The Confederacy Was an Antidemocratic, Centralized State

tags: slavery, Civil War, Confederacy, Confederate States of America

STEPHANIE MCCURRY is a professor of history at Columbia University. She is the author of Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.

Americans are now debating the fate of memorials to the Confederacy—statues, flags, and names on Army bases, streets, schools, and college dormitories. A century and a half of propaganda has successfully obscured the nature of the Confederate cause and its bloody history, wrapping it in myth. But the Confederacy is not part of “our American heritage,” as President Donald Trump recently claimed, nor should it stand as a libertarian symbol of small government and resistance to federal tyranny. For the four years of its existence, until it was forced to surrender, the Confederate States of America was a pro-slavery nation at war against the United States. The C.S.A. was a big, centralized state, devoted to securing a society in which enslavement to white people was the permanent and inherited condition of all people of African descent.

The Confederates built an explicitly white-supremacist, pro-slavery, and antidemocratic nation-state, dedicated to the principle that all men are not created equal. Emboldened by what they saw as the failure of emancipation in other parts of the world, buoyed by the new science of race, and convinced that the American vision of the people had been terribly betrayed, they sought the kind of future for human slavery and conservative republican government that was no longer possible within the United States. This is the cause that the statues honor.

The decision of slaveholding states to secede, to separate from the United States, was the culmination of a 30-year effort to protect the right to hold property in persons—the institution of slavery. It came in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election, the first of an openly antislavery candidate and party. From December 1860 to April 1861, seven states left the Union, led by South Carolina; four more did so after the war began, in April 1861, while four slaveholding states remained loyal. The architects of secession knew that there was no recognized constitutional right to secede and that they risked war. As one Alabama opponent put it, “No liquid but blood has ever filled the baptismal font of nations.” The seceded states immediately went on a war footing, seizing federal forts and arsenals and launching massive arms-buying campaigns in the U.S. and Europe.

Nascent Confederates were candid about their motives; indeed, they trumpeted them to the world. Most states wrote justifications of their decision to rebel, as Jefferson had in the Declaration of Independence. Mississippi’s, called the “Declaration of Immediate Causes,” said bluntly that the state’s “position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” The North, it said, was advocating “negro equality, socially and politically,” leaving Mississippi no choice but to “submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money or … secede from the Union.”


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