THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 119, April 30, 2001
The Confederate Flag
by Scott Callahan
Special to TLE
In the wake of Mississippi's overwhelming vote to retain the Confederate battle flag as part of its state banner, there has been much rejoicing in libertarian and states' rights circles. It should be said upfront that the symbol that the people of Mississippi decide to use as their state flag is entirely their own business, and if they decide to incorporate the Confederate flag into their own, bully for them. However, the Confederacy has long been championed by many libertarians as an exemplar in the fight against federal encroachment on individual liberty, and while these libertarians have their heart in the right place, their deification of the Confederacy is extremely misguided, and is ultimately damaging to the cause of individual liberty to which they are otherwise fully dedicated.
Examples of this championing of the Confederacy can be found in many of the columns at LewRockwell.com, (http://www.lewrockwell.com/) which advertises itself as"the anti-state, anti-war, pro-market news site" and which, it must be said, generally seems to be pretty sensible about things. However, a recent article ( http://www.lewrockwell.com/rockwell/mississippi-voting.html) by the site's namesake, Lew Rockwell, reveling in the Mississippi vote to retain its state flag, typifies the misguided position taken by some libertarians on the Confederacy.
Rockwell's position is ultimately founded upon the belief that the secession of the southern states and the formation of the Confederacy was primarily an expression not of a desire to retain slavery, but instead of a desire to be rid of federal usurpation of freedom. As Rockwell says in regards to attacks on the Mississippi flag, "The attacks have also succeeded in radicalizing people of the state [of Mississippi] as they more closely examine the reasons for the original secession and discover that the preservation of slavery was less important than the desire to be independent of federal encroachments." Fortuitously, the Mississippi politicians who voted for secession in 1861 actually put down in print exactly what their original reasoning was in deciding to secede. Unfortunately for Mr. Rockwell, the document does not lend support to his position.
In a brief, 688 word document published in the Journal of the State Convention and entitled "A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union" http://members.aol.com/jfepperson/reasons.html#Mississippi, the first two sentences read as follows:
"In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course. Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world."
Read that again. "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery..." It is hard to imagine a more debilitating refutation of Mr. Rockwell's claim, and the rest of the document does little more to give credence to his assertion. It goes on to say that a "a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization" and that just such a blow "has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation." As a result, "There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union..." The choice they see themselves as having, mind you, is not between subjugation at the hands of a federal government and secession. It was between the end of slavery and secession.
The document then goes on to list 16 "facts", the purpose of which was not to highlight the extent of federal encroachment upon their freedoms, but rather so as to "not overstate the dangers to our institution," that institution being, of course, slavery. Nine of the first ten in the list refer directly to slaves, slavery, or hostility to it. Primary in this list of ostensible threats are mentions of the Ordinance of 1787 regulating slavery, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the banning of slavery in territories acquired from Mexico, the failure of the federal government to protect slave owners' property rights over slaves, the attempt to prohibit the admission of any new slave states, the nullification of the Fugitive slave law, and the advocacy of "negro" poltical and social equality. Finally, it yet again characterizes its apparent choice as being either to submit to "degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money" - ie the value of their slaves - or secede.
Can there really be any serious doubt about the primacy of the role that the institution of slavery and the desire for its continuation played in Mississippi's decision to secede from the Union? Yes, the echo of states' rights can be found in much of the rhetoric employed by the south prior to and upon the formation of the Confederacy, and much of that rhetoric is certainly justified. But it is sheer folly to attempt to dismiss slavery as an unfortunate sideshow to what was otherwise a noble cause. As the Mississippi Declaration, as well as the declarations of causes for secession that 3 other states produced, makes clear, the issue of slavery was not only important, but was indeed essential to the formation of the Confederacy. It is by no means incidental that the group of states considering secession consistently characterized themselves as "slave-holding states".
To recognize the importance of slavery to the creation of the Confederacy is not to embrace the demise of states' rights and the growth of federal power that existed prior to the Civil War, nor is it to deny that such federal encroachments on freedom existed then or continue to exist now. However, to ignore or dismiss it, as Rockwell and many other libertarians tend to do, and to champion the Confederacy as a great defender of liberty, is to ultimately, even if inadvertantly, associate the notion of states' rights and limited government with the defense of an evil, pernicious institution, namely slavery. The idea of states' rights has suffered greatly from this association for far too long. The way to rehabilitate it is not to hide the role that slavery played in the creation of the Confederacy, but is instead to castigate the Confederacy for erroneously attempting to use a noble concept to defend an ignoble institution. Libertarians, with a commitment to individual freedom wholly irreconcilable with the institution of slavery, ought to be among the most ardent critics, not champions, of the Confederacy.