We Legitimize the Confederacy With Our Vocabulary

In the case of Williams v. Bruffy, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled the confederacy had no legal existence.  It said, “The  pleas aver that a confederation was formed by Virginia and other States, called  the Confederate States of America, and that under a law of this confederation,  enforced in Virginia, the debt due to the plaintiffs was sequestrated. Now, the  Constitution of the United States prohibits any treaty, alliance, or  confederation by one State with another. The organization whose enactment is  pleaded cannot, therefore, be regarded in this court as having any legal  existence.”  [96 US 176, 182]
In the case of Lamar v. Micou, the Court ruled,  “The so-called Confederate government was in no sense a lawful government, but  was a mere government of force, having its origin and foundation in rebellion  against the United States.” [112 US 452. 476]
In the case of Keppel v. Petersburg Railroad Company, a case in the  Federal Court for the District of Virginia, the Federal District Court ruling  was that the confederacy was unlawful. [14 Fed Cas. 357, 371]
Therefore, the confederacy was an illegal, illegitimate organization. This story shows us how by use of language we have been unwittingly giving it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve. “The language we turn to in describing the war, from speaking of compromise and plantations, to characterizing the struggle as the North versus the South, or referring to Robert E. Lee as a General, can lend legitimacy to the violent, hateful and treasonous southern rebellion that tore the nation apart from 1861 to 1865; and from which we still have not recovered. Why do we often describe the struggle as between two equal entities? Why have we shown acceptance of the military rank given by an illegitimate rebellion and unrecognized political entity? In recent years, historians in academia and in the public sphere have been considering these issues.”

In the article, we learn, “Historian Michael Landis suggests professional scholars should seek to change the language we use in interpreting and teaching history. He agrees with people like legal scholar Paul Finkelman and historian Edward Baptist when they suggest the Compromise of 1850 be more accurately referred to as an Appeasement. The latter word precisely reflects the sway that Southern slaveholders held in the bargain. Landis goes on to suggest that we call plantations what they really were—slave labor camps; and drop the use of the term, ‘the Union.’ A common usage in the 19th century to be sure, but now one we only use ‘the Union’ in reference to the Civil War and on the day of the State of the Union address. A better way to speak of the nation during the war, he argues, is to use its name, the United States. In the same way, we could change the way we refer to secessionist states. When we talk of the Union versus the Confederacy, or especially when we present the strife as the North versus the South, we set up a parallel dichotomy in which the United States is cast as equal to the Confederate States of America. But was the Confederacy really a nation and should we refer to it as such?”

In this video:

Professor Steven Hahn discussed how we refer to the war and to the confederacy. According to the article, “he noted that using these customary terms to tell the story of the Civil War —Hahn suggests we use “War of the Rebellion”—lends legitimacy to the Confederacy. ‘If you think about it,’ Hahn said, ‘nobody in the world recognized the Confederacy. The question is can you be a state if no one says you are a state?’ ”

The article points out President Abraham Lincoln never referred to the confederacy except as “the so-called confederacy” and he never referred to Jefferson Davis as anything but an “insurgent leader.”

And let’s consider how we refer to Robert E. Lee, the subject of many monuments being protested for and against. “And if the so-called Confederacy wasn’t a country, but rather what political scientists would call a proto-state, because not a single foreign government in the entire world recognized it as a nation-state, then could Jefferson Davis legitimately be a president? Could Robert E. Lee be a General? The highest rank Lee achieved in the United States Army was colonel, so given his role as general in service to a failed revolution by a group of rebels, how should we now refer to him? It would be just as accurate to refer to Lee, who led an armed group against national sovereignty, as an insurgent or a warlord, if not a terrorist. Imagine how different it would be for a school-age child to learn about the War of the Rebellion if we altered the language we use. When news reports about the debate over monuments say ‘Today the City Council met to consider whether to remove a statue commemorating General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army,’ what if they instead were written in this way: ‘Today the City Council debated removing a statue of slaveholder and former American army colonel Robert E. Lee, who took up arms in the rebellion against the United States by the so-called Confederacy?’ ”

So should we refer to Davis as a “president?” Should we refer to Lee and other confederate leaders as “general?” Should we recognize the military ranks given to these men by an illegal, illegitimate government?


One comment

  1. Lincoln got it right when calling them the ‘so-called confederacy’, but the story’s premise is pretty tenuous.

    The CSA did merely re-brand and install their own administrators in exiting facilities, but it did run the courts, deliver the mail, issue bonds and print money.

    and what did contemporaries think? Correspondence between the combatants addressed each other as ‘General’, et al. Captured men were treated as POWs and civilians as non-combatants, generally.

    Applying the story’s premise to broader history, when did Washington become a General? During the Revolution or after the treaty?

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