The debate over Confederate merchandise at the Athens County Fair has sparked a lively – and at times bitter – debate around town, including on The Athens NEWS Facebook page. One particularly ugly aspect of that debate has been individuals revising the history of the Civil War, in order to advance the spurious notion that slavery played only a small role in causing it.

That way, they can buttress their fundamentally racist argument that the most widely familiar Confederate flag has little or no connection to the institution of slavery.

The mindset among white Southern leaders before the Civil War that made them attach such importance to maintaining and expanding slavery was, of course, racist to the core, but also riddled with greed, lust for power and grandiose self-delusion. Most of them never tried to hide their motivation.

An ancestor of mine (my great, great grandfather’s cousin) is a prime example. He was among the Southern leaders who spoke passionately before the Civil War about the crucial need to maintain and expand slavery in order to preserve the (white) Southern way of life.

In a commencement address to literary societies at Oglethorpe University (in Atlanta, Georgia) on July 18, 1860, nine months before the first shots at Fort Sumter, future Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon spoke about the absolute necessity of preserving slavery.

According to a passage in the book, “John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American” by Ralph Lowell Eckert (Louisiana State University Press, 1989), “(Gordon) hoped the current political controversy would be peaceably resolved, but he stressed that Southerners must be permitted to retain their slaves and to carry them into the territories.

“African slavery was, for him, ‘the mightiest engine in the universe for the civilization, elevation and refinement of mankind – the surest guarantee of the continuance of liberty among ourselves.’

“If their alternatives were reduced to ‘dismemberment of this Union’ or ‘fanatical dictation and Abolition rule,’ Gordon warned his fellow Southerners not to hesitate even for a moment. ‘The spirit of resistance is the spirit of liberty… Let us do our duty, protect our liberties, and leave the consequences with God, who alone can control them.’

“Rather than admit that slavery was an evil or a tyrannical institution, Gordon urged his audience to ‘take the position everywhere, that it (slavery) is morally, socially and politically right – and that it is, in truth, the hand-maid of civil liberty.’”

These passages are contained in a book that’s mainly sympathetic and admiring of Gordon, who, it should be acknowledged, was among the Confederacy’s most distinguished fighting generals and who later served with mixed distinction as U.S. senator from Georgia for one term and governor for two. While he received praise after the Civil War for leading reconciliation efforts between the (white) North and South, historians also believe he headed the newly formed but mainly decentralized Georgia KKK for a time.

In any event, this should shred the racist argument that the Civil War was not about slavery. No credible historian has advanced that idea, which is only propelled by those who wish to absolve the South of central responsibility in the bloodiest war in American history.

Anyway, the more important issue revolving around the issue of Confederate merchandise at the Athens County Fair involves how the Rebel flag is perceived nowadays, irrespective of what happened more than 150 years ago. A large segment of the U.S. population perceives it as a profoundly racist symbol. History backs up that perception.

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