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."
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
But he had a point that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) might
have been wise to ponder before Tuesday, when he proclaimed April as
Virginia's "Confederate History Month."
Just what is it, exactly, that Governor McDonnell is proposing to
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
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
"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. …