Arizona State Professor Brooks D. Simpson Discusses Neo-Confederate Movement

Brooks D. Simpson, a professor at Arizona State University, is a leading historian of 19th-century American political and military history whose work concentrates on the Civil War and Reconstruction era. The author or co-author of nine books, including studies of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Reconstruction policy and politics, Simpson serves as co-editor of the University of Nebraska's "Great Campaigns of the Civil War" series and the same institution's Civil War battlefield series.

In recent years, he has followed the development of an increasingly shrill neo-Confederate movement and particularly the use of misleading or plainly false information by many of its ideologues.

The Intelligence Report interviewed Simpson about neo-Confederate myths of the Civil War period, including the notions that that the war had almost nothing to do with slavery; that Lincoln supported the "peculiar institution"; that many thousands of blacks fought voluntarily for the Confederacy; that Confederate general Robert E. Lee opposed human bondage; and that the South's population and culture are fundamentally "Anglo-Celtic."

Intelligence Report: Let's talk about some of the unorthodox views of modern neo-Confederate ideologues. One of their key contentions is that the Civil War wasn't about slavery at all, that it was fundamentally a clash of two differing economic systems. Is there anything to that?

Simpson: First of all, without slavery there's no Civil War in the first place, there's no irreconcilable conflict, so that's a sine qua non.

Second, when people talk about conflicting economic systems, obviously the root of the conflict was that the South's economic system was based upon plantation slavery.

So one can't talk about different economic systems without once again coming back to the issue of slavery. That was fundamental to what the South was about.

There is a strange paradox here. These people deride what they call political correctness, and yet one of their first missions is to whitewash the Confederacy of any connection with slavery. They actually seem sensitive to any possibility that the Confederacy is linked with race, and want to absolve the Confederacy of any charges of racism at all.

You can see that in the fight over the Confederate flag, where the neo-Confederates say, "This is heritage, not hate. It has nothing to do with race at all." At the same time they're essentially defending white supremacy, they deny race has anything to do with it.

IR: So you see these neo-Confederates, the leaders and thinkers of groups like the League of the South (LOS), as basically white supremacist?

Simpson: They certainly want the revival of the principles of the Confederacy, and one those principles would in fact be white supremacy, unquestioned and explicit. The racism that's woven into their comments is often quite astonishing.

IR: What actually was the Confederate view of slavery?

Simpson: Confederates during the Civil War had no problem whatsoever in associating their cause with the protection of slavery and a system of white supremacy which they thought was inherent in the Confederate world order. The Confederates of 1861-65 were much more honest about the importance of slavery than are the neo-Confederates of today.

In a famous address [known to historians as the "Cornerstone Speech"], the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said in 1861 that "slavery is the cornerstone of the Confederacy." And as late as 1865, Robert E. Lee, who's often cited by neo-Confederates as an opponent of slavery, claimed that while blacks and whites were together in the South, their best relationship would be that of master and slave.

A great many Southerners were directly or indirectly involved in slavery — they were either slaveholders, members of slaveholding families, or involved in business enterprises that depended upon slavery for their prosperity.

Some neo-Confederates talk about differing federal policies toward the North and the South, but again those federal policies — especially if they concern the South — have to do with the support of slavery, the acquisition of new territory which would be open to slaveholders, a tariff policy which favored the North.

IR: What about that tariff policy?

Simpson: Neo-Confederates often say the North and South fought over tariffs passed to protect Northern manufacturing that came at the expense of the South. Now first of all, there's no record that in any Civil War battle, a colonel or a general roused his troops to the attack with the cry for lower tariffs.

That does not seem to have been a concern for the average Confederate soldier. Those Southerners who were interested in lower tariffs were interested because they were involved in the growing of plantation cotton, an export crop.

When Southerners were growing crops that faced foreign competition, such as sugar, they could be as in favor of a protective tariff as anybody else. For example, Louisiana sugar-growers were pro-protective tariff.

So that's again a reflection of economic interest, which in turn is a reflection, in part, of the plantation economy that was the foundation of Southern society.

IR: Another key neo-Confederate argument is that the war was really about states' rights and Southern opposition to growing federal power.

Simpson: The states' rights argument is even more specious.

White Southerners had no problem using the federal government's powers when it came to protecting and promoting the interests of slavery. They only invoked states' rights rhetoric in trying to restrict federal power against slavery.

Divisions over the interpretation of the Constitution were directly related to the issue of slavery.

IR: Is there anything to the Confederate interpretation of the Constitution, with regard to both states' rights and the supposed right of secession?

Simpson: As soon as the Constitution was drafted and put into place, the very people who helped draft it began to disagree over its meaning. Both [Alexander] Hamilton and [James] Madison were on the drafting committee, and these two guys were at loggerheads for years over what exactly the document meant.

Certainly, there is nothing in the Constitution that in any way explicitly sanctifies secession. I call secession a constructed right. You have to interpret the Constitution in very specific ways to come up with that. In fact, you have to engage in the very sort of Constitutional activism that neo-Confederates would otherwise abhor in interpreting the Constitution.

It's not really much of an argument. It's flatly asserted and opinions to the contrary are simply dismissed.

The notion of the Constitution as a contract between states, which has to be the basis of the secessionist argument, falls apart because it only covers the initial 13 signers.

After the original 13, the only thing that came close to an independent contracting agent was Texas, which was a republic before it became a state. But Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi were not states until they joined the United States. They were territories. So how does this argument apply to states that joined the Union after ratification of the original document?