|Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.|
(The American Constitution Society (ACS))
Those who defend South Carolina’s continuing decision to fly the Confederate flag often claim the flag stands for states’ rights, not slavery and racism. South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford argued last night that some people see the flag as “a symbol of heritage, a symbol of states’ rights.” People are of course entitled to have an opinion, but the idea that the Confederate flag stands for states’ rights is not an opinion, it is a distortion of historical fact -- a dangerous distortion, because it can be used as cover by racists who seek to sanitize their hateful views.
The reality is that, as historian Eric Foner says, “slavery was the fundamental cause of the civil war.” The Confederate states subordinated states’ rights to the central goal of preserving slavery and white superiority. The evidence supporting this reality is clear and compelling. The Confederate constitution contained a federal supremacy clause closely modeled on the federal supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution, declaring that: “This Constitution, and the laws of the Confederate States made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the Confederate States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” In other words, the individual states making up the Confederacy did not enjoy the unfettered ability to make their own laws. When a state law conflicted with the Confederate constitution or a law passed by the Confederate Congress, the state law would yield.