The tragic massacre at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., has re-ignited the debate over the legacy and meaning of the Confederate battle flag, which still flies on the grounds of the state capitol.
I'll shelve the separate discussion over the relevance of the flag to the motivations of Dylann Roof, the prime suspect in the fatal mass shooting, and focus on a different point: why conservatives should hate the Confederate flag.
The standard argument about the flag goes like this: Critics of the flag say that the flag is a symbol of racism, hatred, violence, treason and slavery, while defenders see it as a harmless symbol of Southern pride, courage, and valor.
I count myself among the critics on this one, but as an advocate of a constitutionally limited federal government that derives power from the states and its people, I have an additional reason to despise the Confederate flag and all it stands for.
The invocation of "states rights" among those waving the Confederate flag while fighting for the evils of slavery and segregation has been devastating to the cause of limited government.
Not only were the institutions themselves an affront to liberty, but in fighting to defeat the institutions, the federal government claimed more power. And to this day, when any conservative tries to make a principled argument in favor of returning more power to the states, they have to grapple with the fact that for many Americans, such arguments are tainted by their historical association with slavery and segregation.
The Confederacy was formed to preserve and expand the brutal institution of slavery, and then its proponents subsequently tried to disguise their motivations in lofty language about states' rights.
Naval War College professor Mackubin Thomas Owens has noted that after the Civil War, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens wrote a revisionist history A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, which helped popularize the idea that the war was really about states' rights.
But in his infamous "corner-stone" speech delivered in March 1861, just before the start of the war, Stephens made a much different argument about what the war was really about. He argued that nation's Founders, though allowing slavery to remain, were ultimately convinced that it was an evil institution that would eventually go away. "Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong," he said. "They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error."
In contrast, he explained, "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."
For instance, the Mississippi declaration reads at the outset: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world."
These were the ideals that were being fought for on the battlefield under the banner of the flag that some people still claim as a symbol of courage. Fighting courageously to preserve a monstrous evil is nothing to celebrate or honor, which conservatives should be the first to recognize.
As Reihan Salam pointed out at the National Review, back in 2000, Georgia's state government commissioned a study on its own state flag, and it identified that the history of the Confederate battle flag was somewhat complex.
"From the end of the Civil War until the late 1940s, display of the battle flag was mostly limited to Confederate commemorations, Civil War re-enactments, and veterans' parades," the study read. But "In 1948, the battle flag began to take on a different meaning when it appeared at the Dixiecrat convention in Birmingham as a symbol of southern protest and resistance to the federal government — displaying the flag then acquired a more political significance after this convention." Then it became associated with the fight to preserve segregation and racist violence, waved by Alabama Gov. George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan.
Once again, the flag, the concept of state defiance of the federal government, and a wicked institution were all wrapped together. In breaking down segregation, the federal government claimed vast new powers that it exerted in other areas, and the U.S. Supreme Court augmented Washington's ability to regulate activity through the Commerce Clause.
To this day, any argument modern conservatives try to make about restrictions on federal power inevitably leads back to the question of whether the same principle of federal restraint should have allowed segregation to persist. Conservatives who try to defend the flag (or who are afraid to criticize it) are only reinforcing the perception that supporters of limited government don't really care about the historical or modern day struggles of black Americans.
Even though the flag no longer rests on the top of the South Carolina capitol dome, it still remains on the grounds of the capitol, serving as an ugly reminder of dark legacies in American history that continue to haunt the nation and damage the cause of limited government. It's long past time to tear down this flag.