On Sunday, historian Ken Burns reminded those who insist that the Confederacy was about state’s rights that they are woefully, woefully ignorant of history. As most of us know, the primary focus of the Civil War was slavery, but those who almost fetishize the illegitimate splinter nation that is a shameful piece of United States history insist on desperately finding other excuses for its existence.
“You know, when the Constitutional Convention happened, there was a man named John J. Chapman, who said slavery was like a sleeping serpent,” Burns told CBS’s John Dickerson. “It lay coiled under the table during the deliberations; thereafter, slavery was on everyone’s mind, if not always on his tongue.”
“You know, we’ve grown up as country with a lot of powerful symbols of the Civil War in popular culture that would be ‘Birth of a Nation,’ D.W. Griffiths’ classic, and ‘Gone with the Wind,’ of course,” he added. “And in that, it postulates, among other things, both films, that the Ku Klux Klan, which is a homegrown terrorist organization, was actually a heroic force in the story of the Civil War. So it’s no wonder that Americans have permitted themselves to be sold a bill of goods about what happened, oh, it’s about states’ rights, it’s about nullification, it’s about differences between cultural and political and economic forces that shaped the North and the South.”
“If you read South Carolina’s Articles of Secession, the first state to secede, the birthplace of secession, home of the original ‘fire-eaters’ as they were called, in reaction to abraham Lincoln — a moderate’s election — they do not mention states’ rights. They mention slavery. Slavery.Slavery,” he explained. “And that we have to remember.It is much more complicated than that but essentially the reason why we murdered each other, more than two percent of our population, 750,000 Americans died…was over essentially the issue of slavery.”
“The main American theme, I think, is freedom,” Burns said. “But we also notice that race is always there. Always there. When Thomas Jefferson says all men are created equal, he owns a couple hundred human beings and he doesn’t see the contradiction or the hypocrisy and doesn’t free anybody in his lifetime and sets in motion an American narrative that is bedeviled by a question of race.”
“And we struggle with it. We try to ignore it. We pretend, with the election of Barack Obama, that we’re in some post-racial society,” he added. “And what we have seen is a kind of reaction to this. The birther movement, of which Donald Trump is one of the authors of, is another politer way of saying the N word. It’s just more sophisticated and a little bit more clever. He’s ‘other,’ he’s different. What’s actually ‘other’ and different about him? It turns out it’s the same old thing. It’s the color of his skin.”
Right-wing claims that the Confederacy has nothing to do with slavery are not entirely shocking. A 2012 study revealed that conservatism is fairly clearly linked to low I.Q. and racism. A 2015 Washington Post poll analysis revealed that support for the Confederate flag is linked to both racism and a complete lack of understanding of Southern history. When these two studies are considered together, conservatives really have no choice but to ignorantly assume that the Confederacy was about something else entirely. In a sense, they just don’t know any better — but that ignorance is largely willful.
Watch Burns destroy every single conservative argument in support of the Confederacy, below:
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.