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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Cause

As the citizens of South Carolina ponder what to do with the Confederate flag now flying at their state capitol, it seems a good time to focus on a crucial distinction: the difference between why a soldier fought for a cause, and what cause that soldier actually served.

Those who supported secession and the establishment of the Confederate States of America, and those who laid down their lives in its service, were moved by a multitude of motives. Some were swept up in local fervor. Some believed that the United States, by refusing to let states depart from the Union, had betrayed the principles on which the country was founded. Some detested the growth of industrialism and viewed the South as a bastion of rural values. Some felt a far stronger patriotic tie to their state than to the federal union of states. And some believed that slavery was either an economic essential for the South's survival, or a positive moral good, or a recognition of basic truths about human nature, or all of the above.

Those who founded the Confederacy included quite a few of that latter number. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared that the "cornerstone" of the new nation "rest[ed] 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." Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina itself identified the threat to slaveholders' rights as a cause or major cause of their decisions to secede. More examples would not be hard to find.

Whatever brought them to the battlefield, whatever their courage and their sacrifice, the soldiers of the Confederacy, in the final analysis, fought to perpetuate and enshrine slavery. The flag of the Confederacy symbolizes -- not solely, but inescapably symbolizes -- that goal.

And so I believe that Southerners can honor their ancestors who fought for the Southern cause, which so many of them viewed as a noble cause, while partially or entirely disagreeing with that view; that they can honor those soldiers' devotion while treating the flag they followed into battle as a historical artifact, rather than a symbol to be revered; that they can, finally, agree with the descendants of slaves, and with those whose cause is the preservation and extension of freedom, that a state capitol is no longer the place for that flag to fly.

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