I was talking to someone about the Civil War, and Lincoln and what the war meant to either side. To me, it seems clear that it was about one faction wanting to continue to exploit humans for labor and the other faction saying that no, we’re done with that and it’s time to end the “peculiar institution.”

The person argued that no, it wasn’t about slavery, it was about States’ Rights. At the time (this was a while ago) I wasn’t up on the latest white supremacy lingo, so I wasn’t as quick on my feet as I might have been, and conceded that yeah, maybe it was partly about states’ rights.

So now, we have literal Nazis marching in the streets for the right to keep monuments that honor the pro-slavery side of the civil war. And they’re arguing that the monuments aren’t about slavery, they’re about the right to self-expression, and the right to be proud of your heritage, and the right to see the Civil War as about states’ rights, while completely eliding the part where it was about slavery.

I realized, it’s like that silly tween game, where everything you say, you have to append “in bed.” But instead of appending “in bed,” append “to own people.”

Let’s play a fun game where we rewrite some of the pro-Confederacy/white supremacist arguments using this equation.

“It’s not about slavery, it’s about who gets to decide what these monuments (to owning people) really mean.”

“Robert E. Lee was a hero. He fought fearlessly for the Confederacy (‘s right to own people).

“The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights to determine their own future (which included owning people).

We demand our right to free speech and free expression. We’re entitled to admire our region’s history (of owning people).

The thing is, there’s no getting around it. Much of the wealth of this country was built on slave labor. The Southern way of life, portrayed so prettily in popular culture, was completely dependent on the forced labor of people who were owned, bought and sold by Americans.

The thing that the states wanted to be able to decide for themselves was whether or not to allow humans to own other humans. The states weren’t fighting for the right to decide what kind of ball gown showed a lady to best advantage at a cotillion. They weren’t fighting for the right to allow 4-story height buildings in residential zones. They were fighting for the very high stakes of preserving their way of life, which, by definition meant they were fighting for the right to own humans.

Right now there are millions of people in this country who don’t know their family history because they were not allowed to have families and they were not allowed to record their history. And yet we have another faction who are enraged at the idea that we might not venerate this country’s vile history of owning people.

I know the alt right assholes and their ilk don’t care. They’re actually fine with slavery and would probably like to have it back. But for anyone else who is tempted to give a pass to the “states’ rights” argument, or the “freedom of speech” argument. Make no mistake what you’re agreeing to.


Posted by lesherjennifer


  1. […] What We Really Mean by States’ Rights via ‪JenniferLesher‬.What an excellent essay. […]



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