Two centuries and 39 years ago this past Saturday, the founders of the United States brought forth a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Since then that nation proved itself to be exceptional, and remains so. Its constitution, laws and economic system have been and remain a model for the world. It has been the engine of innovation and the progress of civilization. At great cost in blood and treasure it saved civilization more than once and has rid the world of tyrants. Its government and people generously pour aid into undeveloped countries around the world. Its power is the backbone of global stability and the shield democracy.
As revolutionary as it was at its conception, for the first 89 years of its existence, however, it fell woefully short of its founding ideals. Millions of its inhabitants were systematically robbed, enslaved, beaten, raped, tortured, murdered and more as part of a “peculiar institution” sanctioned by law and a great number of moral and religious authorities.
But it was not unopposed.
When the man who would become the Great Emancipator was inaugurated as president in March 1861, he summarized what he called “the only substantial dispute” in the country – “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.”
Though he counted himself among the latter, and had declared his hatred for slavery, Abraham Lincoln understood that striking at it directly would lead to the dissolution of the Union. At the beginning of the Civil War, he needed to keep border states on the side of the Union and leave the door open for secessionist states to return, and therefore refused to act against slavery.
But it was nevertheless slavery – and not a mere dispute about a tariff or philosophical debate over states’ rights – that was the central and underlying cause of the rebellion of 1861. The Southern section feared that the newly elected “abolitionist president,” who mocked and spoke against slavery, would stop the expansion of slavery, and perhaps even more than that, act directly against it where it existed.
That slavery was the overarching subject of contention is also abundantly clear from the declarations of secession issued by the slave-holding states (as even they referred to themselves).
As Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens explained at the time, in the eyes of the slave states, the ideals of the founders and their belief that “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature” and that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically... were fundamentally wrong.”
The Confederacy sought, and indeed established, a government “founded upon exactly the opposite idea.” Its “corner-stone” was “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.”
At this time, when the South was not under US sovereignty for approximately four years, the US as it was created in 1776 was hardly an immutable fact of life.
When South Carolina declared its secession from the union in December 1860, the nation was only 84 years old, “a mere speck in the life of nations,” as the abolitionist Fredrick Douglas told an audience less than a decade earlier in his “What is the Fourth of July to the Slave” address.
also yet to take root in Europe.
“Republicanism had been in retreat in Europe since the failed revolutions of 1848,” noted Professor Don Doyle of the University of South Carolina, author of The Cause of all Nations: An International History of the Civil War, in a recent article in The New York Times. “When Lincoln in the darkest days of the war, referred to America as the last best hope of earth, he was hardly boasting.”
The outcome of the Civil War would therefore decide whether, as Lincoln said, a nation “so conceived and so dedicated” to liberty and equality among men “could long endure,” a theme Lincoln returned to often.
With the blood of hundreds of thousands of Americans like those who hallowed the ground at Gettysburg, the contest was decided in favor of the Union dedicated to liberty and equality. The Union endured and ended the institution of slavery in its borders. The United States became what it has become and democracy took hold and expanded throughout Europe and beyond.
Despite the decision of that contest and the sacrifice it entailed, the most popularized symbol of the rebellion against the Union, the Battle Flag of the Confederacy, continued to fly. Not only at Ku Klux Klan rallies and in photos of the murderer of the worshipers in Charleston, but on state grounds.
This is not some minor offense aggrandized by demagoguery of a minority feigning its aggrievement.
It is an offense to all those Americans who died over the past 239 years to raise the American flag on American soil and in lands far away, to keep the nation safe and help others remain free.
It is rightfully understood by America’s original minority as a symbol of their enslavement and segregation and discrimination against them. They would be foolish to not fear for their place in society, their ability to pursue happiness on equal terms as others, and for their very security when that flag flies, especially on state property.
The US and democracy have had to face great challenges since the Civil War, and continues to face them. It is likely that within our lifetime it will be tested again by great wars and calamities.
If government of the people, by the people and for the people is to prevail, as Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address, the Union must be strong and united.
One section of the country cannot remain loyal to the barbarous sins of some of their ancestors at the expense of the insecurity of another section, certainly not with the support of the state. In an America that endures, remains true to its ideals and leads the world in the great challenges to come, there is no room for the battle flag of slavery and secession.The writer is an attorney admitted to practice law in New York, and a Republican.