Virginia Makes the Right Call on Confederate Flag License Plates

The government should be able to control what its own documents say.


“An increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery,” declared South Carolina in its articles of secession, “has led to a disregard of their obligations.” The declaration continued to upbraid the non-slave states on the subject: “They have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery. … They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes … (and have elected) a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”

Texas, too, complained in its declaration of secession that the Northern states had trampled upon its “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color. … They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy … and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us.”

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slaveryâ€"the greatest material interest of the world,” said Mississippi in its own secession statement. Virginia’s complained of the federal oppression of “the Southern slaveholding states.” Georgia’s secession document referred to slavery 35 times.

Southern partisans who insist the South was defending only states’ rights are wrong in two ways. They were not defending states’ rights in the abstractâ€"but rather a particular state right: the right to maintain a system of slavery. More important, however, is this: They were not defending states’ rights at all. Individuals have rights. States don’t. The South was fighting to preserve state authority. Secessionists wanted to preserve the authority of state governments to enforce an inhumane legal regime.

Hence Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is quite right to direct that the Confederate flag be removed from Virginia specialty license plates. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued to have the flag included on their specialty plates, and in 2002 the 4th Circuit ruled in their favor. But as a Supreme Court decision last week made clear, license plates are essentially government identification tags, like Social Security cards or driver’s licenses. The government should be able to control what its own documents say.

McAuliffe’s decision arrived a day after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and some other Republicans called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds in the wake of the massacre by a white supremacist at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The flag originally had been placed on top of the capitol dome in 1962, partly as a symbol of defiance against the civil rights movement.

To Confederate partisans, the flag represents “heritage, not hate” because it honors the valor of ancestors who fought and bled for their homes and families. But people can fight bravely in defense of ignoble causes, and their individual virtue does not change the nature of the cause.

Now we come to the slippery-slope argument: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves. The United States tolerated slavery for eight decades and the Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional apportionment. Should we tear down the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument, strike the American flag, stop revering the Constitution?

Questions like those turn the slippery slope into a reductio ad absurdum; the fact that distinctions are not absolute does not mean the distinctions do not exist. If Jeffrey Dahmer and the Dalai Llama both run a red light, that does not mean the Dalai Llama is just another Jeffrey Dahmer. Washington’s slaveholding is a deep mark against him, but it is not his defining characteristicâ€"whereas slavery was the defining characteristic of the pre-Civil War South. Washington and Jefferson helped found a nation dedicated to the principles of liberty and justice for all. By contrast, as Max Boot noted Monday in The Weekly Standard, Jefferson Davis “helped to plunge this country into a civil war that left as many as 800,000 dead in a fruitless quest to ensure that slavery would remain legal.”

Monuments may honor the dead for their deeds without endorsing the broader cause for which they fought. But the Confederate battle flag is the standard of the Confederate cause, which was laid out plainly in the Southern states’ declarations of secession. McAuliffe could not have issued his directive until last week’s Supreme Court decision, and that is too badâ€"because the rebel flag should have been consigned to museums 15 decades ago.