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What Is the Confederate Flag and Why Does It Have So Much Power?

Let’s start with a discussion about the history of slavery in the North. Slavery was actually prominent in the North until the Revolutionary War. At the start of the Revolutionary War, the British attempted to build their forces by offering slaves their freedom if they would help them fight against the colonists.  Of course, many slaves were more than willing to accept that offer and joined British armies.  The Colonial Army then, had not much of a choice but to make the same promise, lest they be largely outnumbered by the British Army.

Keep in mind that the intent of the Revolutionary War was independence from Britain…for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  When the Declaration of Independence declared the colonies free of Britain, former slaves in the North petitioned the courts for their freedom, based upon their having been promised their freedom in exchange for their help in fighting the British, and they supported their arguments with the context of the Declaration of Independence.  The first northern state to abolish slavery was Vermont in 1777 and the remaining northern states didn’t follow suit until 1804, 27 years later.

But then, rather than offering freedom to former slaves as promised, the northern states actually perpetuated slavery by forcing people into indentured servitude.  Black people were indentured servants in the North up to as late as 1850.  As people were gradually freed from slavery and worked their way out of indentured servitude, slavery was slowly weaning its way out of the North.

HOWEVER, an often overlooked fact is that between 1845-1852 was the great potato famine.  Nearly a MILLION Irish immigrants as well as a great many immigrants from Germany (estimated to be a total of about 1.5 million people) came to the northern colonies during that time, most of which originally settled in Boston, New York, and some other northern territories.  So now, the North had an influx of white laborers and lost the “need” for slave labor.  It wasn’t until then that northern abolitionists began efforts to end slavery.

President Lincoln was emphatic that the purpose of the Civil War was for the preservation of the Union, not for the purpose of abolishing slavery.  It just so happened that (some, very few people in) the southern states, who wanted to secede from the Union and form their own constitution, were still using slaves for labor on their vast plantations.  They didn’t have the influx of immigrants that the North saw.  In fact, in 1861, President Lincoln accepted the First Confiscation Act which was passed by Congress and included that slaves that escaped Union lines would be considered contraband.  Escaped slaves that were seeking refuge in the North at the time were actually being captured by northerners and returned to their southern slave masters.  In the following year, it was decided that the Union armies were in dire need of soldiers and Lincoln agreed, through the Second Confiscation Act of 1862, that slaves who escaped the south would be welcome to fight in the Union Army and would be freed if they did.

It wasn’t until the following year, in 1863, that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which would have freed all slaves in all states, in the north as well as the south.

The real reason for the Civil War was because the South wanted to be independent of the North, as an independent nation with its own constitution.  There were disagreements between the North and South over taxes, tariffs, etc. because the North was becoming industrialized and heavily populated with immigrants, while the South remained agricultural with a much lower population and lower availability of labor.

The Civil War was not a fight over whether or not black Americans should be freed.  It was a war over economics.  And the North offered freedom to slaves only if they agreed to fight in their Union Army against the South. It should be remembered that even in 1857, the Supreme Court of the Union, in the Dred Scott Decision, denied his request for freedom, stating that people with African blood had no right to become a US Citizen.

Another important consideration is that not all southerners were proponents for slavery, just as not all northerners were against it.  It has been estimated that over 75% of southern white landowners didn’t own slaves at all.

This discussion is not at all intended to downplay the horrific institution of slavery or the inhumane and unspeakable treatment of those who were trafficked, tortured, murdered by few very wealthy very large plantation owners.  This is merely an evaluation of “context”, and a true interpretation of what ACTUALLY happened.  Because the great majority of slaves were owned by a very small percentage of very wealthy plantation owners, those few rich and powerful overseers and slave masters have been notoriously representative of the South.  And as such, the Confederate (often referred to as the “Rebel”) flag, has come to be used as a reflection on the South as a whole.

So why does the Confederate flag invoke so much passion and why does it have so much power over people’s emotions?  And why, still today, with so much historical information freely and readily available, is there still a division between the North and the South and the belief that people who fly the Rebel flag are racist?  The southern armies weren’t fighting for the purpose of perpetuating slavery.  Very, VERY few people in the South even owned slaves.  The southern armies were fighting for secession from the Union and against the establishment of a nationwide federal government that would have ultimate authority over all of the states.  But somehow, just as we see often today, the very few people that are the wealthiest and hold the most power are believed to represent everyone else.  Do you think that the current President of the United States is a representative of you and your beliefs?  There are a great many of us that do not.

A symbol, a flag as such, only has power over you if you allow it to.  If you honestly interpret a symbol for what it really represents, then it probably won’t have such a powerful effect.  When I see others representing the Confederate flag, I see people that believe they should be free of federal oversight and think that states should be independent in their authority over law-making, taxes, etc.  What I don’t see is someone saying they believe in slavery.  It’s not a black/white thing.  It’s a federal/state economic and political thing.  So perhaps, knowing your history, the next time you allow the sight of a Confederate flag to invoke a hateful heart, you can take a deep breath and remind yourself what it really means.

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Member of MENSA, Association of Professional Genealogists, and Author’s Guild. Avid history and genealogy explorer, blogger, lecturer, and author of “All-In-One Basic to Advanced Guide to Genealogy & Ancestry History Research”. President/Director of Society for History and Research Education (S.H.A.R.E.).

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