LICENSE PLATES AND THE LOST CAUSE—CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

We’ll get back to the American Revolution in a few days, but before we head in that direction I’d like to share some concluding thoughts about the Texas license plate case recently argued before the Supreme Court. In a previous post I suggested that, whatever the constitutional merits of their case, the history promulgated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans is simply awful. The SVC’s position is that the Confederate battle flag should be viewed as devoid of racial connotations. It’s a symbol of “the independent spirit of the South, no matter what race you are,” in the words of SVC spokesman and former U. S. congressman Ben Jones. The SVC concedes that the flag has been hijacked in recent decades by a variety of hate groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, but they insist that the Confederate soldiers who originally fought under that banner were motivated by the highest ideals, ideals that had nothing to do with the defense of slavery or white supremacy.

TexasLicensePlate

The technical term for this kind of historical argument is “hogwash.” It is utterly a-historical to separate the issue of slavery from the American Civil War. Certainly few contemporaries tried to do so. That effort began after the last shots were fired, when white southerners began to fashion the myth that the conflict had had nothing to do with their peculiar institution. One of the first to set the mold was Alexander Stephens, the former vice-president of the Confederacy. In his 1868 work A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, Stephens insisted that the struggle between North and South was a struggle over state sovereignty and independence. The issue of slavery was of “infinitely less importance,” Stephens declared, a “mere drop in the ocean” compared with the other constitutional issues involved.

The Confederate soldiers who laid their lives on the line knew better. As historian Colin Woodward notes, “their struggle was about protecting slavery . . . and they knew that going in.” And so did Stephens, by the way. (The Confederate vice-president was a “revisionist historian” if ever there was one.) Only seven years earlier, he had defined the sectional crisis as entirely about slavery. But not just slavery alone. As Stephens had explained to a cheering audience at Savannah, Georgia in March 1861, the struggle to preserve slavery was first and foremost a struggle to preserve the racial hierarchy that slavery perpetuated. Deriding the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” Stephens had observed that “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.”

This is why I observed in my last post that the SCV’s version of history requires a willful blindness to historical evidence. It is false history, or more accurately, it is myth masquerading as history. And yet I don’t want to make such a negative pronouncement and just leave it at that. There’s always more at stake in our encounters with the past than simple accuracy about the past. I’m at least as concerned with how these conclusions about the past affect us. Some of you, I realize, may be offended (particularly if, like me, you have southern roots), but that’s not what troubles me. Having our convictions challenged isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and may even turn out for our good. No, paradoxical as it may sound, I’m primarily concerned about those of you who agree with my historical conclusions.

Let me explain what I mean with reference to a parable that Jesus told. In Luke 18:9-14 we read about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. According to Jesus,

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

To make sure that we wouldn’t miss the point, Jesus drove home the moral of the parable with this concluding observation: “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

If we pay careful attention to our hearts, I think we’ll find that the serious study of history is always teaching us either humility or pride. We can’t study the past for long without encountering individuals whose beliefs or values or actions strike us as ignorant or foolish or immoral. And when that happens, our hearts and minds will lead us down one of two paths: toward self-exaltation—“God, I thank you that I am not like other men”—or toward a deeper awareness of our need for grace—“God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

This is part of what I had in mind when I said in my last post that there is a moral dimension to the current controversy over the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. Most obviously, there is the moral question of how the law of love should constrain both parties to the dispute. (My opinion would be that, whatever the Supreme Court eventually rules in the Texas license plate case, if there are Christians among the Sons of Confederate Veterans, they should relinquish the perceived “right” to display a symbol that is so deeply hurtful to many of their Christian brothers and sisters.) But in addition to this there is the moral issue of how our hearts will be affected as we follow the debate.

Whichever side of the debate we come down on, there will be a temptation to respond in self-righteousness. (When do such debates ever promote humility?) Let me focus, though, on the side of the controversy that I most sympathize with. I’ve left no doubt in your minds, I trust, that I find the SCV’s historical arguments indefensible. Intellectually, I cannot honestly arrive at any other conclusion. But with this legitimate intellectual judgment comes the temptation to illegitimate moral judgment. We can be accurate about the past and still be good Pharisees.

Let me give you just one example of what I have in mind. In debating the connotations of the Confederate battle flag, we may be reminded of those individuals from a century and a half ago that the SCV venerates, the Confederate soldiers who went into battle tragically believing that in defending slavery they were being true to America’s Founding and faithful to America’s God. “God, I thank you,” we will be tempted to say, “that I am not like these Confederates who were blind to such gross immorality!”

Before judging white southerners of the Civil War era, however, let’s conduct two quick thought experiments. First, imagine that we could go back in time and survey every white person living in the United States in 1860 (just before the rupture of the Union). What variable do you think would best predict whether an individual defended or condemned slavery? Second, let’s imagine that we could survey every white person who ever lived in the United States from 1776 to the present. What variable do you think would best predict an individual’s attitude about racial equality?

So what answers did you come up with? Without embracing determinism or denying individual moral responsibility, I can say without hesitation that the answer to question #1 is where the individual was born. With the same caveats in place, the indisputable answer to question #2 is when the individual was born. On the eve of the Civil War, no factor did more to influence thinking about slavery than regional heritage. Individuals born south of Pennsylvania would almost always have defended slavery. Those born farther north would have either opposed slavery per se or stood against its expansion.

But note that, when evaluated against the entire sweep of American history, place of birth hasn’t been nearly as important as date of birth in predicting one’s thinking about racial equality. In 1860, whites in the North and South may have differed about slavery, but they shared a common belief in white supremacy. The latter has been an American, not a regional trait for most of our history. Thankfully, that has been changing in recent generations, but the larger generalization prevails. Show me someone who unthinkingly accepts the principle of racial equality, and the odds are overwhelming that that person has been born since WWII.

So on what grounds can we condemn white Confederates or feel smug about our own more enlightened views? Can we really take credit for when we were born? To pose the question is to answer it.

2 responses to “LICENSE PLATES AND THE LOST CAUSE—CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

  1. Pingback: Making Value Judgments - THE TWELVE

  2. Jack Be Nimble

    Your cautions are well taken. As a high school history teacher I struggled with my student’s presumption of superiority not only regarding slavery and race but really regarding the past in general. Many had somehow acquired the notion that they were living at some sort of pinnacle of progress and that what they now believed was superior to previous generations. This was particularly noticeable in the 1970s when the motto was “trust no one over thirty.” Not only that, but few had the vision to see that one hundred years from now many of their beliefs would be considered hopelessly naive by people living then. Perhaps had I been creative enough to come up with and pose the two questions you mention, more of my students might have begun to rethink their assumptions. It is very true that we can’t help when and where we are born and that those realities do so much to shape our thinking and values.

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