McDonnell Confederate history storm: slavery, treason, and true Southern courage
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s controversial proclamation of Confederate History Month should help us remember the South’s rebellion for what it really was.
“I am no minister of hate,” wrote the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1871. But as he watched Northerners in the years after the Civil War turn to teary-eyed embraces of their former Confederate enemies at postwar reunions and veterans’ meetings, he was appalled. “May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between ... those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.”Skip to next paragraph
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Douglass can be forgiven a certain measure of resentment toward the Confederacy. After all, he was born a slave in Maryland, escaped as a runaway in 1838, turned to a public career as an abolitionist newspaper editor and lecturer, and sent two sons to fight in the Union Army.
Just what is it, exactly, that Governor McDonnell is proposing to honor?
McDonnell’s proclamation is actually a comparatively bland statement, asking Virginians to acknowledge those “who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today.” Absent were any endorsements of states’ rights and the “Lost Cause.” It was simply a declaration that Virginia’s decision to secede from the United States and attach itself to the Confederacy in 1861 “should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians.”
The problem lies with something else McDonnell airbrushed out of his initial proclamation: slavery.
The proclamation describes the Civil War as “a four year war between the states for independence.” That is true, but it’s like saying that the Titanic sank because it filled up with water.
The proclamation only raises the question of why Virginia and the other confederate states should have yearned for independence in the first place. Twist and turn as we may, the answer to that question always comes back to this: the enslavement of 3.9 million black people.
This is not to say that other factors didn’t come into play.
The Southern states had serious grievances with their Northern counterparts over economic policies. Foreign visitors and commentators noted that Southerners had developed a distinctly different regional culture. And there was a long history of disagreements about how much political autonomy individual states possessed within the federal Union created by the Constitution.
But if slavery was not the only issue that went into the making of the Confederacy, it was unquestionably the paramount one.
None of the others would ever have brought matters in 1861 to civil war had it not been for the razor-edge given them by slavery. And you do not have to dig very far into the letters, diaries, and speeches of Confederate soldiers and civilians to find out how important the defense of slavery and white racial supremacy was to them.
“Slavery is the only base on which a stable republican government ever was or ever will be built,” announced a Nashville newspaper on the eve of secession. Although only a third of white Southern households owned slaves at the outbreak of the Civil War, as many as 50 percent of Southern households had owned a slave at some time.