disunion: when they say states' rights, you say slavery

I spent a fair amount of Reading Week reading, but not a word of it was for school. I did not achieve my goal of getting caught up to the current post of Disunion, but I did start at the beginning and make it through early January.

But it doesn't matter how far I got, because now I am totally hooked. I can't believe I got myself into another long-term reading commitment, with at least two years of overlap between the Pepys Diary and Disunion! But it's too late to turn back now. I am absolutely loving Disunion. If you enjoy reading and thinking about history, you can't do much better than this.

Did you know there was almost a state called Franklin? Did you know that the state of West Virginia was created when people in the western end of Virginia chose not to secede with the rest of their state? (They weren't anti-slavery, but were more economically tied to the North.) Allan and I have come to the conclusion that we were taught just about nothing.

Perhaps that's why so many people in the southern US still believe myths and lies about the Civil War. Or perhaps there's another reason.

December 20, 2010 marked 150 years since South Carolina seceded from the United States of America, the first state to do so. Some white South Carolinians celebrated with antebellum-style balls, while others, mostly African Americas, protested outside.

Naturally, Confederacy-lovers claim that their celebration has nothing to do with slavery. Indeed, they claim that the southern states' secession and the bloodiest war in US history were not about slavery. According to them, it was all about states' rights. States' rights, states' rights, states' rights. Limiting the power of the federal government to tell local governments what to do. This is the mantra.

I don't know whether the people who cling to this talking point are actually ignorant of the truth, or if they know they are lying. Given the train wreck that is public education in the US, my guess is that a fair percentage of them believe this lie to be true. But about this there is no question: it's a lie.

Secession was not about states' rights, plural. It was about one state "right": the "right" to own human property and control a supply of forced, free labour.

Edward Ball is the author of the book Slaves in the Family, which chronicles his journey to find and meet the people who are descendants from the slaves owned by his own ancestors. (Great interview with Ball here.) On the anniversary of South Carolina's secession, he wrote an essay, "Gone With The Myths" for the New York Times. Here's an excerpt.
I can testify about the South under oath. I was born and raised there, and 12 men in my family fought for the Confederacy; two of them were killed. And since I was a boy, the answer I’ve heard to this question, from Virginia to Louisiana (from whites, never from blacks), is this: “The War Between the States was about states’ rights. It was not about slavery.”

I’ve heard it from women and from men, from sober people and from people liquored up on anti-Washington talk. The North wouldn’t let us govern ourselves, they say, and Congress laid on tariffs that hurt the South. So we rebelled. Secession and the Civil War, in other words, were about small government, limited federal powers and states’ rights.

But a look through the declaration of causes written by South Carolina and four of the 10 states that followed it out of the Union — which, taken together, paint a kind of self-portrait of the Confederacy — reveals a different story. From Georgia to Texas, each state said the reason it was getting out was that the awful Northern states were threatening to do away with slavery.

South Carolina: “The non-slaveholding states ... have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and “have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes.”

Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. ... There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.”

Georgia: “A brief history of the rise, progress, and policy of anti-slavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the Federal Government has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia.”

Several states single out a special culprit, Abraham Lincoln, “an obscure and illiterate man” whose “opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Lincoln’s election to the White House meant, for South Carolina, that “the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

In other words, the only state right the Confederate founders were interested in was the rich man’s “right” to own slaves.

It’s peculiar, because “states’ rights” has become a popular refrain in Republican circles lately. Last year Gov. Rick Perry of Texas wondered aloud whether secession was his state’s right in the aftermath of laws out of Congress that he disliked.

In part because of this renewed rhetoric, in the coming remembrances we will likely hear more from folks who cling to the whitewash explanation for secession and the Civil War. But you have only to look at the honest words of the secessionists to see why all those men put on uniforms.

This Disunion entry, "Dancing Around History", also puts the lie to the states' rights myth, and counters the usual rationalizations in more detail.
The citizenry, poised to tear a nation apart, was planning a grand party. The following afternoon, Palmer and other delegates who had assembled in the South Carolina city voted 169 to 0 for secession. That evening thousands flocked to Institute Hall in downtown Charleston to witness the formal signing of the “Ordinance of Secession.” Afterward “cannon were fired,” reported the Charleston Mercury, “and bright triumph was depicted on every countenance.”

On Monday, exactly 150 years later, Confederate enthusiasts sought to relive the festivities with an elaborate Secession Gala. Three hundred celebrants—dozens decked out like cavalier planters and Lady South Carolina—packed Charleston’s Gaillard Auditorium to celebrate the fateful vote. One could almost be forgiven for thinking the whole town had gone back in time.

Outside the ball, though, more than a hundred people staged a downtown march, capping off an afternoon of protest that included police-guarded demonstrations at local hotels and a candlelight vigil. The protesters, mostly black, carried signs reading “Don’t Celebrate Slavery and Terrorism” and “It’s not About Heritage.” “Slavery is what you defend when you have a party, a celebration, get drunk, holler loud, act like a rebel, and talk about how you’re celebrating your heritage,” said NAACP leader Reverend Nelson B. Rivers III. “No matter how you dress it up, it is still slavery.” As darkness fell around Gaillard Auditorium, they lit candles and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Inside, the white gala attendees, nearly half of whom were dressed in period costume, belted out a rousing rendition of Dixie. The mood was festive and defiant. Slavery, many insisted, had nothing to do with their decision to buy the $100 ticket to attend the ball. “We’re not celebrating slavery,” maintained Sons of Confederate Veterans Commander-in-Chief Michael Givens. “We’re looking at the bravery and tenacity of the people who rose up.” When pressed, he and others admitted that the institution was an abomination. But they also took pains to emphasize that secession was about high tariffs or states’ rights. Anything but slavery.

Attendees at Monday’s ball would like to believe that the unanimity of slaveowners and non-slaveowners during the crisis proves that slavery wasn’t the driving issue behind secession. But a closer study of the contentious debate over secession in late 1860 shows how “fire-eaters” used fear of emancipation to coerce and persuade whites of all classes into ultimately supporting secession. (Needless to say, the state’s black majority likely didn’t support secession either—though no one bothered to ask them.) [Read more here.]

Also: Creative Loafing: It's the slavery, stupid.

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