Tuesday, June 27, 2017

JEB Stuart and the Confederate Cause

Both of my sons have, over the last five years, attended J.E.B. Stuart High School.

The name of the school, honestly, always struck me as a little peculiar.  Here, a human being who led raids into the area in and around Washington DC, as his cavalry unit sacked and burned and terrorized Union supporters.

And by Union, I mean American.  Because the entity he was attacking was the United States of America.  Not "the North."  Not "Yankees."  But the United States of America.

There's a sustained debate now about the name of their school, and whether J.E.B. Stuart's cause really reflects the values we Americans honor.

Stuart was a Confederate, meaning the cause he fought for was the Confederate States of America.  The argument is made, often and with earnestness, that the Confederacy was all about state's rights.  From that perspective, the War Between the States was not about slavery, but about the right of states to have their own identity over and against those Federal tyrants in Washington.  It's was a fight for local autonomy over semi-imperial control, or so some would still argue, particularly those who have that ideological bent in the first place.

There were, no doubt, Confederate soldiers and officers who believed that was so.  That seems self-evident from both history and their writings.

I also do not feel it is necessary to demonize every person who fought for the Confederacy.

Decent human beings sometimes fight for monstrous causes.  This may fly in the face of the clumsy, shallow echo-chamber dualism of our benighted era, but it has the merit of being real.

However, I am not fool enough to imagine, for a moment, that those human beings were correct in their thinking.  Rather, that "gloss" was the self-delusion that permitted good people to serve a demonic purpose.

I once believed that local control was a relevant part of the dynamic that defined the Confederate cause, but I no longer do.  States rights were just a rationalization, a saccharine falsehood that many otherwise decent people told themselves to justify their support of a cause that was a fundamental affront to human liberty.

The Confederate States of America, as an entity, as a concept, and as a failed state, was entirely and completely about perpetuating the institution of racially based human chattel slavery.  Period.

What is the basis for that statement?

Go to the foundations, or so my Presbyterian forebears said, if you want to know the truth of a thing.  

As a pastor and follower of Jesus of Nazareth, my self-understanding and the purpose of my faith can be found in the Gospels.  Those texts are where you can go to discover what it means to be a Christian.  Similarly, as a proud citizen of the United States of America, I find the essence of our republic enshrined in our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence.

And so to understand the Confederacy, we must study their parallel founding documents: the Confederate Constitution and the Declarations of Secession made by the Confederate states to justify their departure from the United States.  If this is about the rights of individual states, then that will be clear in the arguments the founders of the Confederacy made.

To the CSA Constitution first.

I had always assumed, as a high school student, that the Confederacy had gone back to some version of the Articles of Confederation for their ruling principles.  That first American effort at a defining document was a loose gathering of states, in which the rights of individual states superceded that of the central government.  It was too loose a union, ultimately, to be sustained, but the Articles were all about local control.  That would have made sense.  Heck, it even has Confederation in the name.

The CSA Constitution was not based on that early American document.  For their defining text, the leaders of the Confederacy chose to simply copy the Constitution of the United States of America, and then edited it to reflect what they saw to be the primary reasons for their departure.

It is in those editorial choices that the Confederate cause reveals itself.

Those distinctions are best observed by engaging in a line-by-line comparison of the two documents, which can be done by following this link to an excellent and straightforward website that lets you do precisely that.

Do not continue reading until you have followed that link.  Seriously.  Look at it. 

As the author highlights, there are some trivial variances, most of which involve taxes and duties on sea and river traffic, line item vetoes, and term limits.

There is the inclusion of an explicit reference to God in the preamble, which seems, in retrospect, to have been something of a mistake.  Never, ever invoke God unless you're ready for God to show up.  

Remarkably, the Confederate constitution contained no meaningful effort to decentralize authority.  None.  States in the CSA had no more rights than states in the USA, and in some ways had less.  Richmond had as much power as Washington.  

But what is written in, repeatedly, and forever enshrined as an inalienable right of citizens of the CSA?  

The right of "white" men to own "negro slaves."

In point of fact, states that were part of the CSA could not choose not to be slave-holding.  It is explicitly racist and opposed to human freedom as a principle.

But our Constitution is a functional document.  For a statement of America's higher principles, it is the Declaration of Independence that lays out more clearly the cause of liberty.  What of the Confederate equivalents?  For that, we can look at the statements made by the states of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.  

Seriously.  Again, read them.  The motivating principle, elucidated variantly but clearly in each of these documents, establishes the primary cause for their departure.  That cause?  Human chattel slavery, grounded in assumptions of white supremacy.

And, to be more accurate, their indignation that the free states were treating the blacks who fled north seeking freedom as human beings and not property.

Each of those four confederate declarations of secession is completely clear on the matter.

What is inescapable and written in the words of those who established the Confederacy:  the cause of their nation, and the primary distinction between it and the United States of America as repeatedly written into the CSA founding documents?  The "right" of one human being to own another, grounded in contemptible assumptions of racial superiority.  It was, by design, both racist and antithetical to the principles of human liberty that are the best angels of the American spirit.

Soldiers like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart may well have been good men in other ways.  They may have believed that they were fighting for a just cause.

But they were wrong.

Slavery and racism were the demons of America's founding, standing in irreconcilable dissonance with the principles of liberty and equality that make our nation great.

As our nation takes a hard look at the way we've memorialized those men who fought against the principles of liberty on which our nation was founded, that must be kept front and center.