"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."


January 6, 2011

Since the last meeting of United for Peace of Pierce County, the nation observed a painful anniversary:  the sesquicentennial of the secession of South Carolina on December 20, 1860.

This event, followed by the secession of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas over the course of the next forty-three days, led to the founding of the Confederate States of America.  On April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery opened fire on a Federal garrison occupying Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.  Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina joined the Confederacy in the following weeks, and during the next four years more than three million Americans would fight in the Civil War.  More than 2% of the population—between 618,000 and 700,000—died.

Sad to say, Americans are still not in agreement on the nature of that war.  The issue is not an idle one.  Historian Shelby Foote said that "Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War" (Geoffrey C. Ward, The Civil War: An Illustrated History [Alfred A. Knopf, 1991], p. 264).  We agree.  But while most believe that the war was fought against slavery, generations of white Southerners have been brought up to think their ancestors were really fighting for states' rights.

It is our conviction that the belief of some of our Southern brothers and sisters that the defense of the rights of sovereign states was the cause of the Civil War is a persistent, pernicious mistake.  A growing neo-Confederate movement encourages this belief by venerating the symbols and history of the Confederacy, and it has become a political force to be reckoned with in many states.

To adherents of this movement we recommend the perusal of a scholarly volume written by a man whose ancestors both on his mother's and father's side fought for the Confederacy, whose grandmother was a card-carrying member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose father was named in honor of Stonewall Jackson, and who in his boyhood hung with pride a Confederate battle flag in his dorm room.  We refer to Charles Dew, the author of Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2001).

In that book—the writing of which he found "difficult and painful" and whose material still today causes him "profound sadness"—Dew analyzes the arguments made by the representatives of the Deep South to the states they deemed likely to support them.  The letters and speeches of these "secession commissioners" show clearly that not states' rights but slavery was the core of the conflict.  There were three prospects that evoked in the minds of these Southerners what one of them called "indignation and horror."

First was the specter of racial equality.  One commissioner wrote that "the African race" was "an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality."  Another asserted the "superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed."  And a third said that only a people "dead to all sense of virtue and dignity" could embrace the doctrine of "the social and political equality of the black and white races."

Second was the prophecy of race war.  One commissioner predicted that the triumph of the North would lead to "an eternal war of races," "consigning [the South's] citizens to assassinations."  Another predicted that attempts to undermine slavery would "drench the country in blood, and extirpate one or other of the races."

The third was the least spoken of, but may have been then and may be today the most virulent:  the terror of racial "amalgamation."  One secession commissioner invoked "the sacred purity of our daughters," and another prophesied if "Black Republicanism" prevailed, "our women" would suffer "horrors . . . we cannot contemplate in our imagination."

The nation is beginning four contentious years of reflection upon and commemoration of the history of what is, even more than the American Revolution, its defining event.  The moment is therefore opportune to pay tribute to and to celebrate the vision, the courage, and the determination of the American heroes who overcame these hobgoblins of benighted, frightened souls.  Instead, they championed the doctrines of racial equality, racial tolerance, and racial freedom.

Those doctrines are our doctrines as well.  Racial equality, racial tolerance, and racial freedom are non-negotiable principles for American society today.  They are still subverted by some, and are still suspect in the hearts of others, but we proclaim and embrace them as non-negotiable principles for our national life that are essential to civil peace.

Our respect for history and ancestry should not blind us to what the South was really fighting for in the early 1860s.  "By illuminating so clearly the racial content of the secession persuasion," wrote Charles Dew, "the commissioners would seem to have laid to rest, once and for all, any notion that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War.  To put it quite simply, slavery and race were absolutely critical elements in the coming of the war.  Neo-Confederate groups may have 'a problem' with this interpretation, as the leader of the Virginia Heritage Preservation Association put it [in 1998].  But these defenders of the Lost Cause need only read the speeches and letters of the secession commissioners to learn what was really driving the Deep South to the brink of war in 1860-1861."


"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."