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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 11/11/21

Racism, Historical Fact, and 'The Lost Cause'

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"If this nation doesn't kill racism, racism will kill this nation." (S. Jonas, Aug., 2018)

Confederate Reunion Parade Richmond. In honor of the .Lost Cause,. of course.
Confederate Reunion Parade Richmond. In honor of the .Lost Cause,. of course.
(Image by Wikipedia (, Author: Edyth Carter Beveridge)
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The tradition of the use of racism as a political weapon by the Republican Party can be traced back to its founding in the 1850s on the wreckage (over the issue of slavery) of the Whig Party (see: "Xenophobia and Racism: They're in the Republican Party's DNA" Click Here ). As is well-known, the use of political racism has been brought to its highest peak by Trump and his key role in transforming the modern Republican Party into the Republo-fascist Party (see the references for a series of columns by me on this subject at: Click Here).

As almost day-by-day the Republicans implement one proto-fascist strategy-in-law all over the country (e.g., voter suppression-legislation), we are now seeing a next step in the developing fascist revolution, the clear threat of the use-of-force against political opponents, even by elected members of the government --- as in Paul Gosar's threat to kill Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. Note too that the proposed victim is a member of a U.S. national minority: the threat of the user of violence for political purposes, against a minority --- no coincidence.

By the way, note the reaction of the Republican political leadership to this outrage. Crickets. In Nazi Germany this sort of thing --- assassination of political enemies --- came to its high point on "The Night of the Long Knives," June 30, 1934, in which Hitler got rid of even Nazi Party members [and leaders] who weren't quite on board with him (ring a bell?). So, we have racism and threats-of-the-use-of-violence against specific political enemies, coming from the Republicans. And why should there not be this escalation of the modern Republican Political Racism which began with Goldwater in the 1960s? It is essential to their survival as a political party with political power.

As an example of the use of racism politically, in the most recent elections, in many parts of the country, racism paid a major part of the Republican "platform." "Critical Race Theory," CRT, (which I am sure virtually no Republican, both lay and political operative/candidate, understands) played a major role. It was used as a battering, racist, ram by the Repubs. As it happens, CRT is simply a method, developed by a group of academics back in the 1970s, for studying the role of race and racism in U.S. history. CRT is not about substance, per se, but about method.

But given the history of the U.S., in which, for example, race and racism were built into the Constitution, the method quickly does get to substance in the hands of many of its users. (See, e.g., The 1619 Project.) Of course, it doesn't have to, but in current U.S. Republican politics, "CRT" has become shorthand for "they're indoctrinating our children with all sorts of stuff that is entirely unfair, inappropriate, unsuitable, and just dead wrong --- we are NOT racists; we just don't want our children exposed to any history or evidence that might indicate that we are."

Now as it happens, accompanying these political strategies and tactics is a (so far) subtle revival of the post-Civil War "Myth of the Lost Cause." As a (referenced) book by that name says:

" The Myth of the Lost Cause was a constructed historical narrative on the causes of the Civil War. It argued that despite the Confederacy losing the Civil War, their cause was a heroic and just one, based on defending one's homeland, state's rights, and the constitutional right to secession.

"The Myth of the Lost Cause may have been the most successful propaganda campaign in American history. For almost 150 years it has shaped our view of the causation and fighting of the Civil War. As discussed in detail in prior chapters, the Myth of the Lost Cause was just that, a false concoction intended to justify the Civil War and the South's expending so much energy and blood in defense of slavery."

It was developed in the 1890's, declined at about the time of the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960, but it has never really gone away. Its persistence in the political consciousness in certain parts of the country (just guess which ones) is in line with the hypothesis that the South actually won the civil war. This is a subject on which I have been writing (in short form) since 2009 (more recently in 2018). Heather Cox Richardson, Prof. of History at Boston College, published a very important book on the subject in 2020. My own thesis on how the South won can be boiled down to this:

1. Chattel slavery is of course long-gone, but for a century it was replaced by "Jim Crow," and Blacks are still majorly discriminated against socio-economically. terms in the South, it existed on a certain level well into the last century.

2. Since the end of the War, The Dogma of White Supremacy continued to dominate the national political stage.

3. North American Continental Imperialism ended with the accession to statehood by Arizona in 1912. However, expansion beyond the boundaries of North America began with the annexation of Hawaii (1898) and has literally or figuratively continued since.

4. The "states' rights" basis of allotting seats in the United States Senate (which was of course put into the Constitution purely for the benefit of the slave-holding states) as well as votes in the Electoral College has of course continued, and current Republican policy is making it even worse.

5. A major element of Southern politics was the use of the Big Lie Technique. First that Africans and African-Americans were inferior beings, not "human." Second, that the Civil War, initiated by the Forces of Secession in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861, was about "Southern Freedom." That of course included the freedom to maintain slavery, and to expand it into the Western Territories, without too much in the way of limitations.

6. At the same time that the CSA was fighting so bitterly and for so long primarily to defend the institution of slavery, it was able to get several hundred thousand poor white farmers and laborers to give their lives in the cause. How? By using the Doctrine of White Supremacy to convince them that they were indeed fighting for "freedom."

7. Central to the "Lost Cause" false narrative, the war was not a rebellion, but rather a "War Between the States," or, as a recent President of the NRA referred to it "The War of Northern Aggression," or "Abraham Lincoln's War," or "The War for Southern Independence."

And now we are seeing the revival of the "Lost Cause" doctrine, in modern dress, that is, once again, that the War was really about "states' rights," and "Southern freedom," as noted above. (That the "rights" and the "freedoms" included the maintenance and the expansion of slavery, is conveniently forgotten.) It also included the elements in item 7 just above, terms which are still being used by a variety of defenders of the "Southern Way of Life," such as a fairly recent President of the National Rifle Association.

But now comes along a Professor at the Harvard Law School, one Noah Feldman, who in an Op-Ed in The New York Times, makes a series of arguments about the Civil War that fit right into the "Lost Cause" narrative. The column is entitled "Lincoln Broke the Constitution."

Right up front he says: "Lincoln fatally injured the Constitution of 1787. . . . He consciously and repeatedly violated core elements of that Constitution as they had been understood by nearly all Americans of the time, himself included. Through those acts of destruction, Lincoln effectively broke the Constitution of 1787, paving the way for something very different to replace it."

Really? Golly gee. I guess I have just been reading history the wrong way, or maybe I've gotten my facts wrong all these years. But as I understand it, after Lincoln's election as President, in a four-way race in which there were actually two southern parties, the Southern Democrats, and the Constitutional Union Party, on Dec. 24, 1860, well before his scheduled Inauguration on March 4, the state of South Carolina announced its secession from the Union, then followed in order by ten other Southern states.

As it happens, the process of secession is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. So golly gee (again), I wonder who might be considered to be a "breaker" of the Constitution? By Feb. 8, 1861, again before Lincoln had been inaugurated, ten other Southern sates had undertaken the non-Constitutional step of seceding from the Union, to form the Confederate States of America. Same question.

Now I am not a law school professor. I did take at course in Constitutional law in my last semester at Columbia College in 1958, I did attend law school for a year [at night] just for fun (and it was, believe it or not, for me) while on a sabbatical (although I did not take the Constitutional Law course, which comes in the 2nd year), and I did write a book about the Constitution called The 15% Solution: How the Republican Religious Right Took Control of the U.S., 1981-2022 (in which at the fictional convention for the Restoration of Constitutional Democracy that occurs at the end of the Second Civil I rewrote the current version to make it more democratic). Indeed, as I said, I was not a law school professor (rather am a medical school professor emeritus), much less at Harvard, but, it should be noted, I did graduate from the Harvard Medical School.

And so, when I read something that says that "Lincoln Broke the U.S. Constitution" (the title of Prof. Feldman's column) and I then look at the facts of secession outlined above, I again think "who was breaking it, and since he wasn't President yet, it couldn't have been Lincoln anyway."

Then Prof. Feldman says: "The original Constitution was a complex political compromise grounded in perceived practical necessity, not moral clarity." True enough. But once again, I have read the Constitution numerous times, and for the life of me there is no secession clause in it. So, on that point, it was the Southern States, not an incoming President, who clearly was not President when the non-Constitutional CSA was formed, who broke it.

Then Prof. Feldman goes on to say that "[Lincoln] waged war on the Confederacy." Maybe my memory is failing me, but isn't it true that the opening gunshots of what became the Civil War were fired by Confederate States of America state South Carolina, on April 12, 1861? Since a member of the self-proclaimed CSA shot first, that doesn't sound much like "Lincoln's waging war on the Confederacy" (thus "breaking the Constitution").

And further, according to the good Prof., "Lincoln Broke the Constitution" by violating the provision in it for granting writs of habeas corpus, which is defined briefly as: "The writ of habeas corpus, often shortened to habeas corpus, is the requirement that an arrested person be brought before a judge or court before being detained or imprisoned." Yup. He did. That is suspend it (see just below). There were saboteurs/agents provocateurs/and-etc. all over the place. The Union was at war, started (it seems that one would need to remind the Prof again) by the South. So certain strong measures might be considered necessato be ry, in that instance.

But then further, oh my, there is the provision of the Constitution's Article One concerning this writ: "The privilege of the writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it [emphasis added." Ooops! Lincoln was not actually violating the Constitution. He was indeed following its precepts in the justification of the suspension. As it happened, the suspension-of-habeas-corpus-was-a-violation-of-the-Constitution (which it wasn't) was a major element of the "Lost Cause" myth.

By the way, there was a provision for habeas corpus in the Constitution of the CSA : "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." Sound familiar? The lesson here is that when you are going to write about history, it does pay to get the facts right.

Then, finally, "Third, and most fatefully, Lincoln came to believe that he also possessed the power to proclaim an end to slavery in the Southern states. When he finally did so, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, he eliminated any possibility of returning to the compromise Constitution as it had existed before the war." Oh dear. "It left the original Constitution in tatters." Oh really? I guess that Prof. Feldman missed this one, but the Proclamation was statement of policy, not a matter of law. Lincoln made this very clear by limiting its intended application only to the states of the Confederacy (which, again, had declared war on the United States, at Fort Sumter). Further, it specifically did not apply to the four slave states which had stayed in the Union: Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. If it had done, that would very well have been a violation of the law-making provisions of the Constitution.

The Proclamation was not regarded as law in any sense of the word, by any of the forces in the North. It was regarded as a rallying cry, a statement of policy (as I said). But again, Lincoln himself never claimed it to have the force of law. Indeed, the Congress passed the 13th Amendment ending slavery before the end of the Civil War, under very strong pressure from Lincoln. He obviously knew that if after all the sacrifice, slavery was indeed going to abolished, it needed to be done by Constitutional Amendment, not simply a proclamation.

And oh yes, there was (and still is) an Amendment Clause in the Constitution, written into it purposefully, one would assume. Indeed its use has strengthened the document over the centuries. And that's what Lincoln was using (until he was murdered --- yes, I know, "assassinated" --- but then again, the word comes from the Arabic for "political murder"). Lincoln used it. That's hardly "breaking the Constitution." My father, Prof. Harold J. Jonas, was an historian. It was he who taught me the essentials of history. Being accurate in its study is one of them.

In sum, in his essay, Prof. Feldman is revisiting, and promoting, one of the central elements of the "Lost Cause" mythology, that the War was: " 'The War of Northern Aggression,' or 'Abraham Lincoln's War,' or 'The War for Southern Independence;' " that it was all about "states' rights" and "liberty" (for whites, and especially slave-owners, only, of course). This kind of thinking of course just feeds directly into the current Republican narrative of "states' rights" and barely disguised racism.

And it is just like so many of the arguments that Republicans these days use to support their positions and policies (see "The Big Lie") that are not based on fact. So any argument that, as for example, "Lincoln destroyed the Constitution," which, as I have shown above, is simply not based on historical fact or necessity, plays right into the Republicans' hands.

As to the corrective text on the matter that I quoted towards the beginning of this column:

"The Myth of the Lost Cause was a constructed historical narrative on the causes of the Civil War. It argued that despite the Confederacy losing the Civil War, their cause was a heroic and just one, based on defending one's homeland, state's rights, and the constitutional right to secession.

"The Myth of the Lost Cause may have been the most successful propaganda campaign in American history. For almost 150 years it has shaped our view of the causation and fighting of the Civil War. As discussed in detail in prior chapters, the Myth of the Lost Cause was just that, a false concoction intended to justify the Civil War and the South's expending so much energy and blood in defense of slavery."

Again, when writing on history, first, get the facts right. Second, on matters central to contemporary political battles, be careful what you say. For who knows who might use it and how they might use it.

(Article changed on Nov 12, 2021 at 7:43 AM EST)

(Article changed on Nov 12, 2021 at 7:48 AM EST)

(Article changed on Nov 13, 2021 at 9:34 PM EST)

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a ├ éČ┼"Trusted Author,├ éČ Ł he is a Senior (more...)
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