Absolution? Guilt, Heritage, and History

One outspoken southerner recently offered the following declaration:

In my opinion, the federal government’s involvement in, and sponsorship of, the CIA’s Project MK Ultra and similar horrors (the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, for example) completely absolves the Confederacy of whatever “sins” it may have incurred from slavery.

I find this an absolutely bizarre statement, but I also find it a revealing one.  After all, I’ve also come across declarations from fans of the Confederacy about the policy of the United States government towards Native Americans as offering what these folks think is some absolution of white southerners for slavery.

First, two wrongs don’t make the first one “right.”  To claim that they do offers insight into one’s deeply flawed moral compass.

Second, we might recall that in many instance the federal government in question included (and sometimes was headed by) white southerners, including white southern slaveholders.  Case in point: who was the guiding force of federal policy toward Native Americans in the early nineteenth century?  Why, Andrew Jackson, of course.  (I never see white southerners celebrate John Marshall’s efforts to block the encroachment of white governments upon Native American tribes, but then Marshall isn’t your typical southern hero.)  Indeed, those quick to judge when it comes to Native American policy should beware of the skeletons in their own closet.

Third, most people understand that racism is not unique to the South, and that slavery was an American institution that became more of a southern institution during the first half-century of the new American republic.  Those interested in allocating guilt or determining responsibility for sin have a complex task before them.

So why did that blogger offer such a bizarre observation?  Part of it is predictable:

In any case, Confederate heritage advocates know the Union did not have the moral authority to make brutal war upon the South in the 1860s, and it has steadily degenerated into further evil since then. The whole purpose of evilizing the South is so “good Americans” won’t have to face up to their country’s ongoing malevolence.

Oddly enough, this sounds like Hugh G. Lawson, a retired history professor trained at Tulane and who taught at Murray State University.  You can still come across Professor Lawson, now retired (and prematurely so) if you want to visit usenet’s alt.war.civil.usa, where for years he offered as original with him the notion of “the South as Other” until it was revealed that he was engaged in presenting a rather well-known argument advanced by others as his own.  This has not stopped him, although he was forced to admit his attempt at deception (guess what else we call this practice?  Hint: it begins with a “p”).

Beneath all this, however, rests a feeling of guilt and a need for absolution … sometimes by pointing out that someone else does it, too.  That’s not really history, but identity (which, as I’ve suggested before, is at the core of the “heritage” enterprise … it’s who we need people in the past to be for our own purposes, not who they really were).   All too often one comes across these declarations of “you, too,” as if that not only ends the discussion, but absolves the person making the claim of any responsibility for what happened.  The problem with that is simple: white southerners today aren’t responsible for slavery.  Nor are white Americans.  They are responsible when they try to justify it, deny it, excuse it, say it was forced upon them, or tell us that it wasn’t all bad (for starters).

Take this statement:

An incomplete and unrealistically negative picture of slavery is pervasive in the culture of this country; it is deliberately perpetrated in order to create the perception of slaveowners as inhuman and total evil — and, by association, the entire Confederacy, thus making the South “deserving” of the destruction by the righteous army of the north. To point out that this picture is agenda driven and incomplete, and thus not true, is not “arguing for slavery.”

Oh goodness.

Sometimes it isn’t about us: it’s about them.  But sometimes it isn’t about them: it’s about us.

I find this especially interesting when I see some white folks whine that blacks should just get over slavery.  After all, these folks say, they have black friends; they might even know a black person who shares their perspective on the past.  Next they’ll be telling Jews to get over the Holocaust.  Yet some of these same people are quick to point fingers themselves and use the same tactics that they deplore in others.  Perhaps it’s those white southerners who point fingers who need to get over themselves, recognize the disconnect between their need to celebrate a “heritage” and the actual historical record, and to think a little more carefully about what they are saying.  After all, in the opinion of one critic:

“When you hear whites say: ‘get over it,’ ‘slavery was a long time ago,’ ‘my family didn’t own slaves, ‘the Jews owned the slave ships,’ ‘your own kind sold you into slavery,’ and other sentiments like these, know these are the most common excuses these devils will use in attempts to not accept responsibility for and make restitution for their kind’s generational race crimes. Know today that these are unacceptable racist statements reparations offenders use in support of their kind’s historical racial terrorism. Whites who make statements like these are just as racially terroristic as the whites who dehumanized and terrorized our ancestors during the slave trade and even in this – the post Trans Atlantic slave trade era. Most often, these are the kinds of whites you will have to defend yourself against in a reparations protest.”

And the game goes on … because two can play at that game, and one can see how nonsense generates nonsense.

One is responsible for one’s understanding of history and for one’s use or misuse of that understanding.  When one resorts to distorting that understanding of the past in order to seek absolution for sins, real or alleged, then we know where the problem lies.

26 thoughts on “Absolution? Guilt, Heritage, and History

  1. Andy Hall June 5, 2012 / 10:33 am

    I’ve never understood the factual basis for the assumption in some circles that the Confederacy was “better” toward Native Americans, or that somehow it would not have embraced the same (or worse) policies toward indigenous peoples that the U.S. government had for decades, often under (as you point out) fellow Southerners. During the short life of the Confederacy, it was fighting for its very existence against another foe; once that conflict was won and the Confederacy firmly established, why are we to assume that the government in Richmond would be better-disposed to protecting the rights and interests of Native Americans? It’s make-believe.

    Certainly none of the fire-eating secessionists in my state had any sympathy toward Native Americans; the Texas Declaration of Causes for secession includes a complaint that the U.S. government “has for years almost entirely failed to protect the lives and property of the people of Texas against the Indian savages on our border.” They wanted more federal action against the Indians, not less. As the war went on, the Texas state government grew increasingly frustrated with the national Confederate government and the local Confederate commander, Magruder, for its inability to provide even the limited defenses that Colonel Lee and his colleagues had in the years before the war “against ruthless savages.” The only reason the Confederacy doesn’t have a Wounded Knee or a Little Bighorn or a Mankato Hanging was because they never had the chance to get to it. (Though they did manage to get in a few drumhead tribunals and mass hangings anyway.)

    Apparently, though, when it comes to any bad act committed by the United States — at any point, against Native Americans or anyone else — “the South” gets a pass on sharing any moral or ethical responsibility for that. Utter foolishness.

    • Aaron Kidd June 5, 2012 / 1:41 pm

      The CSA gave the Five Civilized Tribes representation in the Confederate Congress. The Cherokee rep was Elias C. Boudinot; The Seminole and Creek rep was Samuel Benton Callahan; the Choctaw and Chickasaw rep was Robert McDonald Jones; If you look in the Declaration of Causes of Secession for the Cherokee Nation it states “Whatever causes the Cherokee people may have had in the past, to complain of some of the Southern States, they cannot but feel that their interests and their destiny are inseparably connnected with those of the South.”

      When it comes to the matter in Texas with the Plains Indians the Texans did have very little affection for the Natives and the feeling was mutual with the Tribes as well. When talking about the Confederacy and its Native reations you must include about both their feelings towards the Plains Indians and the Five Civilizaed Tribes.

      • Brooks D. Simpson June 5, 2012 / 3:31 pm

        I’m sure you know that there are other First Nations beside the Cherokee, and I’m sure you know why the Cherokee were where they were in 1861. They did.

        • John Foskett June 6, 2012 / 7:09 am

          in addition, there’s a simple exercise which one can perform. Take the treaties with the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chiokasaws; compile the promises made in those treaties; and check off how many were actually fulfilled. Then there’s the rationale behind all of this. The tribes who got the ‘best” treaties just happened to be located in areas which were buffers between states that remained in the Union and the CSA. Although I’m certain, of course, that these treaties were all about ethnic justice, it didn’t hurt that the CSA was lining up a DMZ of sorts. From the treaty tribes’ perspective, a major motivation was to replace the federal troops which had been withdrawn and which had served as a defense against the predations of the neighboring non-treaty tribes. Anybody who thinks that the CSA was about justice for Native Americans is sucking down some of that bad Kool-Aid.

      • Andy Hall June 5, 2012 / 4:03 pm

        I was speaking of Native Americans more broadly. I’ve often seen it argued by True Southrons that the U.S. government was waging a war of genocide against the First Nations. There’s certainly plenty of reason to say that, but I find it bizarre that there’s a real disconnect, a refusal to acknowledge that except for the period of 1861-65, those depredations and abuses were being done under the aegis of a nation that included the Southern states, as well. None of us, North or South, get to pick and choose what parts of American history we own; we own it all.

      • Will Hickox June 5, 2012 / 4:52 pm

        “Whatever causes the Cherokee people may have had in the past, to complain of some of the Southern States, they cannot but feel that their interests* and their destiny are inseparably connnected with those of the South.”
        * [Slavery]

      • Will Stoutamire June 5, 2012 / 5:56 pm

        Not that Confederate Arizona is all that important, but since we’re talking Indian policy… I guess it would be unfortunate for some folks to learn that one of the main reasons the Confederate government was invited into Arizona by the local white population was to provide ‘protection’ from the Apache and other local tribes. These folks thought the US government was doing a particularly bad job at restraining (read: killing) the Apache and figured the Confederates might be better at it.

        In fact, those few Confederates that made it all the way to modern-day AZ spent more time and men waging war on the native population than on any Union troops. One might argue they helped to begin the “Indian Wars”, which the Union only escalated after reclaiming Arizona in 1863. And don’t forget that a number of these Confederates swapped sides – before the war ended back east – to join in the early campaigns against those native peoples. How ‘friendly’ of them… So much for thinking the Confederacy would’ve treated the Native Americans of the Southwest any differently, given the chance.

        Which also begs the question, not asked/answered here. How many Southerners were in the US military in the 3-4 decades after the Civil War, helping wage these wars that supposedly ‘absolve’ the South for slavery? This finger pointing in an attempt to somehow assign or evade “guilt” is just silly…

        • John Foskett June 6, 2012 / 8:53 am

          Your last paragraph makes a very good point. I would expand your question about “Southrons” to the 1850’s, when the Army was actively engaged in combat with various tribes throughout the western frontier.

    • Mike Musick June 5, 2012 / 2:08 pm

      I’ve read blood-curdling exhorations from Colorado Union officers and Texas Confederate officers urging their men to exterminate all the Indians they encounter. When it comes to this matter, sadly, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference.

      • Mike Musick June 5, 2012 / 2:36 pm

        That should be “exhortations.”

    • Lyle Smith June 5, 2012 / 7:20 pm

      I agree with you totally about Indian removal. It was a European and American thing and very much included white Southerners. It’s about like the history of slavery, really.

      That said, I think some of this kind of argumentation comes about from some people jumping on Confederate heritage/”Southron” folks harshly and not ever conceding the immorality, failures, cruelty or whatever of their own heritage. It can appear to be a one-way conversation about the horrors of the white South and it stops at that. People, from what I can tell, wherever they’re from generally don’t like to be talked down to and that is how some of these conversations go. It may not even be a conversation, but disparaging remarks flung at someone for simply being from a certain part of the country, or just being whatever from wherever.

      I think this is what Professor Simpson is getting at when he writes nonsense generates nonsense, because people will and do stand up for themselves.

      • Brooks D. Simpson June 5, 2012 / 10:04 pm

        Let’s take this apart for a moment.

        I start with certain propositions. First is my belief is to assign some sort of vague guilt to the present occupants of a region for past events is nonsense, period.

        Second is that in many cases the South is in fact used as a scapegoat for American ills; some people offer a critical and negative perspective of the South without considering what once went on (and in some cases still goes on) in their back yard.

        Third is the notion that racism is an American problem (transcending simply black/white relations); slavery was an American invention; and that most white Americans, North and South, supported wars against Native Americans and the removal of First Nations westward. It’s ahistorical to say otherwise.

        Fourth is that I’m also tired of those white southerners who cry “you, too,” when that effort is made, not to advance understanding, but as a form of retaliation against others and a way to exonerate themselves. That’s more than simple defensiveness.

        Finally, fifth is that to try to determine who started the finger-pointing is a futile exercise. To assume that non-southerners (sometimes mistakenly called northerners) started it is a bit foolish. One of the first acts of finger-pointing in the history of the republic was Thomas Jefferson’s effort to blame the King of England for slavery in North America … and then to blame him for advocating a slave insurrection.

        One can stand up for themselves without engaging in the nonsense highlighted in the main post. But what I’d prefer is a common quest for historical understanding, letting the chips fall where they may.

        • Lyle Smith June 6, 2012 / 8:30 am

          “One can stand up for themselves without engaging in the nonsense highlighted in the main post. But what I’d prefer is a common quest for historical understanding, letting the chips fall where they may.”

          I’m right there with you. I agree with all of your five propositions. The fourth proposition is the one I was trying to make some point about, which is that the heritage folk get criticized and then they retaliate back, or the other way around. More often than not I think they are in the wrong (almost always with the history), especially when engaging say yourself or Andy Hall or Kevin Levin, so on and so forth. That said not everyone that goes after them, or reacts to them, is as knowledgeable as you guys or on a common quest for historical understanding, hence nonsense generates more nonsense.

  2. Mark June 5, 2012 / 10:34 am

    Well said.

  3. BorderRuffian June 5, 2012 / 2:52 pm

    “During the short life of the Confederacy, it was fighting for its very existence against another foe; once that conflict was won and the Confederacy firmly established, why are we to assume that the government in Richmond would be better-disposed to protecting the rights and interests of Native Americans?”

    Well, examine the record. Who was better at fulfilling treaties with native tribes? USA or CSA? Who allowed native delegates in their legislative assemblies? USA or CSA?


    “The only reason the Confederacy doesn’t have a Wounded Knee or a Little Bighorn or a Mankato Hanging was because they never had the chance to get to it.”

    So since there is NOT a Confederate Wounded Knee, you slap them with a hypothetical one?

    • Andy Hall June 5, 2012 / 8:29 pm

      You’re smarter than this.

      My point was, and remains, that the Confederacy didn’t last long enough to actually establish any real record of dealing with the “ruthless savages” that my state’s secession documents refer to. I see no reason to believe that, over the long haul, the Confederacy would have been better about such things than the U.S. government proved to be.

      As for a “Confederate Wounded Knee,” the flag carried by those troopers in 1890 represented Texas, South Carolina and Alabama as much as it did New York, Ohio and California.You’re playing a deeply foolish game of self-deception, pretending that “the South” is somehow untarnished by the bad deeds done under the U.S. flag over the last 200+ years. It’s not, you’re not, and I’m not.

      Fun Fact of the Day: the founder of the Tuskegee syphilis study, Dr. Taliaferro Clark of the U.S. Public Health Service, was a native Virginian. His father, Edwin P. Clark, was also a native Virginian and an alumnus of the University of Virginia. The elder Clark served two years as an Assistant Surgeon in the Confederate Army in the military hospitals in Richmond. Deo vindice, y’all!

    • Lyle Smith June 5, 2012 / 9:27 pm

      There was Andrew “Nullification my Ass” Jackson and the Negro Fort. Boom. Boom. Boom.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 5, 2012 / 10:12 pm

      Given how the United States defined the status of First Nations, it would have made no sense to give them representation in federal legislative bodies. Moreover, by the same reasoning, since New England and New York (with qualifications) allows adult black males to vote, while none of the Confederate states did, race relations were far better in the Northeast than in the South. You have to be consistent, and if we follow your reasoning above, this also follows.

      Are you actually arguing that Confederate whites did not share the racial animus of American whites when it came to Native Americans? Then perhaps you can show me the protests of former Confederate veterans against Wounded Knee.

      Once more, not all Native Americans are Cherokee. One can deplore the behavior of the federal government (and several states and territories … Sand Creek, anyone?) toward Native Americans without making the ridiculous statement that such bad behavior exonerates white southerners of anything. That any Confederate heritage advocates say otherwise is simply pathetic.

  4. Bill Newcomer June 5, 2012 / 3:25 pm

    So…. By the same rationale the United States is just as evil as Nazi Germany because we hypocritically condemn the concentrations camps while at the same time interring Japanese-Americans in WW2? And which part of the country did the Cherokees who were forcibly pushed off their lands and made to suffer the Trail of Tears come from? Hint: They were evicted from states south of the Mason-Dixon line. .

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 5, 2012 / 3:33 pm

      Well, I think part of the problem is that someone who’s always protesting about evilizing is doing some evilizing of her own. I’m sure there are people trained to explain why that is.

  5. Lyle Smith June 5, 2012 / 6:23 pm

    Nonsense generates nonsense is the truth. A lot of this is just people trying to talk down to other people and then the other people stand up for themselves and talk down the other side. And then it just see-saws back and forth. “Southrons” for sure don’t have a monopoly in ignorance.

    I’m of the opinion it’s best not to talk down to anyone and assert as much truth as one possibly can, and leave it at that.

  6. Jefferson Moon June 6, 2012 / 5:42 am

    Look up Chief Opothleyahola and his Creeks to see what would happen if a tribe didn’t join the so called confederacy,and the Unions failure to aid Opothleyahola and his people,also look up the Lumbee and the Civil War

    • John Foskett June 6, 2012 / 7:13 am

      Yep. As I’ve posted above, Mr. BR needs to actually read the treaties and tote up how many of the promises were actually fulfilled. Cheap words in exchange for a military buffer zone. But then it was all them damn Yankees who druv the Cherokees out of Georgia in the 1830’s.

      • Andy Hall June 6, 2012 / 7:35 am

        It’s hard to imagine that my secessionist-voting, slave-holding, Confederate soldier-rearing g-g-g-grandfather, who also happened to be a Limestone County neighbor of the Parker family, really embraced the whole Native-Americans-are-our-friends thing.

        • John Foskett June 6, 2012 / 8:48 am

          Interestingly, two or three tribes from the Comanches signed treaties with Albert Pike, who was acting as ‘agent” for the CSA. Guess what happened with all of the promises to the tribes which were made in those treaties?

  7. Scott Smart June 8, 2012 / 2:03 am

    I guess it won’t be long before we come up on the bi-centennial of Andrew Jackson’s war with the Creeks in Alabama. Maybe for heritage we can re-enact the Battle of Horseshoe Bend?

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