A final surrender 135 years after war

May 15, 2000|By William Lowe

THE CIVIL War may have ended 135 years ago, but the recent contention over the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina illustrates that the struggle to fix the war's meaning persists into our time.

It remains to be seen whether the South Carolina House's vote to move the Confederate battle flag from the capital dome to the soldier monument will resolve the present conflict. Regardless, the rhetorical practices of the flag's supporters are as much a part of white Southern heritage as the flag itself.

Contrary to the Sons of Confederate Veterans' slogan, heritage and hate are not necessarily mutually exclusive terms.

Heritage is merely the sum of one's cultural legacy and includes both positive and negative connotations.

Thus, those who romanticize the Confederacy cannot honor the battlefield exploits of the Southern armies without also honoring the system of racially based oppression that those armies fought to perpetuate.

The traditional pro-Southern response to such an interpretation has been to claim that the Civil War was fought over state's rights and not slavery. In "The Impending Crisis," the pivotal study of the politics of the decade preceding the Civil War, historian David Potter offers a succinct refutation of this position.

While state's rights was and continues to be a legitimate constitutional concern, the state's rights issue in its abstract form was incapable of initiating civil war. Only as it related to the question of the status of slavery did concern over state's rights stir the passions that ultimately led to secession and war.

The past and present appeals to state's rights provide excellent examples of the use of coded speech in Southern political rhetoric.

From Thomas Jefferson to George Wallace, white Southern politicians have used coded speech as a means of reconciling their democratic populism with their sanctioning of systems of racial oppression. When vitriolic appeals to racism did not suit either the temperament of the politician (in Jefferson's case) or the political end (as in Wallace's presidential runs), coded speech has enabled white Southern politicians to appeal to racism while explicitly evoking more innocuous sentiments, such as limiting federal authority.

While Karl Marx has been proven wrong about much else, he was correct in noting that a society's cultural values derive from its economic base.

In the antebellum South, this process entailed the construction of an elaborate ideology in which slavery was not only justified but also deemed beneficial to the oppressed. The ideology's underlying appeal to white racial superiority also explains why poor white Southerners who owned no slaves and possessed little political influence were willing to fight on behalf of a hierarchical system that ultimately didn't serve their interests.

Now, 135 years after Lee's surrender at Appomattox, it appears that the last Confederate battle flag will finally be lowered.

It is only fitting that this capitulation should take place in South Carolina, where the spirit of secession was spawned and has endured the longest. Whether from its monument perch or a museum encased glass, let the Confederate battle flag be seen as a cautionary symbol, reminding future generations that valor in battle can be spent on causes that are not only lost but also unjust.

William Lowe writes a weekly column for The Sun's Howard County edition.

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