Gov. McDonnell's airbrushing of Virginia history

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

IT WAS only in 1997, 132 years after the Civil War, that Virginia finally retired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" as its state song, acknowledging that the lyrics (including "this old darky's heart" and "old Massa") offended blacks, among others. Now, inexplicably, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has issued a proclamation that blatantly airbrushes the history of Virginia, the Civil War and the United States, again raising questions about how far the Old Dominion has evolved, or not.

It's fine that Mr. McDonnell decided to proclaim April as Confederate History Month; the Confederacy is an important chapter of history that merits study and draws tourists to Virginia. But any serious statement on the Confederacy and the Civil War would at least recognize the obvious fact -- that slavery was the major cause of the war, and that the Confederacy fought largely in defense of what it called "property," which meant the right to own slaves. 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.

As James McPherson, dean of Civil War scholars, commented on learning of Mr. 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."

It's difficult to understand why Mr. McDonnell, who in his inaugural address paid eloquent homage to former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the grandson of slaves, and spoke movingly of slavery's evils, would now trade in such glaring historical omissions. Charitably, we might suspect sloppy staff work; less charitably, we'd guess he is pandering to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that lionizes the Confederacy and pressed for the proclamation. It's possible the governor thought he was being sensitive by eliminating the obnoxious glorification of the Confederacy's "cause," a word that appeared in a similar proclamation by former governor George Allen (R), whose idea of office decor ran to Confederate flags and nooses.

If Mr. McDonnell was unable to draft a historically honest statement, the best course would have been to follow the example of his direct predecessors, former Democratic governors Timothy M. Kaine and Mark L. Warner, who sidestepped the issue. After all, Virginians have studied and recognized the Civil War for generations without instructions from the governor. And as Mr. Warner said, such proclamations are too often lightning rods that exacerbate racial wounds rather than soothe them.


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