The American Civil War – redux
At last count, the state of Florida issues 106 “specialty” license plates, honoring and celebrating such causes as Florida’s Oceans, the American Red Cross, Boy Scouts, nine professional sports franchises, 36 private and public colleges and universities and all sorts of causes encouraging the strengthening of families, values, environmental awareness and so on and on and on. If anyone is interested in a complete list and pictures of the specialty license plates, they are readily available. Any organization may apply for the issuance of a specialty license plate provided it meets requirements primarily to ensure enough people will purchase the plate for $25.00 per year.
Recently, however, a new specialty plate has been requested – one that raises concerns and issues of sensitivity. The new plate has been requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. An image of the new proposed plate is shown.
The new plate has a picture of the Confederate Battle Flag and the words, “Confederate Heritage”. The organization sponsoring the new license plate, the Sons of Confederate Veterans [CSV] is an organization of male descendants of soldiers who served and fought for the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. The website of the SCV is eloquent in its description of the soldiers of the confederacy and the cause for which they fought:
“The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution. The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built. . . .
“The SCV rejects any group whose actions tarnish or distort the image of the Confederate soldier or his reasons for fighting. . .
“The memory and reputation of the Confederate soldier, as well as the motives for his suffering and sacrifice, are being consciously distorted by some in an attempt to alter history. Unless the descendants of Southern soldiers resist those efforts, a unique part of our nations’ cultural heritage will cease to exist.”
A small bit of personal history, here.
I was born and raised in Massachusetts and lived for many years in New York, both bastions of liberalism and unsympathetic to the causes of the South in the Civil War. I have now lived in the south for over 35 years, have friends who participate in reenactments of Civil War battles and, generally, refer to the War Between the States. I come to this argument with the baggage of my values.
The Confederates assert that slavery was not the casus belli of the Civil War.
The primary argument of the Confederate apologists in the current era is that defense of states’ rights, rather than the preservation of slavery, was the primary cause that led eleven southern states to secede from the Union, precipitating the war. There has always been a literary Lost Cause movement that viewed the War as between noble, heroic southerners against the ignoble north.
The Lost Cause view of the Civil War also influenced Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and the later film of the same name. There Southerners were portrayed as noble, heroic figures, living in a romantic and conservative society, who tragically succumbed to an unstoppable, destructive force. Another prominent use of the Lost Cause perspective was in Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.’s 1905 book The Clansman, which was adapted in the movie Birth of a Nation. In both the book and the movie, the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as continuing the noble traditions of the South and the CSA soldier by defending Southern culture in general and Southern womanhood in particular against the depredations and exploitation of freed blacks and Yankee carpetbaggers.
The truth is that a primary reason for the War was the issue of slavery and its possible legalization in newly formed states.
Unfortunately for these apologists who swear that slavery was not the reason for the Civil War, on March 21, 1861, just before the commencement of hostilities on April 12, by the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, a speech was made by Alexander Stephens in Savannah. Mr. Stephens was Vice President of the Confederate States of America and, as such, can be assumed to be speaking with some authority. Among other remarks, Mr. Stephens said:
“The new constitution [i.e., that of the Confederacy] has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution-African slavery as it exists amongst us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. . . . The prevailing ideas entertained by . . . the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone 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, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. . . .”
And, should there be any further doubt, Article VIII of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America establishes its own brand of the Bill of Rights: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”
So now let us freely acknowledge the words of an architect of the Confederacy; its basic tenet was the alleged inferiority of the “negro”. Let us no longer assert the moral superiority of the South, its nobility and the greatness of its cause.
Florida is now asked to honor the Confederate Battle Flag, notwithstanding it is a very symbol of oppression to a substantial portion of its citizens, both African-American and Caucasian.
The SCV has been successful in having a number of states issue specialty license plates bearing the Confederate Battle flag: North and South Carolina, Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Louisiana. There have been a handful of challenges through the Courts in some states, but the opinion of a North Carolina court is the prevalent view:
“SCV’s emblem strikingly resembles the Confederate flag. We are aware of the sensitivity of many of our citizens to the display of the Confederate flag. Whether the display of the Confederate flag on state-issued license plates represents sound public policy is not an issue presented to this Court in this case. That is an issue for our General Assembly.”
So it will be up to the Florida Legislature to agree or disagree as to the issuance of a specialty license plate that honors a part of our history that, perhaps, should not be glamorized and held up as an example of all that is right with our nation.
One state senator, Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, stated that the Legislature is “too sophisticated” to permit such a specialty tag. “I don’t think they’d fall into the trap of passing legislation that raises the spectre of racism,” she said. “It’s a very sensitive issue in this state and this country. It’s very polarizing and we don’t need that today.”
One can only hope.