Virginia’s Confederate History Month Debacle

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell should have realized that issue a proclamation celebrating April as Confederate History Month would quickly turn him into a political lightening rod. But he went on with it anyway. And he forgot to mention something — that whole slavery bit.

We’ll he’s apparently wizened up enough to make an apology and add a section to his proclamation recognizing the wrongness of slavery and its role in the Civil War.

The Politico has McDonnell’s statement:

The proclamation issued by this Office designating April as Confederate History Month contained a major omission. The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed. The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation. In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly approved a formal statement of “profound regret” for the Commonwealth’s history of slavery, which was the right thing to do.

When I signed the Proclamation designating February as Black History Month, and as I look out my window at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, I am reminded that, even 150 years later, Virginia’s past is inextricably part of our present. The Confederate History Month proclamation issued was solely intended to promote the study of our history, encourage tourism in our state in advance of the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and recognize Virginia’s unique role in the story of America. The Virginia General Assembly unanimously approved the establishment of a Sesquicentennial American Civil War Commission to prepare for and commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the War, in order to promote history and create recognition programs and activities.

As Virginians we carry with us both the burdens and the blessings of our history. Virginia history undeniably includes the fact that we were the Capitol of the Confederacy, the site of more battlefields than any other state, and the home of the signing of the peace agreement at Appomattox. Our history is perhaps best encapsulated in a fact I noted in my Inaugural Address in January: The state that served as the Capitol of the Confederacy was also the first in the nation to elect an African-American governor, my friend, L. Douglas Wilder. America’s history has been written in Virginia. We cannot avoid our past; instead we must demand that it be discussed with civility and responsibility. During the commemoration of the Civil War over the next four years, I intend to lead an effort to promote greater understanding and harmony in our state among our citizens.”

The irony here is that earlier proclamations of a similar sentiment contained a mention of slavery, and McDonnell actually omitted that statement in his own comments because he didn’t think it was that important. Idiot.

Clifton B. at Another Black Conservative takes issue with the governor’s lack of concern over the slavery issue:

Slavery played such a major role in the Civil War era; its omission gives a very distorted image. It makes the proclamation read like revisionist history and isn’t that the very thing we are forever catching the left trying to do? People obliviously had legitimate gripes about this omission. When asked about it McDonnell really made matters worse with his reply:

There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.

Slavery wasn’t significant to Virginia? I am not one who gets offended at the drop of a hat, but that answer is offensive. I find it offensive because I do not view my people’s past from a position of weakness, shame or embarrassment. I view it from a position of strength.  That part of black history is a testament to black people’s ability to overcome unspeakable hardship and to go on to thrive. To remove slavery from the discussion, we lose sight of how far blacks like Obama, Condi Rice, Colin Powell or Clarence Thomas have come. We also lose sight of how far America has advanced from its troubled past.

Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy comments on the initial proclamation:

The proclamation omits the anti-slavery language from Gov. James Gilmore’s 1999 proclamation. (Gilmore was the last Republican Virginia governor before McDonnell — the two governors after that were Democrats.) Here’s Gilmore’s anti-slavery language; the 2010 Alabama Confederate History Month declaration has a weaker version:

WHEREAS, our recognition of Confederate history also recognizes that slavery was one of the causes of the war; and

WHEREAS, slavery was a practice that deprived African-Americans of their God-given inalienable rights, which degraded the human spirit, is abhorred and condemned by Virginians, and was ended by this war ….

My views here are similar to those of Paul Mirengoff on Power Line: “This attempt to give Virginia a pass on the issue of slavery is historically untenable and, I must add, rather offfensive.

“It also seems like bad politics…. Republicans may be on the verge of gaining a share of national power, but the electorate still has justifiable reservations about whether the Party deserves power. McDonnell’s decision won’t inspire confidence.”

Whatever the merits of Confederate soldiers as soldiers — and I’m sure there were many — the fact is that they fought on the side of the slave states, in a war that was in large part about preserving slavery. Jefferson Davis, who presided over the Confederacy from Richmond, Virginia, made this part of his motive quite clear, in the passage that begins:

[Mississippi] has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.

It seems to me that an acknowledgment of the slavery in which the ancestors of nearly 20% of all Virginians were held — the slavery that was ended by the defeat of the Confederacy — is the least that needs to be included in any Confederate History Month proclamation.

Well, McDonnell has amended his proclamation to include a statement about slavery. I’m not sure how much good it will do him politically, as the damage seems to be done. And I’m sure the Democrats will demonstrate their own love of revisionist history by ignoring the fact that the Democratic Party essentially started the Civil War through its desperate attempts to preserve the institution of slavery, and instead attempting to use the debacle to associate conservatives with slavery and racism. Oh, the irony.

The whole Confederate Pride movement boggles me. Yes, the Confederacy is an important part of history, especially to a state like Virginia. And that history should be studied and explored. But to take pride in it? To be proud that your ancestors fought a great battle against the United States, primarily to protect an institution that allowed other people to be owned as property, which they then lost? I can see being proud to fight in a losing war if your cause was just, but this cause wasn’t just.

And yes, slavery was central to the Civil War. Legally it centered on a states’ rights argument, but that argument was invoked in order to preserve slavery. (Incidentally, I think that was the last time Democrats supported states’ rights.) Here’s a Reason Magazine article from 2001 on the subject. A tidbit:

In 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, [Confederate Vice President Alexander H.] Stephens bluntly declared that slavery was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution.” He said the United States had been founded on the false belief that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, in contrast, had been “founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural moral condition.”


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