Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Whitewashing Virginia's history

The governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell has issued a proclamation to recognize Confederate History Month celebrating Confederate heritage while ignoring the issue of slavery.
Instead, Mr. McDonnell's proclamation chose to omit this, declaring instead that Virginians fought "for their homes and communities and Commonwealth." The words "slavery" and "slaves" do not appear.

Even more incendiary is the proclamation's directive that "all Virginians" must appreciate the state's "shared" history and the Confederacy's sacrifices. Surely he isn't including the 500,000 Virginia slaves who constituted more than a quarter of the state's Civil War-era population, who cheered the Union and ran away to it when they could.
The governor's explanations are quite lame.
McDonnell said he did not include a reference to slavery because "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."
While such a move might appeal to those Virginians who are still motivated by pride in their Confederate heritage, it betrays an ignorance about the history of his state. Virginia was primarily concerned with its status as a slave-holding state and its concern that the Lincoln administration and Republicans would work to limit the spread of slavery. If Governor McDonnell doesn't understand this, he should get a little remedial education. He could read some of the resolutions adopted by the Virginia Secession Convention. For example, consider this resolution and then try to convince an impartial observer that slavery wasn't at the heart of Virginia's decision to secede.
Resolved by the general assembly of Virginia, that this commonwealth and the rest of the southern states have just cause of complaint against the non-slaveholding states, for their unfriendly legislation, in attempting to render worthless, constitutional provisions for the rendition of fugitives from labor; in obstructing the execution of constitutional laws; in imprisoning our citizens, and imposing oppressive penalties upon them for asserting in those states their legal rights; in denying the usual comity of nations--the mere right of transit through their territory with property legally acquired and rightfully held under our state constitutions, and guaranteed to us by the constitution of the United States; in endeavoring, by teachings, by declarations from the pulpit, from the hustings and in public meetings, to instill into the minds of our slaves feelings calculated to produce domestic insurrection among us, annoying by their constant repetition, and jeoparding our peace and safety; by the industrious circulation of incendiary publications to produce discord and division in our midst, and incite to midnight murder and every imaginable atrocity against an unoffending community; by their openly avowed determination to circumscribe the institution of slavery within the territory of the states now recognizing it; by subscribing money, paying for arms and munitions of war, and encouraging fanatics to invade our territory and subvert our government; by a persistent denial of the equal rights of the citizens of each state to settle with their property in the common territory acquired by the blood and treasure of all; and finally, in the election, by a sectional majority of the free states alone, to the first office in the republic, of the author and advocate of the sentiments--which he is pledged to carry into his administration of the government--that the states of this Union must be all free or all slave states; that all of the territories belonging equally and in common to the states of this confederacy, shall be forever devoted to freedom; and that slavery shall be put in the course of ultimate extinction: And in our deliberate judgment, such systematic opposition denotes a hostility which imperiously demands the most prompt and decisive action on the part of the states aggrieved, to remedy the evil, and if possible to restore friendly intercourse and fraternal regard and affection among the people and the respective state governments.
As respected Civil War historian James McPherson said in response to McDonnell's proclamation,
"I find it obnoxious, but it's extremely typical. The people that emphasize Confederate heritage and the legacy, and the importance of understanding Confederate history, want to deny that Confederate history was ultimately bound up with slavery. But that was the principal reason for secession -- that an anti-slavery party was elected to the White House. . . . And without secession, there wouldn't have been a war."
McDonnell might claim that his statement is in anticipation of the 150-year anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War which starts next year. I know that Virginia is devoting a lot of effort on education and tourism for the 150-year anniversary, but that doesn't mean that they have to ignore the full history. Those tourists who are interested in coming to Virginia to study Civil War history wouldn't be deterred by an honest gubernatorial proclamation. Let's face it, no one would care about this proclamation if McDonnell had followed the pattern of both previous Republican and Democratic governors who had issued such proclamations that included a condemnation of slavery. Instead, McDonnell, who conducted a model campaign for governor will now waste time trying to explain away his myopic celebration of Confederate heritage.

UPDATE: Governor McDonnell apologizes for leaving out slavery and amends his proclamation.