You Just Can’t Tip-Toe Back From The Civil War Or “Slavery It Is, Sir!”

David Frum at FrumForum:

Has anybody out there actually read the Bob McDonnell Confederate history month proclamation that is causing such a fuss?

Here it is, in full:

Confederate History Month

WHEREAS,  April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and

WHEREAS,  Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and

WHEREAS,  it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s  shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”; and

WHEREAS,   this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

Now, I yield to very few in my dislike of the Confederate cause. Grant’s verdict that the Confederacy was the worst cause for which men ever fought has been rendered obsolete by the terrible events of the 20th century. It must still count among the top 10.

That said:

It’s hard to imagine a more anodyne remembrance of the Confederacy than this issued by McDonnell. It does contain the eyebrow-raising language that the Confederates “fought for their  homes and communities and Commonwealth.” None of those things were in danger in 1861. Beyond that, however, it’s a bland invocation of the importance of studying history. There are no adjectives of praise for any Confederate leader, and the proclamation fully endorses the outcome of the war:  the return to allegiance to the United States.

More Frum:

I’ve spent much of the day thinking about McDonnell’s proclamation, and on second thought I have to walk back a little from my post below. I continue to think that McDonnell’s motive here was to tip-toe away from controversy. But on these fundamental issues of nationhood, tip-toeing just is not possible.

Paul Mirengoff at Powerline:

McDonnell’s two Democratic predecessors refused to issue this proclamation, first given by George Allen when he was governor. But those who fought for the South were mostly honorable (and in many cases even heroic) men, even though they were on the wrong side. They deserve a proclamation.

Unfortunately, McDonnell decided to remove anti-slavery language from the proclamation. George Allen’s original proclamation did not contain such language, but Gov. Jim Gilmore added it. McDonnell explained its omission from his proclamation this way:
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.

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. To my knowledge, McDonnell has no problems with his base. To be sure, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has supplanted him as the base’s favorite by being out-front on certain social issues. But by keeping a lower profile, McDonnell has been able to come across, to his benefit, as a somewhat moderate figure without actually “moderating” himself.

Now he is a polarizing figure. Already, former Gov. Douglas Wilder, an African-American who has been supportive of McDonnell and who declined to endorse his opponent last year, has expressed his dismay over McDonnell’s failure to mention slavery in the proclamation.

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.

James Joyner:

I agree with McDonnell and SCV spokesman Brandon Dorsey that the legacy of the Civil War is complicated and I understand the desire to honor the sacrifices of one’s ancestors and to remind people that the war was about more than slavery and that, in any case, the men who fought it — on both sides — were motivated by other issues. Even in the north, the war was about Union, not abolition.

But proclaiming Confederate History Month, much less after it had ceased being customary, reopens old wounds while doing next to nothing to heal them.  The classic Simpsons answer, “Slavery it is, sir!” is what people will remember about the war.  And flying the Confederate flag and otherwise glorifying the war is simply offensive to most black Americans and quite a few others.   And, as Hardy Jackson, as ardent a lover of the South as any man alive, taught me, it’s simply bad manners to go around hurting people’s feelings for no good reason.

Further, while I voted for McDonnell and generally support his policies, taking this action in the way he did was simply cowardly.   If you’re going to issue a proclamation, then, damn it, have the gumption to Proclaim it.   How does timidly posting it on the website and hoping no one will notice advance the stated goals?  How the hell is it supposed to increase tourism or promote reading of history if no one knows about it?

Damon Root at Reason:

In Reason’s August/September 2001 issue, Contributing Editor Charles Oliver demolished the myth that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War. As Oliver wrote:

Just look at what those fighting the war had to say. If we do that, the lines are clear. Southern leaders said they were fighting to preserve slavery….

Perhaps the most famous statement came from Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens. In 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, 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.”

There’s plenty more along those lines. Read the whole thing here.

Perhaps somebody should hand a copy to Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, who just declared April to be “Confederate History Month” and failed to include a single reference to the crime of slavery in his official proclamation. When the Washington Post questioned him about this offensive and historically illiterate omission, McDonnell said, “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.”

Deep thoughts! Here’s something else to think about: Richmond, Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Confederacy wanted to preserve and extend the slave system. That makes slavery one of the issues that are “most significant for Virginia.”

Ed Morrissey:

As a history buff myself, I agree that it’s important to study history, but that doesn’t require a Confederacy Appreciation Month, which is what this sounds like.  McDonnell could have broadened the perspective to a Civil War History Month, which would have allowed for all of the issues in the nation’s only armed rebellion to be studied. This approach seems needlessly provocative and almost guaranteed to create problems for Republicans in Virginia and across the country.  It might have a short term effect of strengthening McDonnell’s attachment to his base, which didn’t appear to be threatened at all in the first place.

Andrew Sullivan

Matthew Yglesias:

Two points on this. One is that in 1860 about 60 percent of the human beings in Virginia were slaves and thus neither leaders nor soldiers nor citizens of the Confederacy. Why should Virginians neglect to think of them? Surely slavery was a significant part of the conflict for the 30 percent of Virginians who were slaves and did, in fact, welcome the advancing Union soldiers as liberators. Allow me to quote from Jay Winik’s April 1865:

As white Richmond retreated behind shutters and blinds, black Richmond spontaneously took to the streets. From the moment Union troops entered the city – ‘Richmond at last!’ Black Union cavalrymen shouted – crowds, the skilled and the unskilled, household servants and household cooks, rented maids and hired millworkers, jammed the sidewalks to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. No longer enslaved, they thrust out their hands to be shaken or presented the soldiers with offerings: gifts of fruit, flowers, even jugs of whiskey. Federal officers riding alongside promptly reached for the liquor bottles and smashed them with their swords. But the crowd was undaunted. Just a day earlier, they had been prohibited from smoking, publicly swearing, carrying canes, purchasing weapons, or procuring ‘ardent spirits.’ Yet now, to the sounds of ‘John Brown’s Body,’ they jubilantly waved makeshift rag banners; to the tune of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ they enthusiastically hugged and kissed the bluecoats.

Slavery obviously seemed significant to the slaves. And, of course, it was significant to the architects of rebellion as well. Here’s the first paragraph of Virginia’s ordinance of secession:

The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under said Constitition were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States:

And there you go. Of course a long and bloody war has a number of aspects, but this was primarily a conflict around the issue of slavery.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I don’t really have much to say. The GOP is, effectively, the party of willfully unlettered Utopians. It is the party of choice for those who believe global warming is a hoax, that humans roamed the earth with dinosaurs, and that homosexuals should work harder at not being gay.

That the party of unadulterated quackery also believes that Birth Of A Nation is more true to the Civil War than Battle Cry Of Freedom, is to be expected. Ignorance does not respect boundaries. It is, at times, qualified and those who know more, often struggle to say more. But people who believe that the Census is actually a covert attempt to put Americans in concentration camps, are also likely to believe that slavery was incidental to the Civil War.
This is who they are–the proud and ignorant. If you believe that if we still had segregation we wouldn’t “have had all these problems,” this is the movement for you. If you believe that your president is a Muslim sleeper agent, this is the movement for you. If you honor a flag raised explicitly to destroy this country then this is the movement for you. If you flirt with secession, even now, then this movement is for you. If you are a “Real American” with no demonstrable interest in “Real America” then, by God, this movement of alchemists and creationists, of anti-science and hair tonic, is for you.

The Huffington Post:

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s apologized on Wednesday for declaring April as “Confederate History Month,” but failing to mention slavery anywhere in his proclamation.

“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,” McDonnell said in a statement.

The newly-minted GOP governor added: “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.”

UPDATE: Jon Meacham in NYT

Matthew Yglesias in Daily Beast


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Filed under History, Political Figures

One response to “You Just Can’t Tip-Toe Back From The Civil War Or “Slavery It Is, Sir!”

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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