This fall I’m once again teaching the Civil War and Reconstruction course at ASU. My next lecture will be on the Compromise of 1850. I ended my last lecture by outlining the issues facing the nation in 1849 and 1850, including a call by southerners, including Virginia’s John Y. Mason, for a stronger fugitive slave law to overcome the efforts of northern states to restrict the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 with personal liberty laws … in short, state rights on behalf of freedom versus the use of federal power on behalf of slavery.
Some students are surprised by that argument. After all, weren’t white southerners talking about the importance of state rights? Why, yes, sometimes they were. Sometimes they weren’t. After all, state rights are a means to an end, and it is the end in this case–the protection of slavery–that provides the theme of such efforts. When state rights protected slavery, cite state rights. When state rights protects freedom, cite federal authority.
I’m reminded of that in reading about a recent controversy in Lexington, Virginia, where the city council voted 4-1 to uphold an ordinance that prohibited displays of the Confederate Battle Flag (and certain other flags) on public flagpoles (specifically, flagpoles used to hang banners from streetlamps, but other public property as well). You can read about that decision and the reaction to it here and here and here.
Not everyone supports this decision, including people who proclaim themselves defenders of Confederate heritage (although they sometimes claim that they are defending southern heritage, I never see them defend anything but Confederate heritage). Many of these people do not reside in Lexington. Apparently they would like to force their preferences down the throats of the people of Lexington (although they claim that it was wrong for Lincoln to force his preferences down the throats of white southerners, and they protested when the NAACP and other groups called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the top of the South Carolina state house … how dare those outsiders mess with South Carolina!). In that case as well, South Carolinians made their own decision. That controversy continues.
The city ordinance concerns only the use of public property. It does not address the display of the Confederate flag by private citizens. Thus the notion that the ordinance is a blow against the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech is a frivolous claim. One hears cries for a boycott of Lexington by the same people who protested calls to boycott South Carolina for its use of the Confederate flag (several groups remain unhappy that the flag is exhibited on the grounds of the state capitol as part of a historical display). That’s their choice, and an altogether proper one … but then they shouldn’t complain when other people use the same weapon to protest the display of the Confederate flag.
As you might well imagine, several bloggers and other online groups called attention to the controversy, including Boston’s own Kevin Levin, fresh from his encounter with John Stauffer. Although at first it looked as if Kevin was going to pass this one by, we can see in this series of posts (1, 2, 3, and 4). Clearly part of the story is the reaction to the decision to reaffirm the original decision earlier this year. Defenders of Confederate heritage seem oblivious to the irony abounding in their protests and unaware of how their actions contradict their supposed beliefs … for the only thing they are consistent on is that Confederate heritage be celebrated, even if it means outsiders trying to force that idea down the throats of Lexington’s citizens … just the sort of thing they have previously protested elsewhere. That they then define Confederate heritage in ways that contradict Confederate (and southern and American) history is a topic left for another time. As I’ve said before, it’s heritage, not history, that they want to commemorate.
If you want to see samples of that defense, well, you can find them on your own … the truly curious know where to look.