April 9, 2010

Memo to the South: You were the bad guys

Southern rejection of Confederacy long overdue

When my eighth-grade Georgia history teacher informed the class that the Civil War was not about slavery but about “states’ rights,” the class as a whole took it as a fascinating revelation, one that showed that Lincoln was ultimately not as noble as we had been told up to that point, and that the Civil War itself was fundamentally not a conflict between a good side and a bad side, but rather a conflict between two different philosophies on the relationship of the individual states to the federal government. The goal of this article is not so much to argue about consensus among historians; one needs only to read the statements of secession that South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas issued to understand that the fundamental reason for the Confederacy’s existence was the protection of slavery. What is fascinating, and ultimately troubling, is that so many Southerners have never arrived at this obvious conclusion, or if they have, they have gone to great length to represent the Confederacy as something other than what it obviously was: a plainly evil regime.

A few days ago the governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, breathed new life into this debate when he issued a proclamation declaring April to be Confederate History Month. The proclamation invited Virginians everywhere to “reflect upon our Commonwealth’s shared history,” and “to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the civil war”—all without including the slightest mention of slavery.

Here is my request to all intelligent people currently living in the South: It’s time we put an end to this idiocy. It’s time Southerners stop pretending that the Confederacy’s main goal was anything other than trying to preserve slavery; it’s time Southerners stop white-washing the lives of people like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee—yes, they are no doubt fascinating people and brilliant generals, but they fought for a cause that, by any reasonable standard, was evil. That’s that. I don’t care how wise and charismatic you may consider Robert E. Lee to be; when you get down to it, the man fought and killed for the cause of slavery. And if someone ever tries to argue that, somehow, the Confederacy was not that bad or that it was not primarily concerned with preserving slavery, please consider the words of its vice-president, Alexander Stephens: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, 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 normal condition.”

Why a region of the country that consistently considers itself to be far more patriotic than any other frequently expresses sympathy with a secessionist cause that fought in the name of a horrific institution, I will never understand. I can only hope it is due to ignorance and wishful thinking, to Southerners hoping that the Confederacy really was not that bad, that its existence is not a horrific blot on the history of the South, that it can be defended or justified. And I sympathize with this problem, to some extent. After all, what country does not have awful sins in its past? It can be hard to acknowledge that the country you love was once on the side of evil. But moral responsibility and maturity require that Southerners awaken to this reality. We can’t pretend that the country or geographical region or whatever it is that we love so much has had a perfect, spotless history, much less when the blemishes on that history are things as colossal as segregation and slavery.

Over 140 years ago, in our nation’s most difficult trial, the good guys prevailed. It’s time Southerners accepted this and moved on.

— Peter Ianakiev is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.