There is no doubt that some regard the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy or racial hatred toward black Americans. Some may even view it as a longing for a way of life that existed in the antebellum South, which of course might imply a longing for the institution of slavery where those of African descent were clearly subordinate. There are indeed those who fly the flag to communicate those sentiments. With these interpretations of what the flag means, it is understandable why some find it offensive, particularly blacks.
There is also no doubt that some, if not many, view the flag as honoring those Southerners who fought honorably in a war for a cause that many Americans today find to be dishonorable. And for some in the American South, the flag signifies just plain old Southern pride.
Regarding this symbol, one might simply say, it’s complicated.
For those who view it as a symbol of slavery, it is worth noting slavery existed under Confederate flags (there were several) for only four years. Slavery existed a lot longer under the flags of the United States (the flag changed as states joined the Union). The institution did not simply exist; there were legal accommodations for it in laws passed by Congress and in the Constitution.
Laws promoting racism in America, too, existed far longer under the Stars and Stripes. Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, supported it. Congress did nothing for decades to protect the civil rights of all U.S. citizens, even though it had a duty to do so under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments.
Given that, should we ban the flying of the American flag, particularly on public property? I think nearly all Americans would shrink from embracing such a foolish idea.
Should we demolish the Washington Monument since George Washington owned slaves? Should we change the $1 bill for the same reason? Should we bulldoze the Jefferson Memorial because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves? Should we stop quoting the Declaration of Independence because the principal author, Jefferson, and a number of signers owned slaves? Should we not revere or obey the Constitution since the author, James Madison, and many who voted to ratify it were slave owners?
To these absurd suggestions, I believe most Americans would answer probably not.
The Civil War can be understood as a conflict between with the United States of America (the Union) and the Confederate States of America (the Confederacy), opposing sides whose political and military leaders directed their war efforts to achieve their respective goals as though they were two separate countries. The war can also be understood as the inevitable cultural conflict between the industrialized North and the agricultural South. The Reluctant Conservative believes that the war is best understood as a conflict between the Republican Party and the Democrat Party. The Democrats wanted to preserve and expand the institution of slavery, where the Republicans wanted “restrict the territorial enlargement of it” and to place it on a path toward its ultimate extinction.
Should we therefore abolish the Democratic Party? Good luck with that.
A different way to view the Rebel flag is to remember how it came into existence. The election of 1860 produced the country’s first Republican president with virtually no votes from the South. As a result of this election, several Southern states decided that secession was the only answer, precipitating a national crisis. The crisis led to civil war. The war gave rise to the Emancipation Proclamation, which applied to slave-holding states in rebellion. The end of the war brought about the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery nationwide.
The existence of the Confederate flag reminds us all that there was a secession crisis. Had there not been a secession crisis, there would not have been a war. Without the war, American slavery would have certainly lasted longer, perhaps much longer, than it actually did.
This is not to say that Americans across the country should display the Rebel flag in their living rooms draped over the fireplace. It is to say that maybe the flag could represent the period in American history that led to abolition of American slavery. Maybe all Americans can celebrate that.