Defending Slavery

We published several weeks ago in the Culpeper News a letter rightly condemning our Governor’s misguided declaration of “Confederate History Month.” The flood of letters defending Robert E. Lee and so forth was predictable up until May 25, when we printed a letter from Lorie Brown of Tombstone, Arizona, which – in so far as sense can be derived from it – appears to defend slavery (before making the usual assertion that slavery had nothing to do with the war).

The problems I have with flying the flag are these. It was put up thirty years ago as an explicit banner of racism. Its origin lies in a war, something I will never celebrate. (I’m as opposed to Memorial Day or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as I am to the Confederate flag). That war lasted about five years, whereas the “history” and “heritage” of all the recovering racists who feel deprived of the same can be traced back 400 years – and further if one takes an interest in the people who used to live on this ground and/or the people who used to live in Europe. And the main reason why there was a South to fight against a North was slavery.

I’m aware that most southerners never owned slaves and believed they were fighting to defend their homes. But they had a duty to rebel against their state governments long before the Yankees came to do it for them, and they ought to have helped in the effort rather than resisting it. Their duty was to abolish slavery. Treating people as property, ordering them to hard labor, depriving them of basic needs and ties to loved-ones, beating and raping them – these things are wrong whether the currently popular opinion among those of your skin color says so or not.

“Nat Turner, a pious but radical slave preacher,” Brown writes to us from Arizona, “led an uprising of slaves….At least 60 whites were killed.” I won’t dispute that ending slavery was then a “radical” idea in Virginia, just as reviving slavery is today a “radical” idea in Virginia. But, so what? The question is whether it was a good idea. Brown devotes several paragraphs to telling us what a long and wide-spread history slavery had. What can be the point of telling us this, unless Brown believes that the more common something is the less cruel it is. Do you imagine that slaves in Virginia didn’t mind it as much when you told them that the Ancient Greeks kept slaves?

In Germany a very short period of horrible national cruelty is routinely condemned. Monuments and memorials are erected. We even have a Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Yet, where are the memorials to our 250-year history of slavery ? We have a few exhibits highlighting the much-exaggerated but soothing story of the “underground railroad.” Why is there nothing about slavery? Ought that not to be the biggest museum on the national mall? Isn’t that what Lincoln’s soldiers won the right and duty to have? Instead we fly the Confederate battle flag and lie to ourselves about what it means.

“I fly my Confederate battle flag here in Arizona with much pride,” Brown writes, “and today I picture a black soldier carrying it along with a white drummer boy. Remember, the battle flag had absolutely nothing to do with slavery.” This is stunning amnesia. The flag went up on the South Carolina state capitol a mere 32 years ago on behalf of people who wanted to deny equal rights to Americans with dark skin, and wanted – as openly expressed in many cases – to bring back slavery or even to commit genocide. The war itself arose (as long expected) as a conflict between the slave states and the free states. Distorting the record either to suggest that Lincoln was some kind of noble abolitionist or to claim that slavery was not the single biggest cause of the war won’t fly. Neither should that hateful rag.

“It was about states’ rights.” States’ rights to…what?