How the Myth of the Lost Cause Tripped Up Trent Lott

Mr. Bonner teaches at Michigan State University and is the author of Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South (2002). He is a writer for the History News Service.

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With 2002 drawing to a close, the ghosts of Southern history have become important players in national politics. The fallout from Trent Lott's tribute to Strom Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat campaign has shared headlines with Justice Clarence Thomas's emotional support of Virginia's ban on cross-burning. The incoming governor of Georgia meanwhile ponders whether to endorse an earlier Confederate-inspired state flag or risk the wrath of his neo-Confederate supporters.

Such ghostly visitations are hardly new in a region whose history is suffused with guilt, pride and the divisive issue of race. But the haunting of southern politics has long had more to do with the living than with the dead. For nearly a century and a half, white southerners have shaped their region's mythic past with specific political objectives uppermost in mind.

Former Confederates were among the first to evoke a politically useful past in adjusting to their defeat by the United States. A Richmond journalist, Edward Pollard, coined the term "The Lost Cause" in 1866, and he soon used this evocative label to distance the white South from secession and slavery. In the 1868 presidential campaign, Pollard insisted that rebellion and black servitude had only been means to the Confederacy's real aims of limiting the federal government and guaranteeing white supremacy.

Praise for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, offered by Lott, as well as the cabinet members John Ashworth and Gail Norton, demonstrates the success of Lost Cause mythology in removing the stain of treason from the Confederate legacy. Within a generation, the gray ghosts of a mythic southern past became the glorious, whitewashed heroes. By the end of the nineteenth century, these Confederate leaders came to be associated less with what they actually did than with the courage and character they had mythically displayed by standing up for their convictions and resolutely paying the price.

In the nineteenth century former Confederates insisted that the cause of white supremacy might be raised from the dead by invoking the memory of fallen soldiers. But the civil-rights movement of the mid-20th century meant that the ghosts of the southern past had to be cleansed of racism as well as treason. Rather than offer apologies about race, Lost Cause adherents sought new allies beyond their own region.

For decades, the southern Democratic party, with the acquiescence of the North, defended white solidarity and presided over the institution of Jim Crow segregation. But the dismantling of Jim Crow in the 1960s changed this equation, just as it realigned political parties. In the process, racism became as discredited rhetorically as treason and slavery.

Segregationists were now not merely defending a romantic Lost Cause tragically doomed by their adversaries' superior forces; they found themselves championing the morally indefensible. Caught on the wrong side of history, politicians such as Lott have invoked the white southern past through "code words" meant to pay homage to the Confederate past without invoking the cause of white supremacy.

In explaining his notorious tribute to Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign, Lott tried to employ the same strategy to redefine Dixiecrat ghosts that the Lost Cause had used to redefine the Confederacy. But removing race from the Dixiecrat agenda has proved far more difficult than removing slavery and treason from the Confederate cause.

Lott himself exposed the weakness of this attempt during his Pascagoula apology, when he turned from his earlier admiration for Thurmond-style limited government to boast of how he had brought national largesse to Mississippi. In doing so, he compromised his own supposed aversion to the federal government and, as a result, inevitably suggested that he was not talking about big government after all when he talked about those American "problems" that had followed Thurmond's defeat.

In the short term, Lott's fall from power exposes the dangers of blurring the romanticized ghosts of the 1860s with the more thoroughly discredited ghosts of segregation. Supporters of the Confederate flag, for instance, will likely redouble their efforts to associate the Southern Cross to the mini balls of the 1860s and to distance this volatile symbol as completely as possible from the water-hoses of the 1960s.

But there are still hard questions to be asked about whether the Lost Cause view of the Civil War can succeed in making the Dixiecrat past usable as well. The region's sense of its own history has begun to change, as new attention is devoted to black southerners' history before, during and after the Civil War. In the region that considers itself the most historically conscious part of the United States, battles over proud heritages and shameful legacies are likely to continue, but seen in new perspectives. And in a very real way, these will remind us that the past hardly ever intrudes upon the present without holding implications for the future.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Jesse E. Worley, II - 1/6/2003

Mr. Lynch,
If the South is so ignorant, why are there so many Marine bases in the the South? (By the way I am not taking the low road and implying that the Marine Corps is causing the ingnorance in the South.)

Jim Lynch - 1/3/2003

Addendum: I erred earlier, as my previous post was in response to Mr. Pyle's thoughts on this subject, and not Mr. Worley's (#2). Still, #2's contention regarding seccession is lightheartedly arguable (ho-ho). How many outside the ignoramus South would be sorry to see it go its own way today? More to the point, how many inside? Semper Fi.

Jim Lynch - 1/3/2003

Mr. Worley (#2): In the name of commmon honesty, sir, I submit to your common sense points. They are beyond well taken, for they strike to the heart of the human trial. What sins, today, do you and I aquiesce in together, without recognition? Damn few, I suppose. Luckily, neither of us need ultimately answer to the other. "Pleased to meet you, Hope you caught my name". Regards.

Jesse E. Worley, II - 1/2/2003

Secession was a joke then and a joke now. THe South tried it and lost. Let's see soemone else do it.

Markham Shaw Pyle - 1/1/2003

... That was equally the position of Lord North vis-à-vis Franklin, Adams, Jefferson & Co (especially when you consider Lord Dunmore’s prefiguring, if not the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, at least the ‘contraband’ measures of Fremont and Ben Butler), and the position of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna as regarded the Texas Revolutionaries (the Centralists also played the slavery card, based upon the Guerrero Decree and the Law of April 6 [1830]).

Slavery was indefensible. Its attempted preservation was also implicated, if in lesser measure, in the revolutions of 1776 and 1836, and its abolition as a tactical political manœuvre was adopted by anti-secession forces in both those cases, as, on his own showing, it was a tactical political decision on Mr Lincoln’s part after Sharpsburg. There can be neither sympathy for nor any palliation of slavery. But half-truths, however noble their purpose, likewise cannot be sympathized with or palliated. If one accepts that the motives of the rebels of 1776 and 1836 were at once somewhat mixed, partly ignoble, yet nonetheless largely just, and their ends desirable, fine. The same latitude should then be extended to the mixed motives of the Confederacy, even if, as is certainly arguable, in its case the admixture tended more towards the base than to the noble. Truth even so requires the acknowledgment that not all the motives of the Confederates were ignoble. Alternatively, if the failed revolution of 1861 is to be forever dismissed as a treasonable act undertaken from base motives, then it becomes a matter of intellectual honesty to be a bit less pious about the successful revolution of 1776, or that of 1836 in Texas.

The fact is, if Southerners need to see their past without viewing its softened outlines through the pious gauze of mythic memory, non-Southerners need to stop writing checks on the Northern Treasury of Virtue, which has been overdrawn for years now. Dr Sam Johnson was not wrong when he observed that it was odd that the ‘loudest yelps for liberty’ came from colonists who were ‘drivers of Negroes.’ Hancock didn’t sign the Declaration with clean hands, if this one, admittedly grave, issue is to become the modern measure of all things. The English and then the (British) Union flag flew over North American slavery for about a century and a half; the Stars and Stripes was the flag of a slave-holding nation for about 15 times as long as the Stars and Bars flew over the slaveholding states. The Triangle Trade was not a Southern, but rather a Yankee, monopoly. It was Mr Hamilton’s moneyed friends, abetted by John Marshall and all the Federalist party, who opposed Southern attempts at manumission in the earliest days of the Republic, because it was Northern interests and British factors and creditors who held the mortgages on Southern property, including, as security, chattel bondsmen. If Southern support for manumission was a victim of economic greed after Mr Whitney’s invention saw the light, so too was Northern opposition to manumission before that date – and Northern support for abolition after the rise of manufactures in the North thereafter – motivated in no small part by economic considerations unmindful of morality.

It is at once disingenuous, unpersuasive, and dangerous – in the sense that seeing, say, the Holocaust as a peculiarly German problem is dangerous, and refusing to recognize that other peoples can fall into the same sin – to cast the North as the repository of all virtue and the South as forever attainted by its slaveholding past and its ‘treason.’ (I set that word off in quotes as a reminder, not only that if we are not to call Adams, Washington, and Patrick Henry traitors, we must not call Lee, Jackson, and Stuart traitors, but also to note that for many years before the War, jurists and scholars in all parts of the Republic, and Jefferson Davis’s West Point textbooks, regarded secession as an inherent right of the States.) The United States since the inception of the Republic, and British North America before that, were all, all complicit in the sin and crime of slavery, not just the South. It is common honesty to admit that fact.

Jim Lynch - 12/31/2002

When Lincoln and Seward met Confederate commissioners in early February, 1865 (to enlighten the Southerners of the political and military realities confronting them), Virginian Robert Hunter submitted: "Mr. President, if we understand you correctly, you think that we of the Confederacy have committed treason; that we are traitors to your government, that we have forfeited our rights, and are proper subjects for the hangman. Is that not about what your words imply"? Lincoln paused before answering, "Yes. You've stated the proposition better than I did. That is about the size of it".

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