On a recent daily morning walk, Ms. H. and I discovered a house around the corner from us flying a two-sided, U.S./Confederate flag. We live in a tiny town in southeast Michigan, a state that outlawed slavery in the 1830s and fought on the Union side during the Civil War.
At this point, I am supposed to point out that the confederate flag is a symbol of racism, particularly Jim Crow. And it is, of course. But as I reflected on how to begin this piece, I realized the double-sized nature of this particular flag speaks to the history of the United States.
The Union Fought to End Slavery?
Michigan sent Union troops to fight in the civil war. What this really means is that my state, and all Union states, fought to keep the Union together, a Union where slavery would be allowed to continue.
At the outset of the war, Lincoln had stated very clearly that he opposed slavery personally but placating the South was more important:
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” [Read: The Best Inaugural Addresses Ever]
Abolitionism grew after Union soldiers interacted with fleeing slaves, who lived not in refugee camps, but in contraband camps. Cogitate on that for a moment. Contraband defines goods that have been imported or exported illegally.
Fleeing slaves lived in contraband camps run by Union soldiers. Like many southerners, northerners also believed that African-Americans were not fully human.
We in the North suffer from the delusion that the Civil War was about ending slavery. It wasn’t.
The war was about forcing the southern states back into the Union. With the inflation-adjusted equivalent of slaves valued at about 3 billion dollars (so I heard Ta-Neihisi Coats claim earlier this year), and many New York banks getting quite rich off the slave trade, and a bone-deep belief that African-Americans really were less than human (let’s not forget the 3/5s clause of our founding document), can we really claim with fully integrity that slavery was a southern problem only?
History Isn’t Ala Carte Menu
The Confederate Flag is inextricably intertwined with our national flag. Every state in the United States that could have legal slavery did so. Michigan, Illinois, Maine, New York. All of them had legalized slavery at some point in its history. We prefer to overlook this fact, I think. Southerners (which I define as anyone, anywhere in the U.S. who explicitly affirms a symbol such as the Confederate Flag) become convenient tropes for our forgetfulness.
We forget that the institutionalizing of slavery was part of our founding document. It is a much a part of our early American history as the Preamble to the Constitution. Yet we continually refuse to acknowledge or confront our past with any semblance of honesty. Because we aren’t Southern, we are somehow not part of the United States history of slavery. But history is rather like karma. We don’t get away with anything.
We don’t get to pick the parts of history we don’t like. If we get teary eyed over the preamble, then with equally open eyes we must embrace the 3/5ths clause, the contraband camps, the institutionalized segregation that existed (and I would argue still exists) in Detroit, New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.
The double-sided U.S./Confederate flag are two sides of the same history. Southern history and southern slavery and southern segregation is Northern history and Northern slavery and Northern segregation. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not doesn’t make it less so.