Can you celebrate secession without celebrating slavery? That question seems to be the core tension surrounding the upcoming celebrations of the American Civil War’s 150-year anniversary. The New York Times recently reported on a series of events over the next four years that commemorate the sesquicentennial, including a “Secession Ball,” a candlelight memorial at Antietam, a parade in Montgomery, Alabama, and a mock swearing-in of the Confederacy’s would-be president, Jefferson Davis.
The legacy of slavery that was central to the Civil War is no cause for celebration, of course; in fact, many of these memorial events will hardly be mentioning it. Michael Givens of the Sons of Confederate Veterans told the New York Times that “our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.” Jeff Antley, another member of the organization and Secession Ball organizer, said that “defending the South’s right to secede, the soldiers’ right to defend their homes and the right to self-government doesn’t mean your arguments are without weight because of slavery.”
But the failure to recognize the role of slavery at all has left several others aghast. Lonnie Randolph, the president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP told the New York Times that promoting the Confederacy’s idea of “states’ rights” really refers to “their idea of one right — to buy and sell human beings.”
While it might be possible to celebrate an idealized version of a war glorifying independence and self-governance outside of slavery, it isn’t history. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic posted a lengthy excerpt of the official declaration of South Carolina’s grievances and reasons for secession, which very much center on the fear of losing the institution of slavery. Mississippi’s declaration of secession also clearly states, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” State historians in Georgia have also recognized the central role of slavery in the state’s decision to secede.
Coates argues that idealizing the Confederacy at all equates to celebrating slavery itself:
When you celebrate the Confederacy, you are not celebrating something that was nobly flawed, nor are you celebrating a rash hot-headed mistake. You are celebrating a world wherein the president of the United States could not exist. You are celebrating a fully formed ideology, the goal of which was to raise a republic that would make slaves of nearly every black person you see before you today, until the time of God’s judgment. God’s judgment has come and gone, but the bilkers of history endure.
When you celebrate the Secession, you celebrate American apartheid. You celebrate evil. No one should ever let that pass.
But are the celebrations really about history, or some other kind of long-lost ideal? And if it is the latter, is that still acceptable? After all, sanitizing and glorifying the past during the celebration of national holidays is not a unique phenomenon. Rarely do celebrations of American Thanksgiving or Columbus Day focus on mass killings of Native Americans during the colonial period.
Share your opinions on the sesquicentennial and Confederacy celebrations in the comments section. Our co-host and resident history expert Jon Meacham will be addressing the issue and some of your comments in an upcoming episode of Need to Know.