Right, But for Wrong Reason
In proclaiming April a Confederate history month without mentioning slavery, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell was right, but for the wrong reason.
The war of brothers had less to do with slavery than the bind Southern states felt themselves in. They felt themselves under political heat; Abraham Lincoln’s election was the last straw for them. His new Republican Party’s emphasis on the “peculiar institution,” as slavery was called, served notice, once in power; it would abolish the very economic foundation of the states below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation was not announced until 22 months after South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter. In the days after Gettysburg, the president invoked the proclamation as a way of crippling the enemy, recognizing Robert E. Lee had pulled off a remarkable accomplishment by managing to extract his army from the stunning battlefield loss.
In March 1861 when the first Republican administration was sworn in, what came to be known as the Old South was reeling from the very real danger: future states in the north and west would send to Washington representatives unfriendly to the peculiar institution. Only five weeks before Mr. Lincoln put his hand on the Bible, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state; the result of a seven years-long killing war between abolition forces, generally from Massachusetts, and those fighting to hold on to southern parity in Washington.
Irish potato famines, the 1848 European revolts and the strangling overpopulation in Italy already fueled the expansion of labor intense industries. Companies were forced to recruit abroad, paying the tickets for workers that were bound to work for years to pay off passage for them and their families. The generally agricultural south had no such industries or needs, which made them very dependent on slavery that a growing number of nations made illegal.
In addition, the up and down nature of weather made the living from the ground peculiarly precarious. As a result, plantation owners found themselves in tremendous debt to commercial banking establishments that fed off the money generated by the new industries. Losing political strength portended bankruptcy was widely believed.
Lesser men, scraping by a living in that slave economy, suffered from violent xenophobia; first and second generation Anglo-Saxon immigrants retained the deep mistrust of anyone who talked “funny,” northerners as well as foreigners. Those deep in the mountains of the Carolinas and Georgia never came down to wear Confederate gray; scattered patches of the region clung to the Union, no matter the pressures.
For these reasons, Governor McDonnell was right. But he was grievously wrong in ignoring the feelings of descendents of slaves and so-called liberals. His own Republican Party was directly responsible for the notion the Civil War was all about free slaves; in the post-war years the GOP dominated national politics by waving a “bloody shirt” over the claim, while accommodating the violation of the newly emancipated citizens civil rights.
In Sunday’s Washington Post, the former editor of The Los Angeles Times editorial page chiefly revealed his ignorance and personal prejudice by writing that while he settled in Virginia he absolutely refused to treat Robert E. Lee as anything but a traitor. Unfortunately, he proposed to raise his California-born child in the same narrow-mind tradition.
Under pressure from all sorts of Civil Rights organizations, the governor agreed the proclamation should have covered the peculiar institution’s existence in Virginia at the time of what Confederates proclaimed as their Second War for Independence. The final blow to his omission was delivered by the African American president whose ancestors included no slaves. Barack Obama responded to an opening made more opportune by the constant assaults received by Republicans of the same stripe as Mr. McDonnell.
While GOP leaders sprung, naturally, to the governor’s defense, in fact few can really believe his failure to mention slavery was unintentional; the omission seems brutally intentional because of the support Virginia blacks give to the Democratic Party, especially since the nation elected Mr. Obama.
In the same category: Bob McDonnell’s new order that non-violent criminals can regain their right to vote only if they submit an essay listing the good things they have done for society. To any fair eyes, the order seems intended for the same target – for the same reason – the Republican governor omitted slavery from his Civil War proclamation.
As I have attempted to present an interpretation of facts that support his omission, I tried to point out his reason was wrong.