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Virginia Governor McDonnell Apologizes for Omitting Reference to Slavery in Declaring Confederate History Month

by Professor Will Huhn on April 8, 2010

in Abraham Lincoln,Wilson Huhn

     The Washington Post reports that Governor Bob McDonnell has issued an apology for neglecting to mention slavery in his declaration of Confederate History Month.

     Governor McDonnell's original proclamation declaring April to be Confederate History Month omitted any reference to slavery.  Moreover, the Governor downplayed the significance of slavery as one aspect of the Civil War.  According to Maya Gay of aol news, the Governor:

said he chose not to include any reference to slavery because "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues," he told the Post on Tuesday. "But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia."

     McDonnell is simply wrong about this.  It is an undeniable fact that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War.  Here is what Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, said on April 29, 1861:

[T]he productions in the South of cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man. With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern states were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.

     And here are words of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, in his famous "Foundation" speech, delivered on March 21, 1861:

The prevailing ideas entertained by … most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. … Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a government built upon it — "When the storm came and the wind blew, it fell."

Our new government is built upon exactly the opposite ideas; 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 and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

     In the spring of 1861 these southern leaders gave no reason for secession other than the preservation of the institution of slavery.  It is not simply disingenguous – it is an evasion of moral responsibility – for the Governor of Virginia to pretend otherwise.  If we are to declare April to be "Confederate History Month," let us at least get that that history right.

    In a statement issued yesterday, the Governor apologized for the omission of any reference to slavery in his original proclamation and appropriately observed:

 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.

     The amended version of the proclamation is now posted on the Governor's website.

     All Americans are proud of the heroism of our soldiers in every war, including those who fought on both sides of the Civil War.  The people of the north, no less than the people of the south, stand in awe of the determination of all of our ancestors to endure and prevail in war.  Furthermore, the Civil War is one of the defining events, if not the defining event, in American history.  It is a fascinating era in any number of respects; sociologists, political scientists, military scientists, and legal scholars still mine this rich period of ferment and growth.

     In the final analysis, however, one cannot fondly recall the Confederacy.  It was a rebellion whose sole purpose was not only to perpetuate but to extend the institution of slavery.  The Confederacy did not fight for human freedom – it fought to stamp out human freedom.  It was an attempt to "blow out the moral lights around us," as Lincoln said in his first debate with Douglas.

     It is one thing to remember our ancestors and honor our soldiers.  It is quite another to commemmorate a political institution that attempted to undo the results of a Presidential election, that sought to preserve slavery, that started America's bloodiest and most destructive war, and whose very existence constituted treason against the United States of America. 

     By all means let us celebrate Virginia History Month, or Civil War History Month, or Confederate Soldiers Month.  But Confederate History Month?  Forget it.

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April 12, 2010 at 4:06 pm

{ 7 comments }

larry d. April 8, 2010 at 5:50 am

"It is quite another to commemmorate a political institution that attempted to undo the results of a Presidential election, that sought to preserve slavery, that started America's bloodiest and most destructive war, and whose very existence constituted treason against the United States of America. "

You mean a political institution like the Democrat Party?

Professor Will Huhn April 8, 2010 at 7:40 am

Why not honestly engage the issue, Larry? Is it possible to commemmorate the Confederacy – not famous generals, not Confederate soldiers, not the people of the south, but the political institution of the Confederacy – without condoning slavery? Like many other Americans I am fascinated by the Civil War, and I admire many of the people on both sides of that conflict. But the Confederate government itself was inextricably linked to the defense of slavery.
A German citizen today could be justifiably proud of the bravery exhibited by German soldiers in World War II and, as a military matter, could admire many of the achievements of the German army. A German citizen could not, however, extend that sense of admiration to the Nazi regime itself without sacrificing any shred of moral integrity. One simply cannot overlook the evil that government was guilty of. Similarly, southerners today may be justifiably proud of their ancestors and their hertitage without resurrecting memories of the Confederate government. It is time to fold up the Confederate flag and move forward as Americans under the Stars and Stripes.

Mike April 8, 2010 at 10:37 am

Whats next, "Japanese Interment Camp Week", or what about "Women Can't Vote Week", or "Gays can't marry month"-oh wait, that one still is a year round event.

Spread and now CELEBRATE the hate!

larry d. April 8, 2010 at 5:15 pm

You've been on a race-hate roll lately attempting to publicly tar dissenting voices, which is the main issue I see.

In any case, my question is very relevant. You could replace "confederacy" with "democratic party" in your latest response, plus add another century of Jim Crow laws and segregation to the list of sins, and it would be just as accurate.

Sure there have been some admirable democrats, but why hasn't the Democratic Party changed it's name? What legacy is it preserving? Why overlook its long history of subjugating blacks, attempting to undo the election of Abraham Lincoln, fighting lynching laws and otherwise stamping out human freedom? Why would you align yourself with such a party?

There's not much difference between "democrat party" and "confederacy" that I can see.

Dave April 8, 2010 at 5:53 pm

To say that the Civil War was about slavery is an oversimplification. It was about Federalism. Southern states did not like the Federal Government telling them what to do. There were a lot of people in the south that were neither slaves nor slave owners. Slavery was a big driver of the Federalist debate.

Quidpro April 8, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Professor,

You are correct that Slavery was the prime motivation for Southern Secession from the Union. Even if the Northern response was originally designed to preserve the Union, once war came the fight was over slavery.

One should not, however, over simplify the causes that lead to the War. Dave is correct that differing views of Federalism were a factor. Those that fought for the Confederacy also had diverse motives. General Lee for example was quite public with the fact that he was a Virginian first, and he would fight for the side with which Virginia was alligned.

I did not see the original proclamation. The amended one, to which you linked, was certinly inoffensive. If the only difference was the omission of the reference to slavery, then, at worst, the Governor is guilty of, in retrospect, a rather gross oversight. But there is nothing wrong with a month dedicated to recalling the history of the Confederacy. You would "Forget it". I would prefer, along with Santayana, not to repeat it.

Mike April 10, 2010 at 11:37 am

Yes, it was about states rights. The confederacy thought they had a right to enslave people, and did not want to listen to the federal government restricting slavery. Slavery was the reason, for the civil war. And, technically, from a constitutional standpoint, the states who claimed to secede, never truly did. There is no system in place, for a state to secede. So, technically, they never did!

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