Madison Mayor Soglin Correct Over Confederate Monuments: Constitutional History Says So

Amidst all the hyperbole coming from a small segment of Madison over Confederate monuments it needs to be noted that Mayor Paul Soglin stands on a bedrock of rationality when he speaks about the Daughters of the Confederacy.  When speaking this week about the fate of a memorial now in place at Forest Hill Cemetery Soglin noted the Daughters of the Confederacy who installed it around 1931 spread lies about slavery and the Civil War.

Mayor Soglin is correct in his assessment as the website for this organization speaks of wanting to preserve the material necessary for the truthful history of the War Between the States.  As a decades long history buff those words, and that spin on past events, never fails to get my reaction.  While I understand the following may seem to be getting into the weeds I also hold it is important to grasp what caused the Civil War. Once that is understood it can be easier to gauge what should be done with Confederate statues some claim as patriotic.

The idea that the war was ‘between the states’ as the Confederate side wishes to term it, and can be ticked off as a sectional fight over slavery or trade or a host of other matters, undercuts a fundamental fact.  Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote roughly 30 years prior to the Fort Sumter episode that the absolute sovereignty of the nation was contained in the people of the Union.  That is a powerful concept and one which needs to be understood in its entirety.  He argued that even as far back as the Declaration of Independence the document underscored “implicitly the act of the whole people of the united colonies.”

In other words this nation was always a nation-state and never just a contractual agreement between an alliance of sovereign states–or even colonies.  It is important to understand that sovereignty lies in the nation rather than the individual states.    That is why it can be easily argued the people as a whole had the right to secede from Britain and also had the right–and I think duty–to cripple and destroy the attempt by Southerners who wished to secede.  The fact that the Daughters of the Confederacy would try to spin away a constitutional foundation by questioning which majority had the right to authorize secession–a majority in each state or a national majority–cuts to the core of what their real mission is.

In his first inaugural President Lincoln himself argued this point and took his listeners–and the rest of us over time–back to the solid claim that the Union is and always will be perpetual.  I will let Lincoln’s words carry the argument.

“Again, if the United States be not a government proper, but an association of states in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peacefully unmade, by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it–break it, so so speak; but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?”

What the Confederacy attempted with succession was unconstitutional and some have argued treasonous to the United States.  There are moral, and without doubt, constitutional reasons as to why slavery needed to be fought and eradicated with the war.  While it is true the South fought to retain and even expand slavery and statues to the Confederate leaders underscore that motive, I think a more fundamental argument can be made for removing these monuments.  That is because succession runs counter to how a republic should respond to severe differences among factions. What the South was advocating was not so much a process to alleviate grievances but instead to foment a revolution.

That does not then rise to the level of expecting future generations to, in some way, honor or revere those who worked to undermine the Union.   While our revolution against the Brits allowed for republican ideals to take hold there is nothing noble or inspiring about Confederates who wished to increase their hold on fellow human beings.

Mayor Soglin is correct in his stern and strong posture when it comes to the monuments at Forest Hill.  He is not only grounded with a moral footing, but also rooted in constitutional history, too.

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