Some Answers on the “Rebel Flag” and Reality

The third in a series of posts to answer questions I’m tired of explaining over and over again. See Flattened Taxpayers for the first and I Won’t Pay for Your Star Trek V Collector’s Plate for the second.

Having lived in the deep south for well over a decade back in the late 1960s and 1970s when racism was slightly less hidden, I had to deal with racists who flew the Confederate Battle Flag or who wanted their state flag to contain some confederate emblem as a part of that flag’s design.

When something comes up over and over again and I’ve gotten tired of typing the same answers over and over again through the years, I put together some quick answers to the most common questions so that when it comes up yet again I can just point them back here.

No, flying a confederate battle flag isn’t about your love of  "Southern Heritage".

Southern regional history (at least European Southern regional history) goes back over 400 years. The “Confederacy” was 4 of those years. If you pick less than 1% of your history that’s defined by treason and murder justified by wanting to expand racism-based slavery (as the secession declarations clearly stated) then you’ve clearly picked the only 1% of Southern "heritage" that you actually care about and made what you treasure as “heritage” abundantly obvious.

No, the Southern Treason was NOT about "states’ rights".

The major states rights issue at the time was whether non-slave states could pass laws that overrode the Federal Fugitive Slave Act which required all states to arrest escaped slaves and return them to their "owners". Guess which side of the coming conflict said federal law supersedes the “rights” of states? Hint: It wasn’t the ones wanting state law to free slaves.

No, the Southern Treason was NOT about unfair tariffs impressed on the South by Northern Congressmen.

There are two tariffs that are occasionally brought up in this canard by people who think that once you move to a subject as exciting as trade tax policy their opponent will fall asleep without finishing the discussion. One of these tariffs was written by some of the slave states’ own Congressmen. The other was passed after the war had already started. Neither one was even mentioned in the various secession documents.

No, it wasn’t about anything that President Lincoln did.

Abraham Lincoln hadn’t even been inaugurated when the first six southern states declared themselves above the laws of the United States and started murdering US soldiers. The President at the time that the talk of treason turned to war against their own nation was James Buchanan. I’ve yet to hear anyone say that the war was a response to Buchanan, though.

No, it wasn’t a reaction to there being no mechanism for states to secede in the US Constitution.

There is a perfectly good mechanism for anything anyone wants in the US Constitution. It’s called Article V. It deals with the process for creating amendments. Want to do something the Constitution doesn’t describe? Fine. Amend the Constitution to give yourself that power.  It’s not “impossible”, it’s been done quite a few times now.

The usual response to this is “well, a Constitutional Amendment wouldn’t have passed”. Too bad. Laws apply to you when you lose and the other guy wins just as much as they do when you win and the other guy loses. Just because you don’t think you’ll win a vote doesn’t give you the right to start murdering people. That this isn’t blatantly obvious is a bit frightening.

No, there wasn’t a war between the Union and the Confederacy or a war between the Yankees and the Rebels or a war between the United States of America and the "Confederate States of America".

There was a war between the United States of America and a bunch of criminals who had decided that violating US law by stealing US property and killing American soldiers and sailors was a better course of action than trusting in democracy or rule of law. That’s about as noble a cause to be honoring as memorializing Timothy McVeigh or Charles Manson.

Deal with it.


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23 Responses to “Some Answers on the “Rebel Flag” and Reality”

  1. Ken Belcher Says:

    By and large, the above comments are valid.

    Which is why, considering the treasonous rebellion against the lawful government created an invalid nation which we call the United States of America, which still today maintains a legal recognition of English Common Law ( while conveniently disregarding the areas of treason ) The criminals who murdered the officers and soldiers of the lawful government can lay no claim to a right to govern other than victory. God Save the Queen.
    That having been said, when a faction of that criminal government chose to leave the conspiracy and go it alone, a political position was taken by the more powerful faction that once a state was a part of the United States it was forever impossible to leave the criminal organization. This excuse for invasion and conquest was proven invalid by the fact that those states were not forced to remain in the United States, but each had to individually petition once ( or twice, see Georgia ) again for statehood.
    Regarding the common variant of confederate flag seen today: As there was no noticeable action to prevent this symbol from being claimed by racists, fascists, bigots and anyone with a hate agenda, it became public domain and now does, in fact, represent racism by default. Those who claim it as a symbol for fallen heroes should have spoken up sooner. I had an ancestor lose an arm at Gettysburg trying to take Little Round Top from the larger criminal government faction and I would prefer that his memory be honored now by one of the many other flags for which he fought.


  2. mikegalos Says:

    There are two differences between the southern treason and the US war of independence that I’d say are worth mentioning.

    1) The Southerners were full citizens of the government they attacked where the colonies were not full members of the British citizenry. Note that they did NOT have representation in Parliament so a legislative solution to their grievances was NOT an option where it was for the southerners who chose murder. In fact they had both normal legislative options and the option of constitutional amendment available to them, neither of which were options for the North American British colonies. As I said above, “Just because you don’t think you’ll win a vote doesn’t give you the right to start murdering people.” (or, as is happening now with the “shut down”, just because you lose a few dozen votes in a row doesn’t mean you can shut down the economy as an alternative to actually coming up with a plan that is acceptable to the majority of the democracy you claim to be a part of.)

    2) The US was eventually recognized by the government they’d seceded from after two wars. While this is a “if you win the war you retroactively were right to have the war” excuse, it IS the rule of law.

    And speaking of Gettysburg, I’m brought to mind the reply of Lincoln after the battle when told that the US forces had chased the rebels back over the border which was essentially, “Idiot, there IS no border. They went from one state in the United States to another state in the United States.”

    There was no more a “Confederate States of America” than there would be a “United States of Mike” if I chose to pretend my house was a separate nation. Declaring yourself above the law doesn’t make it so.


  3. Ken Belcher Says:

    Surely you noticed that I was in virtually complete agreement with you. I only provided additional facts.
    As I understand it, the original continental congress was not a representative elected body while later the legislatures of the various states were. Most historians agree that only a minority of the population of the colonies were sympathetic to the unlawful rebellion, and many estimate that more colonists fought for the crown than for the rebels. Thus the Revolutionary War might be better characterized as a coup by a few people who were disadvantaged by a tax. A tax so small that it would pass unnoticed in the 21st century. There was indeed a Continental Congress, largely self appointed or “elected” from among a handful of landowners to represent them, as in a conference rather than a governmental body. The elected representatives of the 19th century rebellious states were elected and, in contrast to their earlier counterparts had the majority of their voting citizens in support. In these United States as was the case in England and her colonies, all persons residing within them were indeed subject to the laws of the lawful government.
    If membership in the later Congress was a voluntary association
    ( Congress still may choose not to seat a member ) then a member may freely choose not to participate as well. This is especially easy when that member has the support of the public encouraging this. If participation in Congress is involuntary and mandatory by each state, then no state can be denied participation after a failed “coup”.
    I also submit that had the colonial rebellion failed utterly then a positive outcome for all of the colonies regarding slavery would have been accomplished earlier under English rule, and without hundreds of thousands of lives lost. You acknowledged that the United States were indeed recognized after military success in the first war against England and that that recognition continued even after the punitive invasion against the US for it’s aggression against Canada was a victory for England by any measurement of victory.
    I am confused by your references to modern day political brinksmanship as it has no historical bearing on the matter of the Illegality or legality of both or either participant in a war resolved long ago. I am always willing to concede that the secession was illegal as was the unilateral declaration of independence and insist that the hypocritical treatment of the southern states following their defeat and legal status of conquered and occupied territory invalidates any claim to the permanence of statehood. There was no amendment proposed or ratified removing any states from the union. And I can find no amendment stipulating the terms for restoring statehood. I propose for the sake of consistency that had the confederacy ( as they called themselves ) been successful militarily that they would have eventually been recognized by all parties as a nation.
    The principle that borders are indeed drawn by bayonets was recognized obliquely by Lincoln, he merely chose to put his bayonets in a different place, a place well beyond hundreds of thousands of involuntary citizens.
    That being said, a confederate victory would have made the horrors to come in the 20th century many times worse as a result of altered spheres of interest with a South allied with England and a North possibly allied with Prussia/Germany as a counter measure.
    In summary, Had the Revolutionary War ended in a British victory the outcome for this continent might have been better. In the absence of that colonial rule, a victory by the confederacy would have resulted in an even poorer outcome.


    • mikegalos Says:

      We absolutely are agreeing on most points, however…

      The idea that the British would have ended slavery in the Colonial American South sooner than was done by the US is something I find unlikely. The UK didn’t outlaw slavery until 1833 in the UK itself but left it quite legal for quite a while longer in places where it profited the landed houses’ overseas holdings which I’d propose would have included the southern colonies where the massive profits required slavery to continue funding the wealthy, be they Southern “Gentlemen” or British gentry.

      As to the reference to “modern day political brinksmanship” I hold that in both cases, the Southern Treason and the Republican economic hostage taking, there is one common thread that does NOT apply to the American Revolution. In the two former cases there was (or is) a legislative framework for redress of the grievances being argued. In the latter there was none. The Koch Brothers/Walton Family funded wing of the Republican Party is following the same rule as the Southern Treason – If they can’t win by democratic means they’re willing to subvert the democratic process to get what they want. A childish “I believe in the system only when it works in my favor” view which shows a lack of actual belief in the system and rather a self-centered mindset that only values personal gain no matter the cost to others. In the case of the American Revolution there was no democratic means available as there were no colonial representatives in Parliament. There is a profound difference between “I have no way to participate” and “I don’t have enough support to win”.

      Lastly, I’d argue that borders are NOT drawn by bayonets, they’re drawn by international recognition. Bayonets may establish a line but international recognition is what makes that line a border.


  4. mwbrady68 Says:

    Using the word treason just preaches to the choir and immediately negates any valid points you might have for someone sitting on the fence.

    I used to be interested in the topic in my younger days. I don’t really care now. But back then one of the books that influenced my thinking was this one:

    The Causes of the Civil War: Institutional Failure or Human Blunder?

    It’s a collection of essays by people with various opinions on the issue. There are enough interesting facts on both sides to convince me that both popular narratives are lacking.

    Not every story is like the old westerns or war movies, with one side being clearly evil and the other side being purely good.


    • mikegalos Says:

      Treason is the appropriate word. Pretending something is not what it is so that those who want to feel that ‘everybody is flawed so really aren’t we all equally good and bad’ does nothing to increase the reality that while no history is 100% good or 100% bad there are plenty of cases where the bad and good sides are clearly differentiated. While no monster looks in the mirror and sees a monster that self-perception does not change the reality.


      • mwbrady68 Says:

        That was a lot of words just to say, “Yes it is.”

        Regardless of their reasons, it wasn’t like the southern states were trying to take over Washington. They seceded, which doesn’t come across to me as treason. I’d be interested in why you use the word.

        When I read your words, I comes across to me that you are pretending that the Confederacy was something other than it was. I say that not to offend, but just an observation. If you want to convince others, then I’d recommend another tactic. If you want to talk to your fellow choir members, then that’s fine too.

        Obviously, no two sides in most conflicts are always going to be 100% good or evil. But in the case of the Civil War ( War of Southern Treason / War for Southern Independence / War of Northern Aggression ), I find popular narratives lacking in non-trivial ways.

        The story told by most Sons of Confederate Veterans is certainly whitewashed (pun intended). The fabricated myths about the conflict told on the other side obfuscate reality as bad, but more dangerous given that they’re taught each year in government schools.

        Like I said, I don’t have a “team” on the issue. I find nothing impressive about the Confederate government — reading their constitution is a yawner and doesn’t make me wish I lived in such a place.

        On the other hand, the way that Lincoln sits in his memorial like Zeus in his temple is a clue that he’s wasn’t the man that he’s made out to be.

        It reminds me of a quote I read recently about the Patriot Act that went something like, “If it wasn’t a bad law, they would not have had to named it ‘Patriot’.”

        Likewise, if Lincoln was such a great man they would not have had to make a temple for him.


  5. mikegalos Says:

    (Replying to the previous comment in the general form because this template has limits on nesting comments)

    I use the word “treason” quite intentionally.

    While treason is one of those words, like Communist or Fascist, that is often used as an epithet without any meaning beyond “an action I dislike” I use treason in the definition most appropriate to this example.

    Treason is actually defined in the US Constitution. Article 3, Section 3, Paragraph 1 reads:

    “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

    There is no question that those Americans who shelled US Government facilities and killed US soldiers at Fort Sumter committed treason as defined in their Constitution. As so did all of those who joined together to attack other US facilities and kill other US citizens.

    To say they did otherwise because they declared that the law no longer applied to them because they said that it didn’t hardly makes that the case. In fact it is evidence that they, themselves, defined it as treason as they considered it a war against the US government and not just actions of a group of violent criminals.

    As to your aside about Lincoln, I certainly do not think he was perfect nor did even his friends at the time. I doubt anyone seriously has. A monument built in his memory hardly says that he was especially one built over fifty years after his murder.

    I will say that had he not been killed (in what evidence now supports was a military action by the leadership of the traitors – the “Secret Service of the Confederate States of America”) the history of this nation would likely have taken some very different tracks. His post-war reconstruction plans were certainly not the same as those of President Johnson nor of President Grant and perhaps we could have avoided the decades of Jim Crow lawlessness. Personally, I feel his call for healing was unwise but less so than the reality that followed as political expediency in many ways put off dealing with the issues of the day until our own day and likely into the future as we still debate issues resolved during Lincoln’s day.


    • mwbrady68 Says:

      I believe South Carolina had already seceded months earlier.and had asked Washington to leave. Washington had plenty of time to evacuate peacefully. This takes treason out of the picture IMO — especially so given that the Confederacy was not trying to overthrow the US government or take over US territory. Plans for expansion out west may be another issue, I don’t know.

      Who knows what would have happened if Lincoln had not been shot? His words and deeds were often not the same. Cherry pick his words then he’s a saint. Take his actions in to account, you can argue that he was a tyrant.

      The scorched earth approach that he let his generals carry out makes me question if reconstruction would have been much different than it was. We’ll never know. One does wonder if blacks would have fared better had he lived.

      In any case, I have to wonder if the enduring result of the civil war is that Washington still thinks it can do in the rest of the world what it did to the Confederacy: unrelenting military force, then occupation with via heavy presence of military bases. Reconstruction isn’t working so well in Iraq, is it? 😛


      • mikegalos Says:

        South Carolina declared themselves as intending to no longer be subject to US law by a vote in the state legislature in November 1860 by declaring that the election of Abraham Lincoln was a “hostile act”. This was followed by a declaration that they were no longer subject to US law in December. The murder of US troops in a US military base on US soil by these traitors (an act of treason by US law) occurred on February 4th 1861.

        What I fail to see is why you think that the US should have withdrawn US troops from a US base on US soil because some people announced that because the candidate they supported lost an election they were not bound by the law.

        To put it simply, your argument appears to be “If I warn you I’m going to commit a crime then I can commit it without punishment because after I warn you it is no longer a crime by me but is now your fault for choosing to not do what I demand”.

        If you say that you no longer are bound by US law and will kill any government officials or troops that you happen across in your travels would you say the government’s proper response is to withdraw all government officials from everywhere near you because you stating that you are above the law makes it true? If you then murder people and destroy and steal property are you really saying that it’s the fault of those murdered and those whose property was stolen for not just giving the land and facilities to you and evacuating any area you choose to claim?

        If not, why do you grant this to some people in South Carolina?

        If so, I’d love to see your reasoning.


      • mwbrady68 Says:

        I’m pretty sure had the states known that being part of the US was like visiting the Hotel California, the constitution never would have been ratified.

        What law was broken?

        And, like the “treasonous murders” claim, the analogy with “sovereign citizen” is not convincing.

        The reason Washington invaded the Confederacy had nothing to do with their respect for the law. Next thing you’ll tell me is that Washington invaded Iraq in 1991 because babies were being taken out of incubators!


      • mikegalos Says:

        What law was broken? How about blockading and shelling a US military base? I’m pretty sure that’s against the law. And it remains against the law even if you declare the laws don’t apply to you a month ahead of time.

        Again, your assumption is that all that is required to leave the United States is saying so. That is NOT what is in the US Constitution. The founders did not provide an explicit way to leave the union and there is no case prior to this where any method for leaving was done. You may create the assumption that none of the people who wrote and ratified the Constitution ever thought of such a case but seeing how it was common in contracts for centuries it’s very hard to justify that being an unintentional error that nobody noticed, especially given the vast number of revisions voted for and against during the process of replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution.

        The Constitution DID and does, however, have the Amendment process in place to provide one should it ever become necessary.

        This is the key point that you are missing and a major point in the original blog post. I’ve included it here:

        No, it wasn’t a reaction to there being no mechanism for states to secede in the US Constitution.

        There is a perfectly good mechanism for anything anyone wants in the US Constitution. It’s called Article V. It deals with the process for creating amendments. Want to do something the Constitution doesn’t describe? Fine. Amend the Constitution to give yourself that power. It’s not “impossible”, it’s been done quite a few times now.

        The usual response to this is “well, a Constitutional Amendment wouldn’t have passed”. Too bad. Laws apply to you when you lose and the other guy wins just as much as they do when you win and the other guy loses. Just because you don’t think you’ll win a vote doesn’t give you the right to start murdering people. That this isn’t blatantly obvious is a bit frightening.


      • mwbrady68 Says:

        I thought only the federal government had enumerated powers. I didn’t realize the concept applied to everyone else.


      • mikegalos Says:

        On a separate note, Washington (by which I assume you mean the United States government) did not “invade” anywhere in the 1861-5 treason. You cannot invade your own territory.

        You make the same mistake one of Lincoln’s generals made when he bragged about the army chasing Lee back out of the US. Lincoln replied to him that Lee had been in the US and was still in the US as Virginia was no less a US state than Pennsylvania.

        As I also said in the essay this was not a war between the United States of America and an equally valid government called the Confederate States of America.

        It was a war between the United States of America and a bunch of criminals who had decided that violating US law by stealing US property and killing American soldiers and sailors was a better course of action than trusting in democracy or rule of law.

        Declaring yourself above the law does not make it so. You don’t have any legal authority to do so.

        Declaring that US law no longer applies to you because you’ve declared your back yard a sovereign nation doesn’t make it so. You don’t have any legal authority to do so.

        Declaring that US law no longer applies to you because you gathered a group of people together in a State Assembly and voted on it doesn’t make it so. You don’t have any legal authority to do so.

        Hence the analogy between the “Sovereign Citizen” terrorists and the “Confederate States” ones. The only difference is one of scale.


      • mikegalos Says:

        As to your analogy that the US government responding to US citizens committing crimes on US soil is the justification for anything in US foreign policy, that seems to only make sense if you assume that the moment the South Carolina legislature declared themselves to be above the law they were instantly a legitimate foreign nation.

        There is no more legal basis for that claim than there is for the claims of the “Sovereign Citizen” terrorists that by their saying so they’re immune to any law they choose to disobey.


      • mikegalos Says:

        An essay that address this topic well


      • mwbrady68 Says:

        I think one who makes a stronger argument than the foul mouthed Shenk is Lysander Spooner, a northern abolitionist who had a very different viewpoint about the war in his essay from 1867:


      • mikegalos Says:

        Had the individuals who no longer wished to live under US law left the US then Spooner would be correct. THAT would not be treason. But that is not what they did. They, as a group, chose to violently attack others.

        His argument that a majority does not have the power to inflict their will upon the minority or the individual does not apply as this was a case of another group choosing exactly the vote of the majority, to authorize murder rather than take individual action and find a different place to live. In fact the more serious case of a majority inflicting death on those who oppose their view.

        Once again. The result is treason and murder rather than supporting the previously agreed to process.

        Of course, it also goes with note that you did not actually answer the comments in the essay I cited nor have you answered for why you believe that murder is acceptable solution to losing a political vote.

        (And you mislabeled the author of the article I cited by attributing the “foul mouthed” description apparently meant to disqualify the ideas by a single phrase to a person whose photograph the actual author credits. Perhaps you should read the article more clearly rather than dismiss an excellent essay by a trivial statement of dislike)


  6. mikegalos Says:

    Treason is an explicitly enumerated power of the Federal government. And membership is not a power, it’s a contract so unilaterally breaking a contract would apply using the terms of the contract. Since there is none it would be up to the bodies involved to negotiate one. And that brings us back to Constitutional Amendments and the bizarre belief that if a vote doesn’t go your way you’re obligations and contracts don’t apply.


  7. mwbrady68 Says:

    You know who else broke the law? Harriet Tubman. I hope they put her on the $20.


    • mikegalos Says:

      Hardly treason or mass murder.

      Interestingly the law Harriet Tubman broke was the “Fugitive Slave Act” which was a Federal law that some free states claimed their state laws superseded. The states where buying and selling human beings was legal claimed that this “states’ rights” idea was totally without merit and that Federal law always superseded state law. Ironically the current court view (and the view of the founders) is that NO law can be used to deprive another human of rights as they are inalienable and not granted by the government but by creation and the current legal theory is that the less restrictive law prevails – states may grant MORE freedom than federal law requires but not less.

      Funny how they didn’t (and still don’t) think that “states’ rights” applies when the former slave-holding states want to use state law to restrict universal freedoms.


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