In 1860, there was a four-way presidential election held in America, the likes of which had never been seen before, and will likely never be seen again. The winning candidate–Abraham Lincoln of Illinois–prevailed by getting a majority of the votes in the electoral college. That’s what the Constitution requires, and that’s what he did. But a handful of states couldn’t abide by those rules, so they decided to leave the game and start their own one.
Lincoln had a choice to make, upon taking the oath of office in 1861. He could recognize the doctrine of secession, and let the states go on their way, or he could ignore it and act as though nothing had happened. Lincoln chose the latter course, and in so doing committed the federal government to preserving the Union. The Civil War began, soon after that decision had been made.
The war was waged long and hard, and all states suffered terrible losses before it was over. But it ended with the understanding that states could not decide to leave the Union. The nation we live in today, all 50 states of it, are bound to follow federal laws, including accepting the outcome of presidential elections, whether their candidate wins the election or not.
I’ve lived in Illinois–the Land of Lincoln–all my life, and this has pretty much insulated me from expressions of sympathy for the Confederate cause. I watched the Dukes of Hazzard as a kid, unaware of the meaning of that flag that was painted on top of the General Lee. I’ve seen Confederate flags at flea markets in Wisconsin, which made no sense to me because Wisconsin fought on the Union side during the Civil War. And I’ve seen the flag on items in gift shops in other states. But Lincoln lost his life preserving the Union, and his martyrdom, I thought, protected his home state against any overt Confederate sympathies.
But this afternoon, in a large shopping mall near the Wisconsin border, these illusions were brought to an end. A store in the mall had a Confederate flag on display, presumably for the purposes of selling it. Although I was stunned at the sight, I was able to snap a picture of it, and it is posted above.
There is a Naval station not terribly far from the mall, and some of the other items offered for sale in the store had Naval terms on them. Apparently, a store catering to military families sees a market for the emblem of a failed attempt to bring the United States down. And that’s just what would have happened, had the Civil War ended with a different result. But thanks to Lincoln’s leadership, the Union was preserved instead.
A person who buys a Confederate flag from this gift shop in a mall in Northern Illinois–or anywhere else where this emblem might be sold–is offering their support for what? The idea that presidential elections can be disregarded by states that don’t like the results? Or the idea that America is a collection of independent states, who can decide for themselves when they’re free to leave the Union? Those ideas have already been tried and, fortunately enough for us all, defeated.
This is a symbol that belongs in the history books, instead of on the sales floor. And yet, America being what it is, it can’t be–and shouldn’t be–just legislated away. That change can only take place in the hearts and minds of Americans who appreciate, and ultimately reject, what the flag really stood for. And until that day comes, the Civil War is still with us in some sense.