The Confederate Flag – A disease in the Public Mind?

On the grounds of a hotel in western North Carolina where we like to visit, there is a plaque to a Plantation owner who was from that area.  It says he was the largest slave owner in the South before the Civil War with over 4,000 slaves in the Carolinas and Louisiana.  It says he advocated the abolishment of slavery in the South Carolina legislature and had freed all of his slaves before the war.  What it doesn’t say is what happened to the freed slaves.  Did they leave his plantations and shut them down for lack of labor?  I doubt it. One of the practical questions with ending slavery was that the jobs that most of them could do were on the plantations.where they were.  There were others.

In 1859, after abolitionist John Brown’s bloody raid on Harper’s Ferry, then President James Buchanan called the rising hostility between the states “an incurable disease in the public mind.”  This reaction fascinated historian Thomas Flemming enough to write a recently published book titled A Disease in the Public Mind with some perspectives on why we fought the Civil War.  John Brown thought slavery morally wrong – as did the plantation owner cited in the plaque.  But John Brown believed that a war was the only way we could have ended slavery in the South.  Thomas Flemming in his book, obviously questions that – but he thinks that war was inevitable by the way people reacted to emotionally driven speeches and actions that were not entirely accurate or rational reflections of reality, but made the war inevitable.

Slavery had existed in the world since biblical times and was generally accepted by most of European population until the 18th century.  Western European countries exported people from Africa primarily to colonies in the “new world” for at least 200 years. Beginning in the 18th century that started to change – perhaps the U.S. Declaration of Independence contributed to that.  New Englanders had been involved in the slave trade, and there were people in the North that had owned slaves, but that had ended in the early 1800’s.  The legality of slavery had become a political issue by the 1850’s.  In the South, there was less that 6% of the white population who owned any slaves, and the “aristocratic” plantation owners who owned more than 50 slaves were less than 1%.  It was however, an agrarian economy that exported crops – such as cotton – which depended on slave labor.  But there were other countries with larger slave populations that ended slavery without a war.  The confederate army had to be made up mostly by people who did not own slaves.  Thomas Fleming’s question is ” So why did the people in the south who did not own slaves fight the war?”

I grew up in the south, but none of my ancestors had been aristocratic plantation owners and as far as I know, did not own slaves at all.  Some fought for the South in the war. What I was told when I was growing up was that the war was fought over “states rights”.  There were obviously people fighting in the Confederate Army who did not think slavery to be “morally right”.  The “states rights” argument was the reason given by most of the people who I knew in the South.  None defended slavery, and most said that their biggest problem of reconciling people in the South after the war, was not that the war was lost, but it was “Reconstruction”.  Reconstruction punished white people in the South for doing something that had not been illegal, but also punished the majority who never owned slaves.  It seems they did not think that people from the North who had no “stake in the game” should come into the South and tell people in those states how to solve what to many of them was a problem that would not be easily solved.  People in the non-slave states  had nothing to lose and no reason to suffer the pain of economic and social upheaval that would be inevitable. Those people should let the Southern states deal with those problems in a way they thought would be best for them.  The Northerners had engaged in the slave trade, but had to quit because the world had changed and it was no longer accepted globally, so they had to quit.   The north never had the that type of economy that was tied to slave labor. So the ramifications and issues of ending slavery in the South would be a lot different so Southerners apparently did not think they should be told how to do it by “outsiders” with no stake in the game.  Aside from the question of whether the constitution reserved this right to the states, this is probably a normal reaction that most of us would have.  We would not like it if someone came into our house and told us how to solve a problem that they had no stake in.  Is fighting a war to allow them the freedom – supported by the constitution? – to solve their own problems justify punishment after they lost the war?

Thomas Jefferson, who it has been pointed out often in the last few years, owned slaves.  One of the things that I learned at Williamsburg last year was that he thought it should be ended, but had concerns with how to end it.   He believed that education should come first, so that slaves would become truly independent and responsible citizens who could qualify for other jobs of their choice.  So in freeing the slaves, one problem was getting them qualified for other jobs rather than plantation workers.  Additionally, the economy would have to change so that agricultural jobs were not the only ones that were available.  They were not really “free labor” as is asserted frequently today.  The owners had to provide them food, shelter and medical attention if they were going to remain fit to work in the fields.  Free people would have to pay for these things out of their wages.  There were people no doubt who mis-treated their slaves, but I have trouble believing that was the rule.  After all, they represented an investment to the owner.  The problem was they were not free to choose what they did and did not have the liberty to pursue life and happiness on their own terms.  Would slavery have ended without the war?  It would have taken longer, but I think it would have ended.  The world was moving that direction.  And it would have ended more peacefully which would have made reconciliation much easier.

The current issue over display of the Confederate Flag is one that I have had mixed emotions about.  Unfortunately, reconciliation from the slavery and the Civil war is not complete. There is obviously a minority of people in the south who are racially biased and have used the flag as their symbol.  But the vast majority of us see the flag as a symbol of people who we belive fought an honorable war and lost.  It was, we believe not fought over slavery, but over the right for each of us to solve out own problems in a way that works out best for all involved.  We lost that war, and most of us are glad that the U.S. survived and we believe that we are much better off because of that.  We honor and salute the American flag regularly, and on the 4th of July Sunday sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic in Church.  So those of us in that group see the flag as a recognition of the part of the country that we live in and a symbol of respect for our ancestors who fought honorably for it.  For that reason, I hate to see it banned.

But for some, it has become a symbol of racism because of the actions of a small minority of people who I don’t agree with, and I don’t believe represent the majority of the people in the South.  But I am against racism, and if it would help reconciliation to ban the flag, maybe it should be done.

The best case for banning the flag was an article in the Wall Street Journal on July 11.  The article was written by William C. Davis who is a former executive director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.  Symbols matter he says.  “They say at a glimpse what words cannot, encapsulating beliefs and aspirations, prejudice and fears.  Having no intrinsic value, they take meaning from the way we use them.”  He points out that because of the way the flag has been misused in the last half of the 20th century by a minority of “outspoken, bigoted, and often violent” white people it has come to mean something different today than it did in 1865.  And because it has become a symbol of something different from it was originally, he says it believes it should be removed from state capitals, and put into museums.  He does not condemn the men who fought and led the confederacy and points out that there are useful things that we should still learn from that the history of that experience.

He makes a compelling argument, based on knowledge and careful thought.  I don’t buy everything he says, but I would agree with his conclusions.  My hope, however, is that it will be left to the individual states to make the decisions on what, how, when they do this.  South Carolina has made the right decision.  I think it will happen in other states, but it will be much better if people solve their own problems without outside interference that can only build resentment in some people.

In the meantime, diseases of the public mind are not a thing of the past.




About tjc13

BE - Chem Engineering, Vanderbilt Univ, MBA, University of Tulsa - Worked for an energy and chemical company for many years and then started a management consulting business working for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
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3 Responses to The Confederate Flag – A disease in the Public Mind?

  1. Bob Garner says:

    Like you, my ancestors came from the South. I had two great grandfathers, John Robert Whiteside and Gideon Garner, who came from adjoining farms outside Moresville, Mississippi. They both fought many battles during the Civil War. Whiteside was wounded several times but both survived the war and produced both of my father’s parents. You have stated my case on slavery which is same as yours. I wish racism was a thing of the past but I doubt it will die out until we are rid of the race mongers, both black and white.



  2. Bob says:

    Nice summary of a complex problem and time. You do some good work


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