To fly or not to fly (the Confederate flag)

When people in the United States choose to display the Confederate flag, other people are offended. Those who defend the display of the flag say that they are celebrating the culture of a region; they say that there is nothing inherently racist or otherwise offensive about the flag. Those who are offended respond that the flag represents an attempt by some states to leave the Union so they could preserve the institution of slavery, an institution that (as practiced in the United States) was distinctly racist.

Defenders of the flag say that the Civil War was not really about slavery. They say it was really about the rights of states to make their own rules without interference from the national government. Slavery happened to be the issue wherein interference was perceived, but (they say) southerners were not so much fighting to retain slavery as they were fighting to retain independence promised to them (they say) in the United States Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln was opposed personally to slavery. However, he said that the Civil War was not about slavery–it was about keeping the country united. Lincoln said he would be willing to tolerate the continuing reality of slavery if it would hold the country together; and Lincoln said that he was sending soldiers into rebellious states to preserve the Union. Contrary to popular opinion, Lincoln did not free the slaves. His Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves in states that were members of the Confederacy and thus (from Lincoln’s point of view) in opposition to their national government. Four slave states remained in the Union during the Civil War, and Lincoln’s Proclamation did not affect slaves in those states. Slavery was ended in the United States by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was proposed in Congress while Lincoln was alive, but was not ratified until after he had died.

If Lincoln said that he was not fighting against slavery, does that mean that the southerners were not fighting to keep slavery? To answer that question, one must research the reasons given by southern leaders when they chose to secede from the Union and to fight, if necessary, for a new nation, the Confederate States. Because I have family and friends living in Arkansas, and because the history of Arkansas’s secession is rather interesting, I will use that state’s secession as a model for this research.

When Lincoln was elected and some southern states chose to secede from the United States and form the Confederate States, Arkansas had been a state for only twenty-five years. Residents were divided over the issue of secession. While slaves were found in every county of the state, most of the slaves in Arkansas were in the southeastern half of the state, which had flat land suitable for large cotton plantations. The northwest half of the state–featuring the Ozark and Ouachita mountains–held many citizens who favored remaining in the United States rather than joining the Confederate States. Accordingly, the state government decided to hold a convention, with delegates chosen by the voters of the state, to decide whether to secede or to remain.

When they gathered in Little Rock in March, 1861, the number of delegates supporting secession and the number of delegates supporting the Union were roughly equal. The convention conducted its regular business, electing officers and the like, while observers tried to guess what the final vote would decide. On March 11, those favoring secession gave their reasons. They listed six objections to remaining in the Union. These were:

  • In the northern states, a new political party had recently formed, and its central and controlling idea was hostility to the institution of “African slavery.” The newly elected President and Vice President were members of this party.
  • The government of the United States was threatening to deny the southern states protection to “slave property” by declaring that any states added to the Union would not allow slavery. (Up to this time, the country had carefully added one slave state and one free state around the same time, keeping the United States Senate balanced between the two positions. Michigan became a state shortly after Arkansas did so.)
  • Northern politicians claimed that Congress had the power to abolish slavery in the territories, in the District of Columbia, and in forts, arsenals, and dock yards owned by the government, even in southern states.
  • The United States government obstructed faithful execution of its own fugitive slave laws (which required the return of an escaped slave to his or her owner, even if he or she had reached a free state).
  • The United States government denied citizens of southern states the right of transit through free states with their slaves and the right to hold those slaves while sojourning temporarily in free states.
  • The United States government “degraded American citizens” by allowing “equality with Negroes at the ballot box.”

Directly or indirectly, all six of these reasons are connected to slavery.

As the convention continued to meet, it remained clear that the delegates were almost equally divided. After several more days, the convention decided to schedule an election for August in which all the voters of Arkansas could choose between secession or remaining in the Union. With this accomplished, the convention adjourned and the delegates returned home.

The next month, the Civil War began, as shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. President Lincoln sent out a message calling for soldiers from each of the states that had not seceded to join the United States Army. The governor of Arkansas refused to provide a single soldier to fight against fellow southerners. Instead, he called the convention back into session. Meeting on May 6, the delegates called for a vote the proposal that had been made on March 11. Perhaps some of them had forgotten the reasons given on March 11; more likely they didn’t care. The vote in favor of the motion to secede was 65 to five. Four of the delegates who voted no then changed their vote, seeking unanimity. Only one of the seventy refused to support leaving the United States and joining the Confederacy.

In this way, and for these reasons, Arkansas entered the Civil War. Next week, I will describe how the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas rather than at Fort Sumter. J.

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