Shorter Charles Irons
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Here’s the short version of the slam against the Sons of Confederate Veterans,
and the entire South, entitled, “Hiding sin behind virtue is bad history”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans — in their published literature, in
the pages of this newspaper, and at the fictional “Battle of Zachary Hill”
held in Snow Camp three weeks ago — have argued that the Civil War was
not primarily about slavery. They are able to make this argument largely because
they choose to emphasize the motives of individual soldiers instead of those
of the Confederate government. Unsurprisingly, given this focus on private rather
than public motivation, they find that many fought primarily in defense of hearth
and home. This rhetorical sleight of hand, hiding the national sins of the Confederacy
behind the virtue of individual Confederate soldiers, is bad history. It is
also a recipe for bad citizenship.
The rest goes like this: North good. South bad. Racist. Treasonous. Guilt.
In other words, typical bubble-boy professor rant against an entire civilization.
And here’s my response, which he has yet to answer.
Your condemnation of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and of the people of
the South, depends on one non-negotiable bias, which holds that the enlightened
North was mysteriously and suddenly moved to liberate the blacks its slave traders
had sold for decades, and that the South maliciously and perversely desired
self-destruction rather than surrender its slaves. In your view, there was no
bravery, no honor, no noble sacrifice on the part of the Confederate citizen-soldier.
He was driven by one malignant motivation – to keep blacks enslaved.
If we are to accept this cartoonish view of our nation’s history, there
must be no other significant issue dividing the two regions. But in fact, there
is a well-documented political and economic struggle between North and South
going back before the ratification of the Constitution, a struggle based on
the cultural clash between the English of the North and Scots-Irish of the South
that immigrated from Mother Britain. The record also shows the North’s
motivations for invading the South were anything but noble.
Many Southern leaders feared the growing commercial and political power of
New England. Patrick Henry of Virginia, one of the leading voices arguing against
political union with the North, warned his fellow Southerners, “This government
subjects everything to the Northern majority. Is there not a settled purpose
to the Southern interest? We thus put unbounded power over our own property
in hands not having a common interest with us. How can the Southern members
prevent the adoption of the most oppressive taxation in the Southern states,
as there is a majority in favour in the Northern states?”
Another Virginian, George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights,
also feared that Northern business interests would use the increased power of
the proposed Federal government to subjugate the agricultural South:
“Is it to be expected that the Southern States will deliver themselves
bound hand and foot to the Eastern States? A few rich merchants in Philadelphia,
Boston, and New York could thereby monopolise the staples of the Southern States
and reduce their value.”
North Carolina was one of the independent States that refused to ratify the
Constitution until a Bill of Rights was included that specified that the new
central government was restricted to only the powers specifically delegated
(not surrendered) to it, and that all other rights were retained by the people
of the States.
But almost immediately, those who saw profit and power in a more centralized
government began pushing the envelope. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary
of the Treasury, dreamed of an alliance between a strong central government
and the wealthiest businessmen. In 1791 he proposed a national bank, a Federal
monopoly over the money supply, and government subsidies to business. Hamilton
relied on a loose interpretation of the Constitution to justify his proposals–the
birth of the “Living Constitution.”
Reaction to Hamilton’s proposals was swift and forceful. The Virginia
House of Delegates declared that “in an agricultural country like this,
to erect a large monied interest in opposition to the landed interests, is a
measure which must, in the course of human events, produce one other of two
evils: the prostration of agriculture at the feet of Commerce, or a change in
the present form of Federal Government fatal to the existence of American liberty.”
In response to Virginia’s refusal to support his proposals, Hamilton
actually considered sending troops into Virginia, and dividing the state into
three to dilute its power. Virginia called up its militia, and secession was
openly debated–but Hamilton backed off.
Years later, to support the War of 1812, Southerners agreed to a protective
tariff to finance the war effort and to build up native American industry–even
if it was concentrated in the North. However, in the years that followed, Northern
businessmen continued to push for higher tariffs, which took Southern money
to pay for commercial development in the North. As Missouri Senator Thomas Hart
Benton observed, “Wealth has fled from the South, and settled in regions
north of the Potomac … Under Federal legislation, the exports of the South
have been the basis of the Federal revenue … and nothing or next to nothing
is returned to them in the shape of Government expenditures.”
The simmering debate reached a crisis point in 1828, when Congress passed the
highest protective tariff up to that time. In October, 1832, South Carolina
denounced the 1828 Tariff as “unconstitutional, oppressive, and unjust,”
and declared it null. But President Andrew Jackson vowed to enforce the tariff,
and even sent warships into Charleston harbor to back up his words.
South Carolina responded to “Old Hickory’s” threat by authorizing
a draft, and $200,000 for arms to resist the Federal Government. Andrew Jackson’s
vice-president, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, resigned to work for his
home state–the first vice-president in American history to resign. Calhoun
described the South’s predicament: “The North has adopted a system
of revenue and disbursements in which an undue proportion of the burden of taxation
has been imposed upon the South, and an undue proportion of its proceeds appropriated
to the North.” Henry Clay managed to defuse the situation with a compromise
that postponed hostilities.
So the stage was set for the disastrous election of 1860. The Republican Platform
included two planks that threatened traditional Southern interests, Federal
subsidies for a transcontinental railroad and other pork barrel projects, as
well as higher protective tariffs to help northern industrialists recover from
a recession. But there was no plank to abolish slavery. Lincoln even promised
to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and to respect slavery where it was legal.
He even approved a proposed 13th amendment to remove the issue of slavery from
So why did Southerners object so strenuously to Lincoln?
Many Southerners saw the election of Lincoln as a national takeover by the
North. Having lost their power to prevent Northern domination, seven Southern
States seceded. In January 1861, Governor Ellis persuaded the North Carolina
General Assembly to call for a referendum on secession. He saw the election
of Lincoln and Hamlin as a clear signal that the South was hopelessly dominated
in a Northern-controlled political union:
“Two persons have been elected to the offices of President and Vice-President
exclusively by the people of ONE SECTION of the country…A clearer case of
foreign domination could not well be presented.”
But North Carolina rejected secession in the February 1861 referendum. Plus
– three other Southern states, Arkansas, Tennessee, and, most important, Virginia,
also chose to remain in the Union.
However, when Lincoln issued orders calling for 75,000 troops to invade the
South, attitudes changed. Worse, Lincoln also declared a naval blockade of ALL
Southern ports . . .including pro-Union North Carolina.
The reaction of North Carolina’s Zebulon Vance was typical. Vance, a
rising political leader, had long argued for North Carolina to REMAIN in the
Union. While addressing an agitated crowd, he received a telegram announcing
Lincoln’s actions. In Vance’s own words: “My arm was extended
upward pleading for peace and the Union of our Fathers. When my hand came down,
it fell slowly and sadly by the side of a Secessionist.”
On 20 May, 1861, by an act of a special convention of elected delegates, North
Carolina seceded–the same constitutional mechanism by which it acceded to the
Union in 1789. Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee also seceded. Lincoln’s
illegal actions doubled the size of the Confederacy.
Events in Congress at this time demonstrated the true purposes of the Federal
government. After all the Southern congressmen left Washington DC, Northerners
had total control of legislation. Laws that Southern congressmen had always
resisted are soon passed, including raising the tariff from 18.84 % to 46.56%,
establishing a National Bank, and Federal control of all currency. Further,
the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 was passed, which awarded land and huge subsidies
to the railroads.
But the Northern-controlled Congress did not touch the institution of slavery.
Although North Carolina reluctantly seceded, it took the lead among all Southern
States to defend its right of self-government when Lincoln invaded. Under Governor
Zebulon Vance’s inspired leadership, North Carolina became the “Atlas
of the Confederacy,” and furnished 127,000 men to the Cause of self-government.
She lost 40,375 of her brave sons, double the loss of any other state. It is
this proud legacy the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans celebrates
The implementation of Reconstruction further proved that the war was all about
political and economic control, rather than liberating blacks. Northern policy
never recognized that the Southern states had seceded, so their participation
in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery was viewed as their resumption
of their continued participation within the Union they had never really left.
But when almost all the Southern states later rejected the Fourteenth Amendment,
which reversed the former roles of the States and the Federal government, the
Radical Republicans passed four punitive Reconstruction Acts. These acts divided
the Southern states into five military districts, took the right to vote away
from Southern whites, and established new state governments run by white Republicans
and blacks, all under military supervision. The new rule seemed to be that the
States could not leave the “indivisible” Union, but they could be
kicked out and transformed into “conquered provinces” by the majority.
While blacks were given the right to vote in the South, Northern states were
free to grant or deny black suffrage. In 1867, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas, and Minnesota
rejected proposals to allow blacks to vote. These actions were not challenged
by the party in power. The Republican Party Platform of 1868 provided that “The
question of suffrage in all the loyal States properly belong to the people of
So a new regime was in power, and the leaders of that time saw what was happening.
Joseph E. Brown, the governor of Georgia, recognized that the war had changed
the nature of the old Union into a centralized, pro-commercial government. As
he observed, “The Hamiltonian interpretation of the Constitution has been
established by the sword.”
An historian’s job is to understand, interpret, and teach the facts of
history, not to play the part of drummer for the powers that be. The runaway
growth of the central government today is the sorry legacy of Lincoln’s
Revolution, or should I say, counter-revolution overthrowing the revolution
of 1776. If you prefer to cheer the rise of empire, and the destruction of our
traditional liberties, that’s your choice. Just don’t hide behind
the facade of an honest historian.