A historian explains why many white Americans cling to the Confederate flag like a security blanket
On April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. That moment marked the United States of America’s military defeat of the Confederate States of America, a treasonous breakaway republic that, in the infamous words of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, was dedicated to keeping black Americans in bondage as human property for all time.
This article was originally published at Salon
While the Confederacy was conclusively beaten on the battlefield, at a cost of 750,000 lives, the long shadow of slavery and white supremacy still hovers over American society more than 150 years later.
On average, white Americans have at least 13 times the wealth of black Americans. That astonishing wealth gap jumps to 69 times if car ownership is not included in the calculations.
Fifty years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, America’s schools remain racially segregated. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s are being undermined by Republican efforts to keep black Americans and other nonwhite groups from exercising their right to vote. The country’s neighborhoods are also racially segregated at levels akin to that of 50 years ago.
Roughly 2.3 million black people are in prison in America. Police continue to target black Americans for harassment, violence and other abuse. In many ways these outcomes are the American legal system working as designed. Modern policing has its origins in the slave patrols of the antebellum South; debt peonage, chain gangs, the “black codes” and Jim Crow laws morphed into today’s prison-industrial complex.
The Republican Party, as I have contended on many previous occasions, is America’s largest white identity organization. From the racist backlash against the civil rights movement to the election of Donald Trump, the Republican Party has betrayed the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and is now fully the torchbearer for Jefferson Davis and the heirs of the Southern slaveocracy.
According to recent opinion polls and other research, many white Americans –especially Donald Trump’s voters — believe that slavery was a benevolent system and that the Confederacy was on the right side of history.
How can we reconcile the rise of Donald Trump with to the long view of American history? Why do so many Americans still fight about the real causes of the Civil War? What explains the Confederacy’s enduring allure for many white Americans? Should the statues and other monuments honoring the Confederacy be removed from public spaces? If so, what should be done with them?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with historian Ed Ayers. He is a professor at the University of Richmond and the author of numerous books including the Bancroft Prize winner “In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1864.” His book “The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction” was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Ayers’ new book is “The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America.” Ayers is also a co-host of the popular podcast series “BackStory.”
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version of this conversation can also be heard on my podcast.
What is history, and why do we study it?
It’s all the information we have about everything that happened before today. It has no intrinsic shape or form. It’s not just a bunch of stories that we’re told. It can be anything. In the same way, I don’t know about you but I’m nothing other than my memories and my experiences. If you took those away, I would just be a blank slate. A large part of my work has been to try to gather together a way to see all those stories, those memories, those experiences and those interactions.
How do you reconcile the rise of Donald Trump with a longer view of American history?
My instinct is that we are at the beginning of a new Progressive Era in American history. I think what we are also seeing is a great mobilization of people who had been complacent under the Obama years, when it seemed like progress was just going to continue to unfold naturally. Now people realize that progress will only continue when you fight for it.
One thing about history is that the thing that people expect to happen never does. If there was a poll in the United States during 1860 which asked, “Who thinks that the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world is going to be gone in five years?”, nobody would have said yes. Nobody thought it was possible to destroy something that big that quickly.
I think you’ll see, however, that as the Trump administration ends, the amount of energy that’s been spun up among young people, people of color, the gay community and other groups now has a focus in a way it did not before.
In response to social progress there is an inevitable backlash. We saw this in the racist and authoritarian response by white America to Obama’s presidency. I appreciate your insights about a new progressive era but I’m deeply worried by how the vast majority of Americans appear to be stuck in a state of learned helplessness.
The barometer will be the 2018 midterm elections. There we will see if people are so full of despair that they have given up on the nation. I’m hopeful that people are going to recognize that voting matters, that politics matters, that governance matters.
Nobody understands what’s happening right now. In my new book, I talked about how nobody saw Gettysburg. Nobody saw the election of 1864. Living through something offers a really poor indicator of what actually happened. You see a part of it, and there’s an authenticity to that. We simply lack the capacity to assemble the flow of events into a coherent story.
Certainly under the Trump administration we’re living through something unprecedented. But that might also mean that we’re living through the beginning of an unprecedentedly comprehensive and inclusive progressive era.
The first progressive era was basically white people. Now, we have the chance for one composed of people from lots of different identities coming together for the greater good. So since we can’t know whether that’s true or not, I choose to believe it in the meantime.
That’s a wonderful and hopeful vision. As a counterpoint, there is a great deal of rhetoric in the editorial pages of many major newspapers, as well on right-wing conspiracy websites, that America is in the midst — or soon will be — of a new Civil War. As a Civil War historian, when you hear such language do you just dismiss it out of hand?
I try to think very thoughtfully about what it is that they’re saying. In a new Civil War, if it happened today, the equivalent of eight million Americans would be killed. Are we really looking at something like that? I don’t think so.
On the other hand, in my books I show that there was a Civil War because people didn’t believe there could be one. They just kept calling each other’s bluff and drawing new lines in the sand. They ended up basically talking and voting themselves into a war that nobody wanted. It is always good to be alert to the danger, but it’s also important to have some sense of historical perspective about what true war looks like. America is not there yet.
Yes, things that are much worse than we can imagine can happen. You have to be alert. But that same vigilance can also allow you to see the possibilities for hopeful change that surround us as well.
The Republican Party is in many ways the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South updated for the 21st century. There has long been a neo-Confederate element in the post-civil rights era Republican Party. With Trump’s election they have fully empowered. And in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence we actually saw the president of the United States, suggesting that there are “some very fine people” among neo-Nazis and white supremacists. How do you make sense of this?
I was in Charlottesville that day. I was going to teach a class that afternoon at the University of Virginia. I would start by explaining how there are people who turn to the symbols of the Confederacy as a native, indigenous rebellion against the power of the federal government. That appeals to a lot of people. But when you see that Confederate flag being mingled with Nazi flags, suddenly that claim upon an indigenous, pure and non-racialized argument about politics and “traditions” is gone. It has been forever entangled with white supremacy.
You might be surprised by the number of people who will come up to me after I give a lecture and tell me, “Slavery was wrong, I would never defend it. But the fact is that Robert E. Lee was a fine man and he was fighting for his home, right? He was fighting for what he thought was right.” You hear that a lot. It makes you realize all the evasions that are built into this defense of the Confederacy.
We have all these formulas that people use to say that they are proud of their ancestors. For example, he was a “good” slaveholder. Two, he didn’t really believe in slavery. Three, he wanted to get rid of slavery. Four, most white Southerners weren’t slaveholders so they could not have been fighting for slavery, and so forth. I listen to these folks and I then say, yes, let’s think about this. Let’s forget about whatever you might think about the character or identity of Robert E. Lee. What if the Confederacy had won? What if those men on horseback had actually accomplished what they set out to do? They would have created a nation explicitly based on perpetual bondage that would have been the fourth-richest economy in the world with a monopoly over the single most valuable commodity in the world. How would world history have been different? Other parts of the world would have looked to the South and said, “Ah, the path to the future leads through slavery.”
If you try to argue with them on the same ground that they form the question on, you will have a hard time persuading them. But it’s also the case that white Northerners and Westerners have a smug belief in the inevitable end of American slavery that is not warranted either.
Are there any well-respected and properly trained historians who believe that the Civil War was about something other than slavery? Is it that just bad pop history at this point? Where do these ridiculous ideas come from?
No serious historian has argued for more than half a century that the Civil War was over anything other than slavery. Yes, there are different ways that it was over slavery, right? One of the formulas I have for this is that white Southerners didn’t fight for slavery, they fought for a nation based on slavery. If you don’t put the nation part in there, you don’t have a place for the flags and a place for your girl to love you, a way for your mama to believe that this is Jesus’ plan, right? You have a larger framework of identity that obscures the centrality of slavery.
Many of the statues that were at the center of the protests and the racist riot at Charlottesville are relatively new. They were erected well after the Civil War, even through the middle of the 20th century as expressions of white supremacy, especially in response to the black freedom struggle and the civil rights movement.
A lot of schools were named after Lee and [Stonewall] Jackson in the 1950s and 1960s. This is something that people either had not known or maybe had forgotten. The Confederate battle flag also became popular during roughly the same time period. Somebody asked me about that in a recent talk and I pointed out this is the same time the Confederate battle flag became popular. I think we have to seize this moment for people to understand the real consequences of the things that they think are just their “heritage.”
Confederate statues and other monuments are an effort to create a type of living history. After World War II, statues and monuments to Hitler and the Nazi regime were removed. That was a choice, because that type of public memory was not acceptable in post-war Germany. For a lot of black folks, and a good number of white folks as well, the Confederate flag is the American swastika. Why are so many white Southerners and others so psychologically invested in these symbols?
They just say, “You don’t understand what it really means. I wish no harm to anybody but they just need to be educated to the true history of Robert E. Lee.” I offer this story. I gave a talk in Richmond where an older African-American woman came up to me at the end. She shook my hand and then said, “Dr. Ayers, when I was a child, my parents would take me to look at those statues and they said to me, ‘These are for us. These are symbols for us to be quiet, to stay out of the way. The city doesn’t belong to us.'”
The movement to remove those statues is not contemporary “political correctness.” John Mitchell Jr., who was on the city council and was also the editor of the Richmond Planet, African-American newspaper, said in 1890 that the Robert E. Lee statue was “a monument to treason.” Ultimately, we need to think of new ways to recall the horror of slavery and the suffering of the Civil War.
What are you hopeful for in this moment of American history? What are you afraid of, or worried about?
I hope that all the people of good will can find commonality. That there are a lot of fundamental things in this nation that transcend any particular identity that we might have. Freedom of the press, freedom to vote, freedom of conscience and related values have gotten a little fragmented. My hope is that people will find a common voice to come together and to defend freedom and democracy more broadly.
What do I fear? Resentment and resistance will actually gain force rather than be diminished in the struggle that is to come. That’s the big question. Will people realize that we’re standing on the precipice of something much worse if we keep going down the road we are on? Or will they say, “Wait — this is not really what’s best about America”?