The South’s idea of the great “Lost Cause” is ahistorical propaganda transparently seen through with the slightest understanding of American history between 1820 and 1865. The “Lost Cause” was the attempt to preserve slavery, and defend the racist idea that it was acceptable to make money owning black people.
Beginning with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, each admission of a new state into the Union threatened secession, nullification, and even civil war as the South demanded equilibrium with the free Northern States in the US Senate, and depended on the expansion of slavery in western states to continue the plantation profits of southern elites.
Following the election of Abraham Lincoln, and due to the Southerners’ perception of his opposition to slavery, the Southern states began seceding in fear of the very vocal and powerful Northern abolitionist wing of the Republican Party.
South Carolina seceded first, and any doubts about South Carolinians’ motivations for secession can be waved aside simply by quoting their leaders verbatim. The very first sentence of their declaration of secession directly invokes slavery, insisting no longer will South Carolina “show deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding states” by remaining in the Union. Later it complains that Northern states are “elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.” They were talking about black people.
Then, as if South Carolinians were concerned their political beliefs might one day be viewed ambiguously and contentious, the secession declaration references slaves or the institution of slavery 17 more times, and repeatedly criticizing Northern states for not abiding by the Fugitive Slave Act. They were arguing states’ rights: states’ rights to have slaves.
Mississippi’s second paragraph in its declaration of secession:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and 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.” Pretty wild stuff.
And don’t just take Confederates’ word for what they did, consider the South’s culture saturated with the aesthetic of slavery. Torturing slaves in various ways to pick cash crops was the source of prosperity for the South’s wealthy and powerful elite. By the late 1850s, much of the South’s income and wealth was directly tied up in buying and selling slaves for agricultural plantations focused largely on cotton and tobacco. Ironically, these crops were wrecking the southern soil and diminishing yields over time, thus further necessitating dependence on slavery by forcing the richest plantations to acquire more land and slaves to make up the difference on margin, and by requiring westward expansion of slavery into the territories to maintain demand for the slave market in slave states and allow poorer Southern farmers move west to set up their own plantations on cheaper land.
But don’t just take the words of a 21st Century Yankee like me, take it from a contemporary Alabamanian named Clement Clairborne Clay, who not only served in the U.S. Senate, but also the Confederate Senate:
“I can show you, with sorrow, in the older portions of Alabama, and in my native county of Madison, the sad memorials of the artless and exhausting culture of cotton. Our small planters, after taking the cream off their lands, unable to restore them by rest, manures, or otherwise, are going further West and South, in search of other virgin lands, which they may and will despoil and impoverish in like manner. Our wealthier planters, with greater means and no more skill, are buying out their poorer neighbors, extending their plantations, and adding to their slave force. The wealthy few, who are able to live on smaller profits, and to give their blasted fields some rest, are thus pushing off the many who are merely independent.”
He was also racist, and while joining in on Alabama’s secession, he said this about the North’s abhorrence of slavery: “No sentiment is more insulting or more hostile to our domestic tranquility, to our social order, and to our social existence, than is contained in the declaration that our negroes are entitled to liberty and equality with the white man.”
Quite literally for the Southern elites, the end of slavery and even just limiting its expansion meant the degradation and eventual end of their wealth, high status, and lavish lifestyles that had kept them comfortably removed from productive labor for generations. And no Southerner would be unaffected, as abolition would be the abolishment overnight of the South’s entire regional economy built and sustained by enslaved humans.
The end of slavery would also be the end of white Southerners’ self-respect. The South would have to admit to having a horribly tainted worldview of racial superiority that twisted the Bible and basic morality into legitimizing and praising cruelty. Slavery also comforted poor Southerners because no matter how far their lives descended into poverty and pity, they could feel good about white supremacy. Slavery was literally everything to the South.
Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, summed up this idea neatly with his “Cornerstone Speech,” in which he claimed that the Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” To drive the point home, Stephens continued, “This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Following the war, Reconstruction, and the near-universal abolition of slavery everywhere else in the world, Southerners had to contend with the reality that the vast majority of their brothers, fathers, and grandfathers illegally rebelled from the nation and fought against their fellow countrymen to preserve what was increasingly being remembered by the rest of the country as a national embarrassment and shame that would eventually go on to tarnish even the Founding Fathers themselves for their appeasement of the peculiar institution and inability to politically end it before it forced the country into a civil war that ended up killing about as many Americans as all the other wars in our history combined.
As we sadly know, even after Reconstruction, many in the South would refuse to accept that blacks were equal with whites, and also that the rebellion and Confederacy were wrong. The next one hundred years saw Southern states develop a culture of lynching, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and dramatic political efforts to prevent blacks from exercising their rights to vote, exist in public spaces, or own property. People alive today used to get violently angry when a black kid drank water from a “Whites Only” drinking fountain or sit in the front of the bus.
Around the turn of the 19th Century, various organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy were formed to honor the memories of their Confederate fathers and grandfathers who had fought and died during the war, and rehabilitate the shameful Antebellum history with monuments and statues to the Confederate government and its soldiers. Gradually, novel political and economic rationales for waging the Civil War arose to disassociate the sacrifices of the Confederate army with the evil of slavery. A new, pseudo-historical ideology of the “Lost Cause” arose, which downplays and occasionally denies slavery’s role in secession and civil war.
So now Confederate flags are ubiquitous, and the sentiment that “the South will rise again” is like a faux-ironic threat to re-enslave black people given that Confederate pride and heritage is boastfully cornerstoned by slavery. Contemporary displays of the Stars & Bars romanticizes the five miserable years white supremacists killed Americans to keep their slaves, and are therefore inherently racist presentations whether ignoramus Confederate aesthetes recognize it or not.
Meanwhile, Mississippi’s official state flag still to this day has a Confederate Flag in its corner:
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