highway. He was the president of the Confederacy. I admit that when I moved south from New York, for the first few years, it struck me as truly strange. Like everybody else in Virginia, I've come to just accept it as part of the landscape. Would you say change it?

LOEWEN: Yes. He did commit treason on behalf of slavery and white supremacy. Do we really want to name things for somebody who did those two things?

SIEGEL: Go back a couple of hundred years, and is anybody clean? That is, you know, our earliest presidents were slaveholders. Certainly, there's no shortage of anti-papists, anti-Semites, you name every kind of bias we might want to find, among the founders of the country. Can we go back and clean up history to that extent?

LOEWEN: I think you've asked a very good question. I think there's two issues. First, what are they primarily known for? For example, it is true that Abraham Lincoln said in the Lincoln-Douglas debates in southern Illinois that if there are two races and one of them has to be up and one of them has to be lower, I'm in favor of the white race being the upper. And he was racist in some other ways, too. But the gist of his life, the importance of his contribution, lies quite differently. Whereas the gist of Jefferson Davis's life, the importance of his, shall we say contribution, lies in his first leading secession and then leading the Confederacy. And the second point I would make is, it's one thing to remember history and to put up historical markers that get it right. It's quite another thing to commemorate someone and to name stuff for him. You don't learn anything from driving the Jefferson Davis Highway about Jefferson Davis except that he was a great man and should be honored. And it's precisely that last little bit - should be honored - that we need to take away from him.

SIEGEL: James Loewen thanks for talking with us.

LOEWEN: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: James Loewen's article in The Washington Post is called, "Why Do People Believe Myths About The Confederacy? Because Our Textbooks And Monuments Are Wrong." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.