A flag is a symbol, something visible that by association or convention represents something else that is invisible.
People give symbols their power. Symbols alone do not have intrinsic powers.
Heritage: Practices that are handed down from the past by tradition; Any attribute or immaterial possession that is inherited from ancestors
Government: the system or form by which a community or other political unit is granted and exercises its authority to represent and to serve its people.
No history lecture on the Myth of the Old South, the Fallacy of the Lost Cause, or the Misnomer of the New South, but if one recognizes and believes in the US Flag as a symbol of the United States of America and its government then how can one fly the Confederate battle flag or any flag at a place of government today when those flags were symbols of a government and flew alongside of individuals bearing arms against the US Flag?
Heritage is in our hearts, our souls; heritage is an essence of being to which a symbol can neither give nor take.
For some the Confederate States of America did embody racism. If one reads the declarations of secession from the individual states, some profess an innate superiority of European ancestry compared to African ancestry.
It’s true that the majority of Southerners did not own slaves. Whether or not they desired to or believed in the “Peculiar Institution” as Kenneth Stamp coined, financially they could not afford what was a prohibitive financial investment for the majority.
It’s true that some slave states remained loyal to the Union. It’s true that in these states, individuals remained property throughout the war.
If the Republican Party was truly dominated by abolitionists in 1860, their candidate would have been the odds on favorite to win the nomination, William Seward and not the relatively unknown Abraham Lincoln. If the Democratic Party was truly dominated by supporters of slavery, they could have remained a united party with a single candidate instead of ultimately holding separate conventions with each nominating a different man for the election.
The Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling in 1856 rendered the concept of popular sovereignty null and void as “property” remained property regardless of the location of the “owner.”
Despite that ruling, the candidate in 1860 who gained the 2nd greatest number of popular votes at nearly 30 percent, only carried a single state, and finished last among 4 candidates in Electoral votes. That Northern Democrat, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois who advocated the concept of popular sovereignty was the 2nd choice of voters from the distinct regions of the country.
The Southern Democrat who finished 2nd in Electorial votes, John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, received approximately 18 percent of the popular votes cast. In total about 500,000 less votes than cast for Douglas, yet Breckenridge garnered 72 Electoral votes compared to the 12 for Douglas.
Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, the victor with 180 Electoral votes (152 needed to win the election), received less than 40 percent of the popular vote or approximately 500,000 more votes than Douglas the last place finisher in the Electoral College.
Even John Bell of Tennessee on what was termed the Constitutional Union ticket centered in the border states earned more than 3 times the Electoral votes of Douglas (39 to 12) even though Bell received less than 13 percent of the popular votes which was approximately 800,000 less than Douglas.
Would it be in our best interests today to apply the words from Abraham Lincoln’s final public address on 11 April 1865 to that of the Flag debate occurring today?
“We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper practical relation with the Union; and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States, is to again get them into that proper practical relation. I believe it is not only possible, but in fact, easier, to do this, without deciding, or even considering, whether these states have even been out of the Union, that with it. Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad. Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper practical relations between these states and the Union; and each forever after, innocently indulge his own opinion whether, in doing the acts, he brought the States from without, into the Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never having been out of it.”
History Professor Lagniappe:
The 1891 publishing of Abraham Lincoln’s Speeches Complete (591 pages) compiled by JB McClure and originally published by Chicago, Rhodes & McClure publishing co. is available for download in a variety of formats here.
We can disagree as to what the symbol represents.
We can even disagree about the meaning of heritage and government.
I see nothing inappropriate about Confederate flags. Those which are time period artifacts should be preserved in museums. I believe that replicas need to be displayed for educational purposes. For groups such as those honoring ancestors who fought in the Civil War, the display of those flags is appropriate and necessary in my opinion. Unfortunately other groups have adopted these symbols not to honor but really to dishonor and disrespect others today. They have that right even though I find such displays offensive, but their choices are not a reflection upon those who are respecting ancestors and their heritage. Privately if one wants to purchase or display replicas on their property, that is their choice.
People give symbols their power. Let’s not empower those who castigate the symbols we hold dear.
As an American, however, I cannot legitimize the permanent flying of any flag on governmental property which at its creation, regardless of interpretation, served as a symbol against the government of the United States of America. I think of it this way, if the idea symbolized by those flags had prevailed, it would strip a number of stars off of the American Flag. Isn’t the intentional tearing desecrating our Flag?
Too many people are turning a true tragedy of events where a murder brutally took lives to one of symbolism. It’s a diversion making mountains from molehills, and that would be sadness even if the display of these flags had been continuous since the 19th century and not for the most part creations of post Second World War America.