A (very long) post on Confederate nostalgia


“Saw you a-marchin’ with Robert E. Lee

You held your head up high tryin’ to win the victory.

You fought for your folks, but you didn’t die in vain;

Even though you lost, they speak highly of your name

‘Cause you fought all the way, Johnny Reb.”

–Johnny Horton Johnny Reb.


“Some prayers never reach the sky;

Some wounds never heal.

They still say someday the South will rise

And man, I wanna see that deal.”

–Warren Zevon. Renegade.

Among certain elements of our society, nostalgia for the old Confederacy seemingly will not go away. Not long ago there was controversy when a black college student displayed the battle flag of that bygone nation in his dorm window. Meanwhile, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are taking legal action to demand Confederate flag license plates.

Of course, in both instances, they insist that the flag is not about slavery. Well, after all, it is only a symbol. It has only that meaning with which people invest it, and no more. The swastika, you know, was not invented by the Nazis. It meant something else before it meant Nazism. Meanings of things can change.

And then, some say that the war itself was not about slavery. But there is much evidence to suggest it was. The well known quote from Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, seems to prove it quite convincingly:

“The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of 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. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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.”

On the other hand, there is also this quote from President Abraham Lincoln:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

So, at the time of the war, the leader of North insisted it was not about slavery, and a leader in the South insisted it was. In the present day, the North insists it was about slavery and the South insists that it was not. How odd.

Consider this possibility: that the Confederacy was fighting to preserve slavery, but that the Union was not, at least at the outset, fighting to get rid of it. Is this possible? If so, why were the Confederates fighting to preserve slavery?

When Southerners speak of preserving “the Southern Way of Life”, it is sometimes assumed that this is code for racism. Lincoln, however, distinctly spoke of preserving the Union—which might just as well be called “the Northern way of life”. The Union fought, in other words, to preserve the political status quo, which was economically beneficial to the Northern states.

This is another rather odd thing about the Civil War: in a sense, both sides were fighting to maintain the status quo. The South fought to maintain its slave system, the North fought to maintain the structure of the country as a whole. How is that even possible, you ask? It seems to be inherently contradictory.

The Northern way of life was an industrialized, capitalist society. It was very modern, and also, in many respects, the sort of society that would one day spark a huge movement towards socialism, for the poor living conditions of its workers. But that hadn’t happened yet. The point is, it was an urban, capitalist, democratic society. Remember that.

The South is where things get interesting. It was a rural area, as everyone knows. The rural South vs. the urban North is a contrast that is, quite correctly, noted by many historians. However, what is even more important to note is the difference in the structure of Southern society.

A southern friend of mine, while complaining about how much Northerners emphasize slavery in discussing the war, informed me of his belief that, really, slavery wasn’t that bad for most of the slaves. It was, he supposed, more like feudalism or manorialism, with “master” and “slave” of the plantation being merely the equivalents of “lords” and “serfs”.

Some would say this is Southern propaganda to make slavery sound not so bad. And some would be correct. However, it is actually true that the slave society was rather like manorialism. Before you claim this is making slavery sound not so bad, ask yourself “was manorialism that great?” Would anyone choose to be a peasant and not a Lord or Lady? Do not forget that a subset of those classified as “serfs” in feudal societies were slaves.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted so perceptively in his research on the Civil War, the South was a “Slave society”. But this does not mean that slavery was the entire reason for the South’s existence. It was a necessary condition to creating the Southern way of life, yes, but it wasn’t the reason it existed. When Stephens said “cornerstone”, he meant cornerstone. He meant it is what the thing is built on, not that that is what the thing itself is about. A cornerstone all by itself is not important; it is only important once something is built upon it.

The American South before the war was built on exploiting the labor of others of a different class. And it was based on family and blood relations. And it was rural. This is an Aristocracy.

In a way then, my Southern friend is right: it was like manorialism. And Coates is right too, for it was based on the slavery of African people. Since it had already been established that “all men are created equal” in the founding of the country, the only recourse for people who wanted to build a class-based aristocracy was to say that the people they were exploiting to do it were not people. If all white men were free, the only way left to of preserving the Southern social structure was the fiction that black people were meant to be enslaved.

So, the reactionary Southerners who insist on the war being for the Southern Way are speaking the truth, it wasn’t about slavery, it was about the society slavery had built! But then—it was about slavery because that way of life could be produced only by a society in which slavery existed. This is why President Lincoln eventually came to understand that it was absolutely necessary to free the slaves to win the war.

The pre-war South actually reminds me of nothing so much as the English aristocracy. In fact, given how much of their cotton went to England, the South was kind of like an unofficial British colony with the plantation owners and State governments filling the role of colonial administrators and the slaves filling the role of, well, slaves.

The writer George Fitzhugh, for one, believed that this slave society was altogether better than the Northern capitalist society. His 1857 book Cannibals All! argues for the superiority of slavery to the market capitalist system. You pretty much have to read his book to understand it, but I’ll reluctantly settle for quoting the Wikipedia summary:

Cannibals All! was a sharp criticism of the system of “wage-slavery” found in the north. Fitzhugh’s ideas were based on his view that the ‘negro slaves of the South’ were considerably more free than those trapped by the oppression of capitalist exploitation. His idea to rectify social inequality created by capitalism was to institute a system of universal slavery”

Again, you need to read it to really understand what Fitzhugh is saying. And once you do that, I also recommend reading Coates’ blog posts about Fitzhugh, which are also quite thought-provoking. However, I realize you might not be in the mood to read a 150 year-old book that is essentially an exaltation of Evil. So for the moment, simply note that Fitzhugh (a) likes the slave society quite a bit and (b) thinks laissez-faire capitalism is exploitation of the workers.

So, now a picture is starting to emerge: the South was a slave based-rural aristocracy, with all the attendant virtues and sins thereof. The virtues include ample leisure time to focus on the fine things in life for the upper-class people, and an insulation of them from the rigors of the competitive market. The sins included the denial of rights and education to, and the torture and exploitation of, a group of people based purely upon their heritage and skin color, with no regard for them as individuals. Frederick Douglass wrote in a letter to his former master:

“I remember the chain, the gag, the bloody whip, the deathlike gloom overshadowing the broken spirit of the fettered bondman, the appalling liability of his being torn away from wife and children, and sold like a beast in the market. Say not that this is a picture of fancy. You well know that I wear stripes on my back inflicted by your direction; and that you, while we were brothers in the same church, caused this right hand, with which I am now penning this letter, to be closely tied to my left, and my person dragged at the pistol’s mouth, fifteen miles, from the Bay side to Easton to be sold like a beast in the market, for the alleged crime of intending to escape from your possession.”

Douglass’s works contain many first-hand accounts of the horrors of slavery. And in addition to these physical horrors, it must be added that the sins of this society also included a codified system designed to ensure that this group of people remained always in this terrible state.

The North, as we have seen, is an industrialized capitalist society, also with sins and virtues. The virtues include the absence of the family heritage as the ultimate measure of a person. Anyone can make it in this society—provided they have money. And this money is acquired via competition in markets, which leads us to the sin of this kind of society: the poverty in which many workers were consigned to live if the flow of money dictated it.

The North, in other words, is the sort of exploitative capitalist economy that socialists and liberals nowadays worry about so much. The South is an aristocracy, the likes of which is barely seen anymore, and which was abolished because of the obviously appalling nature of its sins.

The South fought to preserve its aristocracy. The North fought to make the country safe for industrial capitalism. The best way to destroy the Southern aristocracy was, naturally, to free the slaves. Remove Stephens’ “cornerstone” and the whole damn thing comes down.

So, both sides are quite right. The war was not entirely about slavery, but it was utterly impossible to settle it without resolving the slavery issue.

Everything looks tied up neatly for the war itself. The only thing left is the question concerning the present rather than the past. That is: why do conservatives come down squarely on the side that fought the laissez-faire capitalists of the day? Why, in short, is there still nostalgia for the “Southern way of Life”?

Said Oscar Wilde, in his endlessly fascinating essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

 “The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible.”

What a terrible thought, no? But Wilde continues:

“Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends. And when scientific men are no longer called upon to go down to a depressing East End and distribute bad cocoa and worse blankets to starving people, they will have delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvellous things for their own joy and the joy of every one else.”

You see, Wilde had thought it through a little better than the southern-U.S. plantation owners had. He knew human slavery would never work, and viewed it as immoral besides. Makes you wonder what he would say if he ran into, say, Jefferson Davis. Well, conveniently enough, he did, and he said this:

“The principles for which Jefferson Davis and the South went to war cannot suffer defeat.”

That’s strange. Or maybe not. After all, if he means the principle of slavery is right, but who they were enslaving was wrong, I suppose there is an internal logic to Wilde’s claims—which is not the same thing as saying he was right.

Well, when all is said and done, what are we left with? We have one crazy semi-socialist writer, Fitzhugh, who thinks human slavery is just about the most moral thing ever, and that a slave society is the best thing anyone could ask for. We have another crazy completely socialist writer, Wilde, who thinks human slavery is immoral, but that enslaving machines would be excellent because, well, a slave society is the best thing anyone could ask for, with the significant stipulation that the slaves not be sentient beings.

I think we can all agree that Fitzhugh is evil. However, he and Wilde concur that slave societies are awesome. Is Wilde also evil? All he wanted to do was enslave machines, and machines aren’t even alive, so there’s no harm in that, right? Clearly, the people who own slaves think the sort of society that slavery produces is wonderful. Wilde noticed this, and said “why not make every human being a slave-owner, and no human being a slave?”

So, it’s pretty clear that it’s fun to be on top in a slave society, though this is true of most societies. The people nowadays who romanticize the “Southern way of life” are, I believe, wishing for the return of Manorialism and the aristocratic plantation society. Of course, the people on whose subjugation this society depended are not nearly so interested in this.

This is a terribly frustrating essay, because, as of now, all we have managed to learn is that society would be awfully nice if there were helpful R2-D2s around to do all the heavy lifting for us. And the worst part is, a hedonistic poet already thought of this more than a century ago and it still hasn’t happened. (It would be fun to bring Wilde forward in time to the present, show him an iPhone, and then explain that people are still starving in the world. I bet he’d have some questions.)

But it must be remembered that a slave society, regardless of who is being enslaved, has certain unique characteristics that industrialized capitalist societies do not. Yet, it was the industrialized capitalist society that won the Civil War. Thus ended the slave society that Wilde thought was so great. Thus, also, ended the slavery that he must have thought was so terrible.

And so it was replaced with a competitive, capitalist economy. Not for nothing are the decades after the Civil War remembered as the epitome of capitalism run amok, with greedy robber-barons exploiting everyone else.

Those who long for the “Southern way of life” are, in a way, socialists. More properly speaking, they are the remnant of a bygone aristocracy, a society based on blood which has been displaced by a society based on money. The neo-Confederates would like very much to go back to the society based on blood, and in so doing reinvent feudalism. Or—and this may sound familiar—a kind of socialism based on blood.

(Incidentally, the usage of these terms “blood” and “money” I have borrowed from the German philosopher Oswald Spengler, who in the 1920s predicted that the final struggle at the end of Western Civilization would be between the two. He himself was sympathetic to the force of blood.)

The ideal society, in my opinion, would be based upon neither Blood nor Money, but upon more intellectual and aesthetic values—Beauty, Truth, Love and so on. But then, this was Wilde’s dream, and so was it the dream of many a Utopian thinker before and after him. And yet, we may be no closer to it now than we were before.

In a recent article at Salon, Peter Birkenhead wrote:

“Slavery is rarely mentioned on any private plantation tour. Proprietors typically insist that innovative architecture and interesting design justify their focus on the “Big Houses,” but…surely the most notable thing about most plantations is not who lived there, who designed them or what they look like. A beautiful home made beautiful by slaves is not important for its beauty. To elevate aesthetic elements over history in the public presentation of slave estates is to demote people once inventoried like candlesticks to a status even lower than that of things.”

This is very true, and yet the fact remains that the houses were beautiful. That is the heart of it, I suppose. The ancestors of the plantation owners are nostalgic for the good things about their dead society, but remain unwilling to face the bad. It is the way of the world that those who benefit from a system shall consider it a “Good” system and those who suffer from it consider it a “Bad” one.

Nostalgia for the Confederacy, and for the pre-war South, is I believe a yearning for the old “slave society”, of which Coates wrote. But it is not simply because Southerners in general hate and despise the African-American people and wish to destroy them. Perhaps it is naïve of me, but I don’t think the majority of them are as terrible as that. No—rather they long for the system which was built by the enslavement of Africans, not simply for enslaving them for its own sake.

I suppose that reads like a defense of the Southerners. It is not. It is only that to people in different roles in the same system, that system may appear very different. It is so, also, in our own day; as the person who enjoys the use of a powerful computing device is pleased with our globalized, capitalist world. But the third-world workers who built that device under difficult conditions may not look on this system as kindly. Who is right?

I began this essay by discussing the Confederate flag. Does it represent slavery or states’ rights? Does it represent the subjugation of black people or the luxurious life of Southern gentlemen and ladies? My answer: if it represents anything, it represents all of these things. Each part of the society depended upon the others, and so it is all part of the “Southern way of Life”.

This is the most difficult and depressing essay I think I have ever written, and certainly the most I ever posted on this blog. I realize that it touches upon dark and disturbing subjects, with which people’s emotions are intimately bound up. I feel sure that I must have offended somebody by it, and for that I truly apologize, but what I have tried to do is examine the various perspectives on the issue and use them to derive a coherent synthesis to better understand the nature of the problem.

1 Comment

  1. The Civil War ended the South's obstruction of the advancement of industry. Slavery was abolished, but Jim Crow and share cropping replaced it and their agricultural life went on. The North and West prospered the South stagnated. What changed all this was the invention of the cotton harvesting machine which didn't happen until after WWII. Interesting that's precisely the time the Civil Rights movement started. What those nasalgic for the Confederacy long for is Jim Crow, not slavery. Back then you could be illiterate, poor, and if white still better than one of them. It galls the whites to see those they still consider to be inferior get unemployment, welfare, food stamps, and a free education where they might mix with your tender pure children and horrors of horrors become emotionally attached. I was exiled to Texas for five years going to college and saw first hand the separation of races: white, black and hispanic. The hatred on all sides is a living thing that won't go away anytime soon.

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