Of Malice, Charity And The Confederate Battle Flag

We used to think that the 19th Century had seen out the enmity of the Civil War. There had been a “farewell to the bloody shirt” associated with the end of Reconstruction. This, it must be added, entailed the abandonment of the freed slaves to an impaired citizenship, and the problem of race would persist at least through the civil rights movement of the 20th Century. But animosity over the act of secession itself and the war that followed surely had dissipated even before the Gettysburg semi-centennial of 1913, when the aging veterans of both sides met on the battlefield and embraced. In Profiles in Courage, President Kennedy recounts how the reconciliation was ushered in by such figures as Mississippi’s Lucius  Lamar, who eulogized abolitionist and radical Republican Charles Sumner in the 1870s, pleading that North and South “lay aside the concealments which serve only to perpetuate misunderstanding and distrust, and frankly confess that on both sides we most earnestly desire to be one.”

What accounts for the recent outpouring of vitriol against the Confederacy, of scorn for the sacrifice of its manhood, for the flag its soldiers carried into battle in their misguided cause, and for the South itself? Why should the wound closed more than a century ago now be recklessly torn open? The demand that the flag be taken down has proven only the beginning: the Left now shrieks that no Confederate symbol may be sold in the stores, that roads not be named after Confederate generals, that all monuments to same (including Robert E. Lee) be expunged. Those who lived through the conflict and waived the bloody shirt after Appomattox showed no greater recrimination. Is this really about the murder of seven people in a church by a racist misfit photographed with a flag? 

We might recall the intention of Lincoln, who led the struggle against the slave interest and its political party, the Democrats. He was Commander-in-Chief in the war to defeat the secession, the war that occasioned the deaths of three quarters of a million men at arms, apart from the civilian casualties and devastation of property. What did Lincoln say as the fray came to its conclusion, this greatest American President, this greatest American?

“With malice for none; with charity for all, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

This, of course, represented no more than an extension of the celebrated peroration to the First Inaugural Address. In his plea that the South eschew secession, Lincoln observed, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” There followed the immortal sentence, “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”   

Lincoln’s most distinguished 20th Century admirer noted his magnanimity in the hour of victory. Churchill, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, wrote of Lincoln at this time: “His thoughts were bent upon healing his country’s wounds.” Further, “To those who spoke of hanging Jefferson Davis he replied, ‘Judge not that ye be not judged.’” Then, “On April 11 he proclaimed the need of a broad and generous temper and urged the consideration of the vanquished.” And, “At Cabinet on the 14th [the day he was shot] he spoke of Lee and other Confederate leaders with kindness, and pointed to the paths of forgiveness and goodwill." Lincoln followed Churchill’s own maxim, “In victory, magnanimity.” It was, moreover, Churchill who in the History of the Second World War, when telling of his third wartime visit to Washington, characterized Lee and Jackson as “two of the noblest men ever born on the American continent.”

Do writers who on the pages of the Washington Post now snarl that “the Confederate battle flag is an American swastika, the relic of traitors and totalitarians, symbol of a brutal regime, not a republic” and that the Charleston shooting “will lead to the relegation of the Confederate battle flag to museums and history’s dung heap, where it belongs” show either charity or friendship for their fellow citizens whose forebears fought and died in the Confederate cause? Is there anything but malice in the Left’s onslaught against every American tradition and article of civil comity? Liberals talk much of compromise when they wish to dissuade Republicans from any constancy in the defense of their principles. They produced a film about Lincoln and the 13th Amendment, inferably intended in part to make that point. The surrender of 1865 betokened a certain compromise by which the South’s total capitulation with no further resistance would gain them respectful reentry to the Union. It was thought that the four years of slaughter was sufficient expatiation for the evil of slavery. It was expatiation for the North as well, for, as Lincoln recognized, the North was economically complicit in the slave system. Part of the compromise indeed was supposed to be the protection of the freed bondsmen. Whether this would have more occurred had Lincoln lived through a second term belongs to the mysteries of history. But South Carolina today has a governor of Indian descent and the only African-American senator. It shows no institutionalized racism requiring a renewed punishment for 1861.

Republican leaders who accede to the demand that they remove the Confederate flag submit to a mob. Furling the flag under these conditions is admitting that it played a role in the killings -- a canard. The contemporary Left in the face of surrender will not grant its opponents terms as lenient as Grant offered Lee -- magnanimity is not its style. To give the Left what it wants is to facilitate its dominance, and the notion, put forward by nominally Republican columnists, that doing so is some miraculous act of reconciliation is sheer deluded folly. The submission by Republicans to the demands of leftist bullies is no miracle, but routine happenstance these days. Resistance by those elected to high office would be the miracle for which some of us pray.

Peter Nichols, Ph.D., J.D., is a member of the New York and New Jersey Bars and former Adjunct Professor, Philosophy/Political Science