Reflections on Texas' Confederate history and heritage
Edward Countryman, University Distinguished Professor of History, comments on the push for a Texas specialty license plate to feature the Confederate flag.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is urging that Texas approve a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate flag, on the grounds that the flag commemorates an important part of Texas' historical heritage. The board of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles is deadlocked on the matter. Gov. Rick Perry could break the deadlock by appointing an additional member.
The governor supports the idea that Texas might secede again – a strange thought from someone with aspirations to be the Party of Lincoln's presidential candidate. When a Texas convention first voted to leave the United States, on February 2, 1861, it spelled out its issues in its "Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union."
Curiously, the website of the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (www.texas-scv.org) does not have the secession document. Perhaps it realized it has something to hide.
What did the Texas secessionists actually say? They would rather see the American Republic fail than risk losing slavery. Here are their words: Texas "was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time."
That is the first point the secessionists made. Then they recounted the history of their time, listing the ways that Southern slavery had emerged onto the national political agenda. Their final grievance was the election as president and vice-president of two men who pledged "to continue these schemes for the ruin of ... the slave-holding States."
They rejected outright Thomas Jefferson's "self-evident" truths of 1776 "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Whatever else Jefferson said or did in his long life, those words place him among slavery's enemies. Slavery, equality and unalienable human rights cannot logically co-exist.
The secessionists were slavery's unashamed friends. For them it was an "undeniable truth" that "all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights," and they printed the words in bold face for emphasis. It was an "undeniable truth" as well that "the servitude of the African race ... is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator."
Breaking up the United States was serious business, as the secessionists understood. With Lincoln's election, the country finally was uniting as a whole in the great struggle to end human slavery. That struggle had begun during the American Revolutionary era and had spread around the Western world. By 1861, slavery was gone not just from the Northern states but also from Canada, the British and French West Indies and the Spanish-American republics. It remained secure only in Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
What the secessionists proposed was clear. They would reverse history's course and undo the work of the whole revolutionary generation, including the genuinely great figures we call the Founding Fathers. The secessionists would smash the American Republic rather than see slavery end in the South. They said so themselves.
Is that a heritage that deserves commemoration on license plates issued in the name of all the people of Texas, or any other state? The answer seems clear enough. Slavery, secession and the connection that bound them are part of American history. They need to be remembered for what they were, a fundamental human evil that was nearing the end of its time and an effort to destroy this country. But to commemorate them would be to honor them together, as a people. Remembrance of things past is one thing. Honoring them is an entirely different matter.
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