President Biden and the Lost Cause


Earlier this year, President Biden delivered a speech at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina as part of the official opening for his re-election campaign. The church, which in 2015 was the scene of a mass shooting of nine all-Black victims, including Senior Pastor and State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney, was meant to highlight one of the key themes of his campaign: the danger of white supremacy. The President took shots at recent remarks by former Ambassador Nikki Haley (governor during the shooting) and former President Trump on the Civil War.

…The defeated Confederates couldn’t accept the verdict of the war: They had lost. So, they say—they embraced what’s known as the Lost Cause, a self-serving lie that the Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ rights. And they’ve called that the noble cause…let me be clear for those who don’t seem to know: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. There is no negotiation about that.

Biden also brought up the repeated claim that January 6 was the first time the Confederate flag flew in the Capital. This claim is likely untrue (if one wished to be picky you could interpret his words that it was the first time “insurrectionists” waved it, but then no one has been charged with insurrection). In 1993, during a debate, where Mr. Biden was present, over renewing a patent of the flag for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun said (at 1:09:15) “Madame President [Senator Barbara Boxer], across the room on the other side of the aisle is his [Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens] flag.” While the video does not show it, presumably the flag was present.

Mrs. Haley fired back by mentioning the President’s friendly relationship with segregationists such as Jim Eastland and Herman Talmadge, which his Democratic party rivals also tried in 2020. The charge has always been self-serving. Progressives like Ted Kennedy and Mike Gravel (who co-sponsored the resolution restoring citizenship to Robert E. Lee) and conservatives, such as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, were all friendly with segregationists. Like it or not, they were elected to the Senate, and you had to work with them. To single out Mr. Biden is unfair.

However, the President’s criticism could easily be used against him. Throughout his career, Mr. Biden has pandered to Confederate sympathies. In 1987 in Alabama during his first presidential run, he incorrectly bragged that Delaware was on the South’s side during the Civil War. According to historian Emory Thomas of all the border states the South’s cause was the weakest in Delaware. With only 1,800 slaves, the State’s commitment to the Union was never seriously challenged. In a previous visit to “the Heart of Dixie” in 1986, Mr. Biden said the state had confronted its racial problems and that “a Black man has a better chance in Birmingham than in Philadelphia or New York.” In 2006, he got his history half right, saying that Delaware fought for the Union, but “That’s only because we couldn’t figure out how to get to the South.” In 1993, he used language reminiscent of Mr. Trump calling the UDC “fine people.”

Mr. Biden’s remarks are not proof of him being some neo-Confederate. That same year he voted with Senator Moseley-Braun against renewing the patent and since taking office has overseen the removal and renaming of public displays of the Confederacy. Instead, they highlight the President’s most criticized traits: his opportunism and willingness to say anything to win. Having waved the Stars and Bars when it suited him, he now denounces it.

Yet there is also the curious fact that Mr. Biden spoke with sympathy for the Confederacy when the state he was born in and the state he represented stayed with the Union, or when he noted the fact that his ancestor served in the Union army and was pardoned by President Lincoln. Nor is he an outlier. In the 1970s, the Senate voted unanimously to restore General Lee’s citizenship, with only 10 votes in the House against. The reason was not that Lee was being given amnesty, but that it was not being given to Vietnam draft evaders and deserters. Dissenters even argued that Lee’s motivation to join the Confederacy resembled the motivations that inspired people who refused to serve in Vietnam. Those who voted to restore included the first Black congresswoman Shirely Chisholm, as well as Barbara Jordan and most other Black members of Congress. The resolution to restore Jefferson Davis’s citizenship was introduced by Mark Hatfield, one of the most liberal senators and a civil rights advocate. The House panel to restore Jefferson Davis’s citizenship was all in favor, except for Elizabeth Holtzman, who voted present to once again protest treatment of Vietnam draft evaders and deserters (and were this not an issue she would have voted for it).

In his book The Culture of Defeat, German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch describes the contradictory and reciprocal relationship between the defeated and the victorious that developed in the aftermath of the Civil War. As in other similar cases, the defeated of the South quickly gave up on the goals thousands of their comrades died fighting for while retaining their fierce loyalty to their land and adopting the practices of their enemies. The winners, on the other hand, looked with dread at the creeping of modernity and longed for the “Eden” of the defeated. The Lost Cause was built not just in the South, but by Northerners disillusioned by the peace they won, fearful over the direction of their country, and enchanted by an idealized vision of their former foe. One of the most peculiar cases is that of state senator John Wallace. Born a slave, Wallace joined the Union army in 1863, and contributed to Reconstruction in Florida. In 1888 he wrote the influential tract Carpetbag Rule in Florida that was highly critical of Reconstruction and the Radical Republicans while portraying the former Confederates with high regard and as friends of the Black population. Nowadays Wallace’s work is dismissed for its numerous errors and lack of evidence, but for decades it influenced writings of the era.

While the elevation of men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson into the American Pantheon of Heroes is normally portrayed by critics as “proof” of American racism or the cliché that the “South won the war,” Schivelbusch postulates a different interpretation. Instead of the North being “infected” by the South, this deification of their former enemies was a trophy cementing the South as part of the Union. The heroes of the South no longer belonged to the South alone, but to the whole nation. Like the Prodigal Son, the South arrogantly abandoned the fatherland only to return after being brought to ruin. Instead of Jefferson Davis’s fight to the last man, southerners followed the example of Robert E. Lee and surrendered, putting themselves at the mercy of the Union. Having given up the cause, the wayward sons are then gladly welcomed back to the father-country to enjoy the full benefits of the homeland. Could not the scorn of moralists judging the nation be similar to the loyal son of the parable whose heart is cold to forgiveness for his wayward brother?

Of course there is one crucial caveat. The South accepted the loss of slavery, but that was their limit. Political equality with the Black population was unacceptable. While white southerners could point out that much of the North had laws just as discriminatory as the newly minted Black Codes, the violence with which they employed their dissent leads such statements to fall on deaf ears. Southerners were so committed to white supremacy that they turned on James Longstreet, one of their finest Generals, when he supported Reconstruction efforts.

The fate of North Carolina’s Fort Bragg—named in honor of Confederate General Braxton Bragg and renamed Fort Liberty in 2020—suggests that race and history will be a major factor in the 2024 election. President Biden, though, should be wary of casting the first stone, as his own history demonstrates the complicated relationship the country has with its deadliest war and the men who led it.

As these debates go on, we might remember remarks by Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama in 1993. In a remarkable speech, the senator whose great-grandfather voted for secession and grandfather was a surgeon in the Confederate Army explains his decision to vote against renewing the patent. Even if one disagrees with the vote, his eloquent and moving speech reflects the power of reconciliation and healing. We could use more such moments today.

Image credit.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Exit mobile version