Tonight in Charleston, The Confederate Heritage Trust is holding what it calls “a theatrical performance and secession ball’’ to mark the 150th anniversary of the secession of South Carolina from the United States. For $100, guests will see a 45 minute play “re-enacting the signing of the original Ordinance of Secession with Senators and famous individuals as actors in this performance,’’ including the current President Pro-Tempore of the South Carolina Senate, Glenn F. McConnell, who will portray the chairman of the secession convention. This will be followed by a dinner consisting of Beef Tenderloin, Grilled Chicken Breast, Shrimp & Grits, Andouille Sausages, assorted vegetables, Lowcountry Beignets and Apple Crumble, among other dishes. Modern or period formal dress is required. As a special added attraction, the actual original Ordinance of Secession will be available for viewing.
One of the organizers of the event, Jeff Antley, has said that the ball had nothing to do with current politics, but was being held to honor the delegates who voted unanimously to take South Carolina out of the union. “We’re celebrating that those 170 people risked their lives and fortunes to stand for what they believed in, which is self-government,” Antley told The New York Times. “Many people in the South still believe that is a just and honorable cause. Do I believe they were right in what they did? Absolutely. There’s no shame or regret over the action those men took.” Antley stressed that he was not defending slavery, which he called an abomination. “But defending the South’s right to secede, the soldiers’ right to defend their homes and the right to self-government doesn’t mean your arguments are without weight because of slavery.”
Mr. Antley, it must be said in the stongest and most uncertain terms, is wrong. The idea that the Civil War grew out of an argument over states rights is wrong. The Civil War started because seven states of the deep south seceded. Politically influential leaders in those states conspired to secede in the months prior to the 1860 election, and began the process of secession right after Abraham Lincoln‘s election; in the case of South Carolina, literally the day after Lincoln’s election. This is not because of anything Lincoln did or promised to do; indeed, he made it clear that he was disinclined and Constitutionally forbidden to do anything about slavery in any existing state. Moreover, Lincoln would be hamstrung by Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. But if the South had nothing to fear from the federal government, they were nonetheless scared: scared that John Brown‘s raid in 1859 was a harbinger of slave revolts to come, and afraid that long term political trends were not bending their way. The North was growing, and the South was not; if slavery was a stock, you would short it.
And this upset the slaveholders of the South, because they had a very good thing going. In 1860, cotton production was high, and so were prices. Slaveholders really didn’t see much opportunity to expand within the territorial United States, but they were eager to expand into the long-coveted Caribbean islands and the lands bordering the Gulf of Mexico—places where many a fortune had already been made with slave labor. “To the Southern republic bounded on the north by the Mason and Dixon line and on the south by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, including Cuba and all the other lands on our southern shore,” went one toast of the time. In minds of the slaveholders who were driving secession, hearing northerners castigate slavery as evil certainly chafed, but the north’s ability to affect the self-government of a southern state was not close to being realistic. What was really at stake was the ability of slaveholders to conduct the business of slaveholding without any interference from anybody. Read the statements that the states made when they left. South Carolina: “The non-slaveholding states … have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and “have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes” and [once Lincoln is inaugurated], the slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.’’ Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. … There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.” Georgia: “A brief history of the rise, progress, and policy of anti-slavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the Federal Government has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia.” As Penn’s Stephanie McCurry writes in Confederate Reckoning, “What secessionists set out to build was something new in the hostory of nations: a modern proslavery and antidemocratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal. . . Theirs was a nation founded in defiance of the spirit of the age.”
At the secession convention being celebrated tonight, ninety percent of the delegates to that convention were slave owners. Sixty percent of them own at least twenty slaves. Forty percent of them own at least fifty. Sixteen percent of them own a hundred slaves or more. For Antley to say “Slavery is an abomination, but let’s celebrate these other things” is evidence of a morality so flexible that it doesn’t deserve to be called morality at all.
Astley is just one of many Americans who compartmentalizes the Civil War; it’s something we have done for years. In fact, the federal government does it. There are at least eleven United States military installations in the south–Fort Hood and Camp Maxey in Texas, Forts Lee, Hill and Pickett in Virginia, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Polk and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana, and Forts Gordon, Benning and Rucker–named after Confederate generals. In Tennessee, there’s even a Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, named after the fierce Confederate general who had been a slave trader before the war, one of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan after the war, and who was accused of murdering black Union soldiers at the battle of Fort Pillow. It’s high time some other heroes were celebrated at these public places.
It’s worth noting that there is no compartmentalization about World War II. 1999, British GQ cheekily included the Nazis on a list of the most stylish men of the 20th century; after the protests, the editor resigned. A couple of years ago, Bryan Ferry said he admired the films of Leni Riefenstahl and the buildings of Albert Speer; he was castigated. Earlier this year, an official of Human Rights Watch admitted that he collected Nazi memorabilia; within the month, he was out of a job.
But somehow, here, 150 years after the Civil War, slavery still gets a “but. . . . ”