by Myles Kantor
Cornel West is a proficient pyrotechnist. The prolific Harvard professor never lacks crisp intonation and sports a ruminative countenance bordering on histrionic. Advocacy enters the realm of performance for West, which accords with his affection for Jazz. (One of his exemplars is John Coltrane.)
Embellishment is a potentiality in any performance, and West suffers no dearth in this area – his February 3 appearance on C-SPAN's Washington Journal case in point. West opined on the barbarity of capital punishment, corporate unaccountability, and other topics befitting a self-described "radical democrat." (Fellow black public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson of DePaul University also describes himself as a radical democrat. Both are involved with the Democratic Socialists of America. Robin D.G. Kelley of New York University more bluntly describes himself as an anticapitalist.)
The most interesting parts of West's appearance were when he discussed the Confederacy vis-à-vis Attorney General John Ashcroft and Georgia's recent state flag alteration. That West did not consider the Confederacy meritorious is no surprise. (For a counterpoint, see Professor Walter Williams's interview in the Fourth Quarter 1999 issue of Southern Partisan – yes, the same publication that received so much limelight during the Ashcroft hearings.)
West described the Confederacy as "an attempt to snuff out American democracy" and "an organized, violent insurrection to overthrow the US government." He added, "The Capitol that we now see would have been burned down [had the Confederacy prevailed]. It would have been in Richmond."
This is embellishment and beyond. While West's hyperbole may be dismissed as extemporaneous extravagance, concern for historical integrity calls for a closer look.
West misrepresents two key matters: the nature of secession and the Confederacy's objectives. With regard to the former, West conflates a state's withdrawal from the Union with revolution against the Union.
The conflation is erroneous. As Garry Wills (no pro-Confederate) observes in A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, "Secession differs…from revolution…The revolutionary does not withdraw from the state and leave it standing. He overthrows it at its base." In this vein, Wills writes of colonial withdrawal from the Crown:
"The American Revolution was more properly an act of secession than a real revolution. We did not remove King George from his throne or dissolve the Parliament in London. We did not replace them with a new government of our own creation. We simply took our colonies out of the empire – which continued on its course without us – as twentieth-century nations have seceded from colonial powers in Europe."
Likewise, Southern withdrawal from the Union did not contemplate Lincoln's removal from office. On the contrary, it was aversion to Lincoln's presidency that sparked secession. Sanguinary subversion was precisely not what motivated the secessionists, rather separation from the Republican administration. Lincoln's presidency continued in the South's absence, as did the Union.
West's misrepresentation of Confederate objectives is no less severe. By his lights, the Richmond government sought hegemony over its opponents – an Empire of Dixie, as it were.
Jefferson Davis summarized the Confederate cause in his Message to the Confederate Congress on April 29, 1861: "[W]e seek no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the States with which we were lately confederated; all we ask is to be let alone; that those who never held power over us shall not now attempt our subjugation by arms." Indeed, Robert E. Lee invaded Northern territory, but this counteroffensive aimed to hasten cessation of hostilities and secure an autonomous Confederacy; it was not a prelude to an imperial campaign. Had Confederate independence been recognized through a peace settlement, Washington and Richmond would have coexisted just as they did during the war. (The desirability of such coexistence is discrete from the relationship between the two governments; the upshot here is that U.S. recognition of the Confederacy would not have meant sovereign forfeiture, i.e., political subjugation by the Richmond government.)
Appreciation of secession's character and the Confederacy's political aspirations does not entail endorsement of Southern secession or the Confederacy. However, discourse over the resonant and watershed period of 1861-1865 cannot occur when these rudimentary elements are distorted. West's contributions only reinforce falsehood.
Myles Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.