Monday, December 20, 2010

Honoring the Dishonorable

The AP is reporting on a black tie gala ""Secession Ball" last night in South Carolina.
But organizers of the ball said it had nothing to do with celebrating slavery. Instead, they said the $100-a-person private event was a fundraiser to honor the Southern men who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their homes and their vision of states' rights.
"Their vision of states' rights" no doubt included extending the institution of slavery well into the future. It is true that most Southern propagandists defended secession and civil war via appeal to state sovereignty to protect "vital state interests," but it is impossible to believe that slavery was not paramount among those state interests. The very economic system which supported the old aristocracy of the South looked to be willed away by the faster-growing North which had successfully elected a strong anti-slavery President.

The notions of state sovereignty, nullification, and state superiority to the federal government (conveniently ignoring Article VI of the Constitution) are reflected in much of the political discourse of the 19th century. The Hartford Convention considered the possible secession of the Northeast 40 years before the South dreamed of leaving the Union. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions embodied the same constitutional theories that states have the right to review federal laws (beyond the power granted to states to act together in the U.S. Senate to shape the laws of the Union). These arguments became no more persuasive through the 1820s as new states which were founded under Article IV of the constitution came into being or in the 1840s when the Federal government launched an expansionist war against Mexico. The constitutional story of this period was of an increasingly important role of the federal government in creating the vital infrastructure which tied the Union together (post offices, roads, canals, and rail roads).

The direct reason for secession was none of these constitutional theories of states rights or vague federal power. The urgency to secede was provided solely by the North's growing power in Congress and will to end the national system of slavery to which the South had bound the Union. The facts of Ableman v. Booth 62 U.S. 506 (1859) amply demonstrate the growing unease which Northerners felt with being required to participate in a system which enslaved millions and dehumanized the few free blacks in society. Northern states galvanized against the federal law requiring them to return fugitive slaves to their Southern masters. The election of the adamantly abolitionist Lincoln scared the hell out of the South, and that is why on this night 150 years ago, South Carolina's legislature decided to secede from the Union.

The intellectual cover for secession was available for decades, yet the South had not felt an urge to dissolve their ties to the Northern states and their liberal values. Suddenly, slavery was threatened, and Southern political leaders decided to bolt in the night to protect it.
NAACP leaders said it made no sense to hold a gala to honor men who committed treason against their own nation for the sake of a system that kept black men and women in bondage as slaves.
Slavery is not an accidental after thought to which the South subscribed. It is a central principle of the confederacy, which is why the Confederate States of America wrote slavery into their constitution. This ball honors the men who charted the course into civil war to protect the abomination and national embarrassment of slavery. There are better people to honor 150 years ago, and not just the eventual victors in the war. We should honor slavery's dead if the South still toasts its dishonorable defenders.

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