150 years ago today, April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War.
Conservatives have fallen in love with a history – and an America – that never was. Regnery publishes a series of “history” books spinning the revision. Revisionist messiah David Barton has recruited disciples – Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann among them – to spread his word of deceit.
We are told that no revolution ever actually took place, that it was just conservatives asserting their long-standing rights – reasserting the status quo, as it were. We are told America was founded – over two centuries ago – as a fundamentalist Christian theocracy based on doctrines that did not at the time even exist; that the Constitution is based on the Bible despite this being demonstrably untrue; and we are told that the Civil War was at its heart a struggle against big government and the federal regulatory system.
And that is why the Confederate Stars and Bars have become the Tea Party battle flag.
We can call these revisionists “neo-Confederates” as does historian (and Southerner) Jon Meacham. As he points out, “Without what our seventh vice president John C. Calhoun, called the South’s peculiar domestic institution’ there would have been no Civil War. There can be no revision of this inescapable reality.”
The Washington Post reports that some Virginia conservatives claim their battles against health-care reform and climate change laws are “a continuation of the efforts of Jefferson Davis and other secessionists in the 1860s.”
A member of the Virginia division of the Sons Confederate Veterans said that rebels “were fighting for the same things that people in the ‘Tea Party’ are fighting for now.”
If this is true, it must mean that the Tea Party is fighting, like David Barton and his Seven Mountain Dominionists, to re-institute slavery, because that was why the South fought. It wasn’t northern corporations Southerners were standing up to or health-care reform or environmental regulations. There was only one regulation the South opposed: the North’s opposition to slavery.
A simple appeal to the records of the time will be enough to demonstrate this inescapable reality Meacham speaks of.
The Alabama Ordinance of Secession makes clear why that state was leaving the union:
“Whereas, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of president and vice-president of the United States of America, by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama…”
Those “domestic institutions” were slavery and slave laws and the threat to peace and security came from anti-slavery laws in the North and the work of northern abolitionists which increased the threat of slave uprisings in the south.
Virginia’s ordinance cited “the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States” by the federal government.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.
There is not even any pretense that the state’s secession is about anything else. It is about slavery.
…a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
To drive the point home, the document goes on to enumerate the North’s various attacks upon the institution of slavery, beginning with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This opposition to slavery it is claimed threatens the South:
It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.
It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.
It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.
And like Alabama it claims a threat to public safety: “It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst. ” And it hypocritically accuses the North as being “excited and inflamed with prejudice.”
We find the same sort of rhetoric in the South Carolina “Declaration of Immediate Causes.”
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign [*take away] the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
Abraham Lincoln, not unsurprisingly, comes under attack as well:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
Georgia is of much the same mind as its sister states:
The Presidential election of 1852 resulted in the total overthrow of the advocates of restriction and their party friends. Immediately after this result the anti-slavery portion of the defeated party resolved to unite all the elements in the North opposed to slavery and to stake their future political fortunes upon their hostility to slavery everywhere. This is the party two whom the people of the North have committed the Government. They raised their standard in 1856 and were barely defeated. They entered the Presidential contest again in 1860 and succeeded.
The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers.
The Texas Declaration of Causes is no doubt clear enough all on its own to put paid to Barton’s revisionism:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
No, there is no mention of big government here or elsewhere except to the extent that the government is dominated and controlled by anti-slavery Northerners who threaten the Southern economy, and there is no such issue in 1861 as health-care reform or environmental regulations.
The cause of “states rights” and “Christian fundamentalism” are often held to be the same in today’s tea party movement but this was not so in 1861 and Tea Partiers who pretend this to be true would do well to consult the history books – and I don’t mean the much-maligned liberal academics they complain so much about – the elite – but the words of their own ancestors. For example, the Texas declaration states,
“They have proclaimed, and at the ballot box sustained, the revolutionary doctrine that there is a ‘higher law’ than the constitution and laws of our Federal Union, and virtually that they will disregard their oaths and trample upon our rights.”
Many members of the Tea Party today (Bachmann, Palin, etc) make this same claim, that the Bible trumps the Constitution, or they try a work-around that makes the Constitution based on the Ten Commandments (though there is no comparison) and thereby subvert it or give Mosaic law equal standing. But the South was not fighting for the Bible or for the Ten Commandments and this simple reality stands out: the Civil War was about slavery. It was not about “states rights” except to the extent that right was about owning slaves. It was not about health-care reform or environmental regulation and in fact, the regulations the incited Southerners most were those related to slavery. It was not about taxation. There is no way around the fact that the Civil War was about slavery from the very beginning, and not merely after the fact.
Photo Credit: ThinkProgress
 [Copied by Justin Sanders from “Journal of the State Convention”, (Jackson, MS: E. Barksdale, State Printer, 1861), pp. 86-88]
[Copied by Justin Sanders from J.A. May & J.R. Faunt, *South Carolina Secedes* (U. of S. Car. Pr, 1960), pp. 76-81.]
 [Copied by Justin Sanders from the Official Records, Ser IV, vol 1, pp. 81-85.]
 [Copied by Justin Sanders from E.W. Winkler, ed., *Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas*, pp. 61-66.]