Actually, Governor, Human Bondage Is 'Significant'

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The Nation

Actually, Governor, Human Bondage Is 'Significant'

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has stirred a controversy of historic proportions with his unsettlingly unapologetic and intellectually dishonest celebration of the Confederacy.

In declaring April to be "Confederate History Month" in the Old Dominion state, McDonnell urged his fellow Virginians 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."

But, somehow, he forgot to mention the issue that the Civil War started: The determination of those "Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens" to defend slavery -- a determination so intense that they were willing to take up arms against the elected government of the United States.

Why no mention of human bondage?

Asked about the omission, McDonnell replied that "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."

That's a crude calculus on the governor's part.

Surely, slavery is an aspect of "that conflict between the states" that many of the defenders of the Confederacy would prefer to forgot. They'd like to imagine that the Civil War was some sort of struggle about how to interpret the 10th amendment to the Constitution or "state's rights."

But not everyone in Virginia chooses, as McDonnell apparently does, to recall the state's dead-ender defenses of slavery and segregation as a positive thing. As the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch, which has endorsed McDonnell's many candidacies over the years, said Wednesday with regard to the governor's proclamation: "a hole lies in the statement's heart."

"McDonnell speaks of shared history, yet does not cite slaves. Southern heritage includes not only those who supported the Confederacy but those who welcomed the Union armies as liberators," read the newspaper's editorial. "McDonnell recognizes that the past must be interpreted within the context not only of its times but of ours. The inexcusable omission reduces the slaves and their descendants to invisibility once again."

This is no small matter for a state where slavery was so widespread, and where the sons and grandsons of slaveowners maintained segregation -- with their policy of "massive resistance" to federal law -- deep into the 1960s.

One hundred and fifty years ago, on the eve of the Civil War, Virginia plantation masters and their kind owned almost half a million slaves as "human chattel." Virginia slaveholders separated families, sold off children, whipped, beat, raped and murdered their "property."

We know the details of what Virginia's Confederate soldiers fought to defend from the remarkable work of writers and journalists who, under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration, traveled the south in the 1930s to interview aging former slaves about what Virginia-born Emma Crockett referred to as the "bad times."

The story of slavery was never insignificant to those who survived what can and should be understood as a crime against humanity.

It will not soon be insignificant to the great mass of their descendents.

Nor is the memory of the struggle against slavery -- and the Confederate revolt that defended it -- insignificant to the millions of Americans who proudly trace their bloodlines to the Union soldiers who shared Abraham Lincoln's view that slavery was "a moral, social and political evil." Just this past weekend, my daughter and I were in Galena, Illinois, visiting the home of Ulysses S. Grant and recalling how he led our Wisconsin ancestors in the Grand Army of the Republic ‘s great fight to abolish what in our family is referred to as "the sin of human bondage."

It is sometimes suggested now that the Civil War was not really about slavery. That's a convenient historical construct for those who might choose to avoid the roots of the conflict. But the construct is not grounded in historical reality. Even Lincoln, who began the war arguing that his primary goal was to preserve the Union, ultimately issued an "Emancipation Proclamation" that sought both to free the slaves and to highlight the cause for which Union soldiers believed themselves to be fighting.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln would acknowledge that: "One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. (The ownership of) these slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war."

The Civil War was about slavery.

To be sure, there were other economic, social, regional and political issues in play.

But to suggest that slavery was not a significant enough aspect of Civil War to mention in Governor McDonnell's proclamation is historical revisionism of the ugliest sort.

People For the American Way President Michael B. Keegan got it right when he said Wednesday: "Governor McDonnell's choice to celebrate Confederate History while omitting any mention of slavery is an egregious rewriting of history. Declaring that slavery wasn't ‘significant' enough to merit inclusion in his statement is an insult to the Virginians whose past was shaped by the most abhorrent policies of the Confederacy. Issuing a declaration honoring the confederacy is disturbing enough; failing to acknowledge slavery while doing it is inexcusable."

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