The tragedy is that the South’s tragic flaw—its defense of slavery—led to the defeat of its just demand for states’ rights and the consequent rise of the Federal Government, so that the original concept of the nation has been entirely lost.
Recently, whilst staying with friends in Dickson, Tennessee, I came across an article in a local newspaper, which was nothing but a vitriolic venting of the spleen against the South’s role in the Civil War. Seldom have I seen an article as shrill, as venomous, as negative and as lacking in charity. Something of its spiteful spirit is encapsulated in the author’s description of the Confederacy as “the biggest domestic terrorist organization our nation has ever known.”
The author, who described herself as “a Tennessee girl,” derided those who had any sympathy with the historic South, urging her readers “to move on.” “If I need a reminder that I’m Southern,” she concluded, “I’ll eat a pot of white beans for supper. And if I want to take pride in my Tennessee roots, I’ll wear my custom-made Jalen Hurd jersey and watch him slaughter a defender on the gridiron.” For this modern Tennessee girl, therefore, there is nothing worth celebrating about being from the South except food and sports, or what the Romans would have called “bread and circuses” (panem et circenses). It would no doubt be lost on this “Tennessee girl” that the phrase was apparently coined by Juvenal as a means of showing how cynical rulers keep the masses from revolting against a corrupt government by ensuring that they have food to eat and sporting spectacles to distract them from the tyranny to which they are subject.
The “Tennessee girl” would no doubt be unaware that the other thing necessary to keep the masses subject to tyranny is an ignorance of history. If we know nothing about history, seeking to “move on,” living solely in the world of bread and circuses, we will not be so much liberated from the legacy of the past as shackled like slaves to the Zeitgeist. If our “Tennessee girl” would allow her hatred and bigotry to subside for a moment, she would see that the Confederacy that she demonizes as “a terrorist organization” is actually a tragic and paradoxical mixture of the noble and the ignoble, the just and the unjust, the right and the wrong. She would see that the past is not simply demonic, damnable, and dark but is also deeply tragic, in the traditional sense of the word.
Since our “Tennessee girl” might not know the traditional understanding of “tragedy,” we should remind her that a tragedy is a series of terrible and sorrowful events which are experienced by, and often caused by, a noble figure whose flaws bring about his own downfall and the downfall of others, including the innocent. In this sense, the South can be seen as truly tragic; its noble heart pierced and broken by the ignoble flaw which it bore within itself.
The ignoble flaw is, of course, slavery, which nobody could or should defend. In defending slavery, the South was defending the indefensible. In nailing its colours to this ignominious mast, it was nailing itself to a cross of its own devising. As far as the issue of slavery is concerned, the South was wrong and the North was right to tell it so.
There is, however, another issue, which it is perilous to ignore or forget. This is the principle of subsidiarity, which, in this context, is the right of a people to self-determination, the right to freedom from a government that is seen as distant and unrepresentative of the people’s will. It was the right invoked by the American colonists during the War of Independence. It is the right demanded by Scottish Nationalists when they call for Scotland’s independence from the Government of Westminster. It is the right demanded by the people of the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe when they call for independence from the draconian rule of the European Union. It is the right of one geographical area to secede from the government by another geographical area. The denial of such a right is a defence of imperialism; it is the defence of the right of one geographical area to impose its will on another without the other’s consent. On this issue the South was right.
It might be argued, of course, that slavery is such an abomination that the North would still have been right to invade the South in order to liberate the slaves. This would be an argument based upon the just war theory, which raises all sorts of questions. Take, for instance, the fact that slavery was already an anachronism at the time of the outbreak of the war. It had been abolished by every other government, and its days in the South were clearly numbered, with or without the war. It is doubtful that it would have survived for many more years, sticking out, as it clearly did, like a sore thumb of barbarism in a world which no longer tolerated it. Surely, however, it could be argued that even one extra day of slavery was an intolerable outrage and that it had to be stamped out, by whatever means, as soon as possible. I’m not minded to argue against this, though we should remind ourselves that the war would cost the lives of 750,000 men, easily the most deadly war in which Americans have ever fought. Is this an acceptable price to pay for bringing about the end of slavery several years earlier than it might otherwise have ended? This is a moot point, and we’ll leave it there.
The real tragedy, however, is that the South’s tragic flaw—its defence of slavery—led to the defeat of its just demand for states’ rights and the consequent rise of an ever-burgeoning Federal Government which, as the decades passed, increased its power over the individual states so that the original concept of the nation, as envisaged by the Founding Fathers, has been entirely lost. As the Federal Government gets bigger, imposing its will on an increasingly powerless people and passing laws that violate religious freedom and erode the right to conscientious objection, we see the growth of a new form of slavery. The old form of slavery is gone, thanks be to God, but the new form of slavery shows no sign of going away. What is needed is a new confederacy, made up of noble lovers of freedom from both the North and South, determined to resist and overthrow the new abomination of slavery which a tyrannical government is seeking to impose.
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The featured image is “Surrender of a Confederate Soldier” (1873) by Julian Scott (1846-1901) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.