We, the people of the Confederate States

In Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, the titular hero asks Abraham Lincoln why was it right for the thirteen colonies to secede from the British Empire, but wrong for the Southern States to secede from the Union.
“I’m astonished that a man of your worldly experience can even ask such a question,” says he. “What has ‘right’ got to do with it? The Revolution of ’76 succeeded, the recent rebellion did not, and there, as the darkie said when he’d et the melon, is an end of it.”
Fictional Lincoln, it seems, is something of a cynic.

Some “small-government” and “states’ rights” proponents are less cynical, and even defend the failed Confederate States on the grounds that the CSA were motivated by self-determination, states’ rights, and principled politics. But do the historical documents bear that out?

There are lots of apologists out there who will argue that the Civil War was really not about slavery. That the Confederate States were more interested in states’ rights, and tariffs, and minimizing the use of federal money for local infrastructure. But a careful review of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America seems to show that the political goals of the CSA really started and ended with the institution of slavery.
The CSA Constitution differs from the USA Constitution in only a few substantial ways. The most obvious, and most important, is slavery. While the USA Constitution tip-toes around the issue of slavery, only mentioning it obliquely and euphemistically, the CSA Constitution makes repeated, explicit references to slavery, including a clause preventing Congress from passing any law that would impair the right to own slaves. Another clause allows slaveholders to take their slaves into and out of any state, effectively preventing any individual state from banning slavery within its own boarders. Not exactly a blow for states’ rights.
Perhaps the most next important thing about the CSA Constitution is what did not change. The CSA Constitution copies the vast majority of its content verbatim from the US Constitution. This embraces virtually all of the powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8, including the “Commerce Clause” and the “Necessary and Proper Clause”. Those two clauses, particularly when invoked in tandem, are widely regarded as the greatest threats to limited central government. Yet the CSA had no problem handing these same federal powers to their own Congress.
It is true that there are also non-slave related changes that add color to the claim that the interest of the CSA was in limiting federal power. The preamble was changed to include “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character.” Additionally, the states retained the rights to negotiate among themselves on the regulation of their shared waterways and to tax boats that use those waterways. Further, federal money was not to be used for infrastructure improvement. But these changes do not seem like enough to justify the claim that the primary purpose was self-determination. For one thing, the preamble adds the notion that the Confederacy is intended to be “a permanent federal government,” suggesting that any future secessions from the CSA might not be regarded as rightful. And in light of the focus on slavery and the general retention of the form and powers of the federal government, it seems pretty clear what the real intention was.
It is well worth questioning the “official” versions of history, but it is a mistake for modern conservatives and libertarians to pretend that the Confederacy was a beacon for limited government and self-determination. That ignores the plain fact that the Confederacy was created explicitly for the preservation of the despicable institution of slavery, and it alienates people who should be valuable allies for personal freedom.

Slow Ride

Beer of the week: Slow Ride Session IPA – To avoid (additional) needless controversy, I have paired this reading with a beer from a Colorado, which was not yet a state during the brief existence of the CSA. New Belgium’s session IPA is quite good. My 12-pack seems to have been over carbonated;  every can foamed over when opened. Otherwise, there is nothing to complain about. The beer is a hazy orange-yellow with lots of white foam. Some yeasty aroma makes it past the strong, citrusy hops smell. The flavor is not as strong as expected, but it is nicely balanced and refreshing with a nice citrus finish. One certainly could drink this beer over the course of a long session.

Reading of the week: The Constitution of the Confederate States of America – This is the kind of thing that every middle school student in the United States should be required to read in history class. It did not even occur to me that I should read it until I was in my late twenties. It is instructive as to the causes of the Civil War, but also a useful tool for evaluating the Constitution of the United States.

Question of the week: There are some other changes worth mentioning: the CSA president would have served for 6 years with no chance for reelection. Also, all bills passed by congress would have a single purpose (eliminating omnibus bills and unrelated riders.) Finally, the president would have the power to issue line item vetoes. Are any of the changes made by the Confederates worth considering as amendments to the Constitution of the USA?

Legislating Language

The Confederate battle flag was ceremoniously lowered from the South Carolina Capitol this morning. The democratic process worked as well as it ever does. A duly elected legislature voted to remove the banner from the government-owned building. Nothing to it.

But the debate over flying the flag on state property has spilled into questions about whether businesses should be allowed to sell the Confederate battle flag or whether private citizens should be able to fly the flag on their own property.

Recently, Scott Hancock, an associate professor at Gettysburg College proffered a novel solution to the “problem” of people flying the Confederate flag in their own yard. If he had his way, the town government would pass an ordinance defining what the flag stands for. He does not propose any specific wording for this ordinance, but his suggestion would apparently be along the lines of: “It is hereby ordered that the Confederate battle flag shall be understood to represent treason, racism, and chattel slavery, and that the flying of said flag shall be seen as an endorsement of same.”

Before going into why Professor Hancock’s proposal is a bad one, I would like to acknowledge a few important points that he is correct about. First, he acknowledges that freedom of speech (like all of the rights that are primary to the American way of life) is a negative right. This means that the power of speech is not something that the government gives to its citizens, but something which it cannot take away.  He also acknowledges that the most reasonable and effective method of dealing with the objectionable speech of others is to simply ignore it. Beyond these points, however, Professor Hancock seems to be profoundly misguided.

The most obvious mistake that the professor makes is the determination that a simple majority of people are capable of determining what a word or symbol “means” to everybody. Perhaps in the realm of the purely utilitarian, such is the case. A simple majority could, by democratic vote, determine that a red octagon posted at an intersection means “cars approaching this intersection must stop and yield right-of-way.” But private speech cannot be so restricted. If the legislature passed an ordinance that defined the word “swag” as only “such plunder as is carried off by pirates”, that would have no effect on how frat boys and rappers use the word or what they mean when they say it.

When Professor Hancock says that the Confederate flag does not represent bravery in battle, camaraderie among brothers-at-arms, or an independent spirit, what he is really saying is that the flag does not mean that to him. To everybody who flies the flag with the intention of conveying the aforementioned virtues, the flag absolutely does represent them. And just because one person does not agree with that interpretation of a symbol does not mean that he can legislate what the symbol means for everybody, even if he has a majority on his side.

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, a symbol’s meaning is in its use. If person A flies the Confederate flag to show his pride in the independent spirit of the South or to express his belief that states’ rights are primary to national sovereignty, that is what the flag stands for. If person B views the flag and does not (or chooses not to) understand A’s meaning, then there has simply been a breakdown in the language game. B cannot declare unilaterally that A was the cause of the miscommunication and create new rules to suit his own understanding.


Beer of the week: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA – This strong, clear IPA is quite good. It is also very, very hoppy. In fact, the first sip was so hoppy that I was a bit overwhelmed by the strong aftertaste. As I kept drinking, however, I found that the beer actually has a strong malt backbone under all of that hops. Once I got over the initial bitterness I found that this beer is actually quite well balanced.

Reading for the week: Philosophical Inquiries by Ludwig Wittgenstein, §40-47 – This reading shows how we have to be careful in attempting to define the “meaning” of words or symbols. If I say “The Confederate battle flag ‘means’ a certain piece of fabric, red with a starry blue cross,” I am saying something quite different from “The Confederate battle flag ‘means’ slavery, oppression, freedom, or history.” Even the meaning of the word meaning is not unequivocal!

Question for the week: Rather than an ordinance defining the Confederate battle flag as something bad, why not pass an ordinance defining the Confederate battle flag as the official flag of racial harmony? Wouldn’t that be likely to have a more positive result?

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

This week was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the single bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. The battle had a tremendous number of lasting effects. For one, much of the land in and around the town of Gettysburg is now property of the federal government. As a child, I would run and play among the boulders of a section of the battlefield park known as Devil’s Den. I probably did not give adequate reflection to the fact that many young men fought and died among those rocks. But I was six; give me a break.

Perhaps the most notable offshoot of the battle was the inspiration for the single most celebrated piece of American propaganda ever written: The Gettysburg Address. It is almost universally praised as a brilliant piece of oration. In some circles, however, Lincoln has been accused of blatant hypocrisy in the Address. The principal point of the speech is that the Union troops who fought and died fought in defense of the principle of self-determination. In actual fact, the Confederate soldiers were the ones fighting for self-determination. The elected legislatures of their states had, by democratic vote, decided to secede from the United States. Secession was a radical but not unprecedented course of action. If it was more radical than the American Revolution, it was only more radical because as states they had more government input than they had had as colonies.

Secession has been derided as “unconstitutional”, but it may even have been less radical than the creation of the Constitution itself. The Constitutional Convention was brought together to revise the Articles of Confederation, not to throw them out and invent a new government. And the proposed changes were to be approved by Congress and by the states, but the framers specifically included instructions for the ratification of their own new document. These instructions totally bypassed Congress (from whom the Convention originally received the authority in the first place) and also determined that the new Constitution would be effective even without the consent of every state. As it turns out, consent of the governed may not be the great American guiding principle that Lincoln and so many others claim it is.

Beer of the Week: Spitfire Kentish Ale – The Spitfire fighter plane was an instrumental tool of the British military in the Battle of Britain. If either side had a few Spitfires at the Battle of Gettysburg, history would remember the battle quite differently. Mainly it would be remembered as “the battle where some insane time-travelers showed up with weapons that would not be designed for another hundred years and wreaked havoc.”

Spitfire Kentish Ale, however is not a weapon. It is a beer is brewed by Shepherd Neame, brewers of Bishops Finger. As such, Spitfire is also protected by a “Protective Geographic Indicator” by the European Union. Heaven forfend that another beer should be marketed as “Kentish Ale”. Anyway, Spitfire sure is a pretty amber beer. The smell is tangy and sweet and a bit grassy. The full malt body is balanced nicely with slightly spicy hops. It is pretty darn tasty.

Reading for the Week: The Gettysburg Address – This blog post certainly seems to come down on one side of the whole issue. It is important to note that the Confederate States made their decision to secede based on the argument about the spread and maintenance of the institution of slavery. Lincoln was right to start his Address with “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Early drafts of The Declaration of Independence, to which Lincoln refers, included an indictment of the slave trade; it was only a matter of time before the philosophical values of the Declaration came into direct conflict with the awful institution of slavery.

Question for the week: The Gettysburg Address includes the line “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Did Lincoln really not think that this speech would be remembered? If so, was it because he thought that it really wasn’t all that good?