By Joshua Speer
There has been a lot of racially motivated hysteria in the United States lately. Much of it involving monuments to people that have been dead for more than a century, especially relating to the short-lived Confederate States of America. You always hear about how these statues somehow celebrate slavery, but how accurate is that assessment?
It is undeniable that slavery was a component of political conflict during this era. Yes, it was a big part of the Southern agrarian economy and it was in the Confederate constitution. However, Abraham Lincoln himself repeatedly clarified that his goal in waging war was solely to save the Union and said he would do it without freeing a single slave if he could. Going back on his word, he made it clear that emancipation was a military strategy in his 1863 letter to attorney James C. Conkling. Which makes sense, considering the slave states that remained in the Union were exempt from it.
This is in contrast with the man who is most often at the center of controversy concerning monuments, Robert E. Lee, who stated the following years before the war between the states even started:
“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country.”
So what did the Confederacy fight for? Tariffs that were biased against the southern states, and beneficial to northern industry, were one of the most significant components. The South paid about 80 percent of the revenues collected, while most of it was being spent in the North. Passed just two days before Lincoln’s inauguration, the Morrill Tariff would raise the rate from around 15 percent to 37.5 percent. It was followed by a second tariff that raised the average rate to 47.06 percent. As a lifelong protectionist, the newly elected president was expected to enforce the more than tripled tariff rate. He made it clear that he would use force if necessary to do so.
In his first inaugural address, the 16th U.S. president stated:
“The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.”
This was his way of telling him that he was going to tax them into oblivion and they had better not refuse, or he will use force. Which he did. With literal human bondage, the position of the Union military’s commander was that he would not interfere. With the redistribution of wealth from one industry to another, he would by any means necessary. Prominent abolitionists like Lysander Spooner of Massachusetts understood that this was about the exploitation of the Southern economy by big business interests in the North, who were the driving force behind the Republican party.
Not long after Lincoln’s inaugural address, he maneuvered the Confederates into firing upon Fort Sumter by sending what was described as “a hostile fleet” of federal troops down to South Carolina in April of 1861, where an already separate government had been established. Why would anyone trust troops from a hostile, rival army on their land to begin with?
State sovereignty contributed largely to this bloody conflict. Before the Civil War, the United States was referred to with plurality. Separate nations tied together by a then voluntary Union. Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, said “all we ask is to be left alone” in his inaugural address. Ever since the North won the war between the states, we have referred to the U.S. as one nation.
In a response letter to Lord Acton of Britain in 1866, Robert E. Lee emphasized his concerns about the future in post-Civil War America:
“The consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”
Regardless of your thoughts about either side of this 150 year old conflict, the facts matter. Referring to monuments of these men as mere celebration of the institution of slavery is simply misguided. They symbolize hundreds of thousands of men who fought and died for their homeland.