Neo-Confederates and the Rebel Flag: ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’

The guy with the skinhead haircut was wearing a biker-style blue jean vest emblazoned on the back with a big Rebel flag patch and another patch that said “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” Latin for “Thus Always to Tyrants.”

“Sic Semper Tyrannis” is the motto of Virginia, where Richmond doubled as the capital of the Old Dominion and the new Confederacy during the Civil War. “Sic Semper Tyrannis” is also what a fleeing John Wilkes Booth defiantly yelled to the Ford’s Theater crowd after he fatally wounded President Abraham Lincoln, whom he hated for putting slavery on the road to extinction.

I didn’t ask the guy what he meant by “Sic Semper Tyrannis” and the Rebel flag. But I’ve got a pretty good idea.

So does John Hennen, a history professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky, the state where I’ve lived all of my life.

john hennen

John Hennen

Says Hennen, a transplanted West Virginian: “The survival of white supremacist thought is exactly what the neo-Confederates are all about.”

Doubtless, some neo-Confederates don’t care what the likes of liberal college profs think of them. But other neo-Confederates insist the Rebel flag doesn’t reflect racism. They promise it stands for “heritage, not hate,” as one of those Rebel flag bumper stickers proclaims.

Of course, neo-Confederates also vow slavery had little or nothing to do with the Civil War. Besides, they say, President Abraham Lincoln was a racist, too.

Lincoln was a bigot, but only by 21st century standards. He and his party – real Confederates cursed them as “Black Republicans” – employed the full political and military might of the federal government to destroy slavery (with help from pro-Union Northern Democrats, some of whom became Republicans). Lincoln wasn’t called “the Great Emancipator” for nothing.

Adds Hennen: “If someone has to make a case by drawing on a bunch of bogus parallels, that’s an admission of a poor argument.”

White Southerners who resisted desegregation in the 1960s made the same lame argument. They said the North wasn’t a prejudice-free zone either. To be sure, racism wasn’t regional and still isn’t.

Even so, Yankee Democrats and Yankee Republicans in Congress – led by a Texan Democratic president – passed sweeping civil rights laws that ended long years of Jim Crow race discrimination and segregation in Dixie.

bill schell

Bill Schell

Again, Hennen: “I just don’t see how the fact that Chicago could be as racist as Birmingham makes racism something to be proud of, or legitimates the sanitizing of buying and selling of human beings, and their treatment as chattel before the law. It’s really funny how these worshipers of Old Dixie categorically deny the reality of its central institutions — denial of black humanity, slavery, white supremacy, forced segregation, paranoia and willful ignorance.”

(Hennen, by the way, says he is descended from a Confederate soldier. “I guess that makes me a traitor,” he muses.)

Anyway, at my alma mater, Kentucky’s Murray State University, history professor Bill Schell also makes no bones about what the Civil War was about: slavery, period.

Adds Schell, a North Carolina native: “Apologists for the Confederacy claim the issue at stake was states’ rights. This ignores the fact that the only right at stake was the ‘right’ to own, buy and sell human beings as if they were cattle.”

Schell also says that “secessionist writings of the day discuss no other issue; the issue of the right of states to leave the union was peripheral to slave ownership and the ‘right’ to spread that ‘peculiar institution.’”

Some of the most telling “secessionist writings” are contained in Apostles of Disunion, by Charles B. Dew, a Florida-born history professor at Williams College in Massachusetts. I never miss a chance to plug this little book that is a giant read for anybody who really wants to know what led to the Civil War. So here I go again.

charles drew

Charles Dew

Dew uses the Confederates’ own words to demolish the Civil-War-was-fought-over-states’-rights argument. The professor quotes a slew of Rebels from Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens to emissaries from Confederate states who traveled to other slave states, including Kentucky, to tout secession.

Davis praised slavery as an institution that “a superior race” used to convert “brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers.”

Stephens said he was thankful the Confederacy was based “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 moral condition.”

Dew also quotes from secession ordinances Southern states adopted as they exited the Union. When Texas disunionists pulled out, they denounced the Republican party’s “debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race and color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.”

Mississippi secessionists said “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” Magnolia State Confederates claimed “we must either submit to degradation and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union.”

Yet Dew pegs his book to those state-appointed commissioners who made the rounds of the slave states in late 1860 and early 1861. They preached the same racist line: the only way to keep Lincoln and the Republicans from destroying slavery and white supremacy was to start a new Southern nation.

“Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political or social equality,” a Mississippi commissioner said.  He asserted that the Lincoln administration aimed “to overturn and strike down this great feature of our Union…and to substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.”

Likewise, a Kentucky-born Alabama emissary to his home state claimed that the election of Lincoln “was nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a Santo Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”

berry craigIn addition, he pleaded that secession was the only way the South could sustain “the heaven-ordained superiority of the white over the black race.”

An Alabama ambassador to Maryland said ideas that slavery was immoral and that God created all people the same were based on “an infidel theory [that] has corrupted the Northern heart.”  Secession, he said, equaled “deliverance from Abolition domination.”

Berry CraigAfter they lost the war, many Confederate leaders changed their tunes, arguing disingenuously, as Dew points out, “that slavery had absolutely nothing to do with the South’s drive for independence, a claim picked up and advocated by neo-Confederate writers and partisans of the present day.”

Dew, who also has Confederate ancestors, concluded, “By illuminating so clearly the racial content of the secession persuasion, the commissioners would seem to have laid to rest, once and for all, any notion that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War.  To put it quite simply, slavery and race were absolutely critical elements in the coming of the war.”

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on February 29, 2012
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.