Every summer for the past several years, we’ve gone to a local (and wonderful) Civil War reenactment. Without exception, the people who have chosen to reenact the Southern side will tell one, quite earnestly, that the Southern side was about states’ rights, not about slavery. Even 145 years after the war ended (or perhaps I should say, especially 145 years after the war ended) there is no other line to take to justify dressing up in the gray, even for the fun of playing with fake guns and cannon on a large field on a hot, sunny day.
In Saturday’s New York Times, there is an opinion piece saying that this modern-day point of view is a mythological revision, and that the Southern secession and the subsequent war arose solely from slavery, and had nothing to do with states’ rights. In other words, says the author, Edward Ball, all those who seek to dress the South’s side in the Civil War as a 10th Amendment issue are lying, to themselves and to everyone else. To prove this, Ball quotes from the secession documents themselves:
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.”
Up to a point, I don’t quibble at all with Ball — the South wanted to keep its slaves. Its entire economic structure was built on slavery, and it did not want to experiment with a true capitalist system based on freely exchanged labor. Feudalism is addictive for those in the power seat.
The fact, though, that the Southerners had morally nefarious ends doesn’t mean that they were wrong about their means. Constitutionally, under the 10th Amendment, the federal government probably didn’t have the right, unilaterally, to do away with slavery. The only way to do that would have been through an Amendment — and that’s precisely what the federal government ultimately did. It ended slavery, not by fighting the South, but by enacted the 13th Amendment and then, through brute force, dragging a protesting Confederacy back into the Union, only subject now to the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment, in other words, was a tacit admission that the slaveholders’ procedural argument was the correct one.
What this means is that, if reenactors want to hide behind states’ rights to justify their gray uniforms in the 21st Century — that is, if they want to say that they believe in the 10th Amendment — they are free to do so. That is partly honest. Total honesty, however, would require them to acknowledge that way too many in the Confederacy used states’ rights — that is, they used a legitimate constitutional measure — to justify a heinous institution. The two are separate — slavery and states’ rights — despite being combined to a malevolent end in the mid-19th Century.
This last distinction is a significant one because Ball, having made a good historical point (that slavery was a driving force behind secession, with states’ rights as the procedural vehicle), then uses it to launch a cheap and false low blow at Republicans. Because modern-day conservatives believe in the 10ths Amendment’s literal meaning (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”), Ball implies that they must also somehow be allied with slavery:
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.
As I said, this is a cheap shot. That the Confederacy used the 10th Amendment (which occupies a significant position as the last amendment in the Bill of Rights) to justify an evil institution does not invalidate the Amendment itself. To hold otherwise degrades both the Constitution itself and political debate with the United States.
Cross-posted at Right Wing News