Should we celebrate secession, treason, and the defense of slavery?

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War. The 150th anniversary of the prelude to that war, the secession of South Carolina from the union, was celebrated at a “Secession Ball” at the Municipal Auditorium in the state capital of Charleston, on December 22, 2010. And on February 19, 2011, at the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy was re-enacted and celebrated with a parade and “Confederate Heritage Rally.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans organization that sponsors such events claims that “the preservation of liberty and freedom” rather than the ignoble defense of slavery “was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.” Such lies and historical distortion are facilitated by the unwillingness of Americans after the Civil War to confront and punish the traitors who precipitated a war of secession that directly cost more than 600,000 American lives, and additionally wounded the lives of many more than that, all to defend the continued enslavement of other human beings.

The reduction of our historical memory to a national reconciliation of the blue and the gray facilitated the disenfranchisement and continued oppression of freed slaves throughout the former Confederacy, the consequences of which we continue to suffer to this day.

The true nature of the rebellion of slave owners we call the Civil War was expressed most clearly by the Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, on March 21, 1861, just a month after his inauguration with Jefferson Davis. In his “cornerstone speech” delivered in Savannah, Georgia, the Confederate Vice-President declared,

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“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea (from that of Jefferson); its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

That cornerstone idea is what Confederate soldiers fought to defend, and what the “Grand Army of the Republic” shed blood and lives in profusion to defeat.

Memorials to their Civil War dead at Princeton and Yale reflect the prevailing spirit of reconciliation in listing all their dead alumni together regardless of which cause they fought for. But at Harvard’s Memorial Hall, the dedication is only to the memory of the 136 Harvard men who gave their lives in defense of the union and liberty. Periodic attempts to extend the dedication to, or add a remembrance for the Harvard men who died defending slavery and secession, have repeatedly been rejected.

Harvard remembers. And as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is observed and commemorated in the coming months and years, so should we. We should look askance at attempts by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other revisionists to further re-write and distort history.

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