Politicians get into trouble when they try to play historian. Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia learned this lesson anew since declaring April to be Confederate History Month. A day after declaring that slavery wasn’t significant to Virginia’s Civil War history, he sounded the retreat. When he first defended his position, he said that slavery was not worth including because there were other causes for the war that were the “most significant” for the history of Virginia. A day later, when he reversed his position, he released a statement longer than the original proclamation testifying to the central role slavery played in the conflict.
This might be seen by some as a climb-down in the face of political correctness. But it was simply common sense. McDonnell’s original declaration failed by the very standards of history it cited. It argued for the observation of Confederate History Month because historical context demanded it but elided the historical context of that rather enormous thing called slavery. As a member of the party with an elephant as its mascot, the governor was not able to get a pass for ignoring the one in the room. McDonnell compounded his problem by explaining the declaration’s lack of a slavery reference on the grounds that “there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states,” he said. “Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”
This was historically nuts, politically curious, and logically inconsistent with McDonnell’s own standards for other such proclamations.
Look, for example, at the governor’s proclamation celebrating Black History Month. It celebrates lots of people who had nothing to do with Virginia, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson. It also suggests an attitude toward historical complexity that is absent from the Confederate proclamation. “It is important to learn from the many lessons of history’s failures, successes, disappointments and triumphs as we continue to pursue our Founding Fathers’ visions of liberty, justice and equality for all.”
But it was McDonnell’s previous view of history that was so hard to defend. The governor said slavery wasn’t “significant for Virginia.” There were 500,000 slaves in Virginia at the time of the Civil War. The Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, quoted in McDonnell’s proclamation, seemed to have thought slavery was a pretty important part of the war. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy and houses the largest museum devoted to celebrating the Confederacy. This year, to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the Museum of the Confederacy will host a special lecture series devoted to the topic of slavery.
This is why in 1998, former Gov. Jim Gilmore—like McDonnell and former Gov. George Allen, a Republican—amended the proclamation that Allen had first issued the year before. Gilmore added that slavery was “a practice that deprived African-Americans of their God-given inalienable rights, which degraded the human spirit,” and “is abhorred and condemned by Virginians.”
Finally, McDonnell built his proclamation on the idea that “history should not be forgotten.” What he meant, he went on to say, was that the Confederacy should be assessed in its entirety—”in the context of the time in which it took place but also in the context of the time in which we live.”
Good point. History is messy. But that’s just exactly why you have to include history. The Confederacy was led by thoroughgoing racists who wanted to keep blacks subjugated for all time because of the color of their skin. Yet its greatest general was Robert E. Lee, who argued slavery was evil. (He just thought it was an evil that Providence should lessen over time, not one that should be abruptly swept away by abolitionists—whom he also labeled “evil.”) Also, if you’re going to glorify context, don’t you also have to then observe the larger war and include the Union Army of Virginia or the hundreds of thousands of Union casualties in Virginia?
These differences among Confederates are worth studying, if for no other reason than to explore whether they are really differences. Such study may even tell us something about our current leaders: What is the difference, one might ask, between those who launch a war out of ideological zealotry and those who support that same war not for ideological reasons but because they genuinely believe it will protect their country?
Speaking of ideology: By reversing his position McDonnell brings himself back into line with conservatives who are the ones usually arguing for universal truths. That’s why George W. Bush, in his speech on slavery at Goree Island in Senegal in 2002, pointed out that placing slavery in historical context does not change the fact that slavery is a sin. “We can fairly judge the past by the standards of President John Adams, who called slavery ‘an evil of colossal magnitude,’ ” Bush said. “We can discern eternal standards in the deeds of William Wilberforce and John Quincy Adams, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln. These men and women, black and white, burned with a zeal for freedom, and they left behind a different and better nation.”
As a political move, it was hard to fathom the initial overreach. This issue has become a switch that governors throw when they come into office. Democrats turn it off—McDonnell’s two Democratic predecessors did not issue a proclamation honoring Confederate History Month—and Republicans turn it on. But the real puzzler was why McDonnell went the extra step to take out a previous Republican governor’s nod to slavery. One easy answer was that McDonnell was trying to please conservatives, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who requested the proclamation. But he wasn’t weak with his conservative base. Conservatives already like him pretty well, given that he removed from workplace-discrimination law any claim based on sexual orientation and he promises to fight federal health care legislation.
What he endangered was his image as a post-ideological “future face of the Republican Party.” McDonnell is the one conservatives point to as an example of someone who can govern without becoming polarizing. He flirted with becoming the opposite case: the latest proof of a party trying too hard to appease its base.
During last year’s campaign, McDonnell’s opponents tried to paint him has a closet troglodyte who would turn back the clock once he got into office. Exhibit A was his graduate thesis, in which he said working women and feminists were “detrimental” to the family. He weathered that storm by arguing that he wrote it 21 years ago and offering no hint of those unreconstructed views. After having a brief civil war with himself over the last day, he has once again come to reconstruction.