Thursday, April 08, 2010

Confederate "Heritage" Month: Viginia and neo-Confederacy

Since the first year I started blogging (2003-4), I've made daily posts at my own blog every year in April as my own counter-celebration of what neo-Confederates called Confederate Heritage Month. I normally don't include those here at the Blue Voice, but this one for April 8 deals with a current political issues.

This year, Confederate "Heritage" Month became real-time national news. Virginia's Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell revived a tradition that had been discontinued by his two Democratic predecessors and issued a formal declaration establishing April 2010 as Confederate History Month in Virginia. The proclamation, originally without the fourth "WHEREAS" now included, was a stock Lost Cause, neo-Confederate document.

After getting widespread criticism for issuing a proclamation ignoring slavery and honoring only those who fought for the Confederacy, after a couple of,he apologized with a standard politician's non-apology apology, i.e., in the form of: if anyone was offended, I apologize. But what was encouraging was that he amended his proclamation to include that fourth WHEREAS, which is striking for violating the cardinal tenet of the Lost Cause faith:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history; [my emphasis]
This expressly rejects the core notion of Lost Cause dogma, that slavery had nothing, nothing, nothing to do with causing the Civil War. Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory writes in Understanding Governor McDonnell’s Apology 04/07/10:

I think it’s safe to say that this is not what the Sons of Confederate Veterans had in mind when they asked the governor to reinstate the proclamation. Let’s face it the last few years have not been kind to the SCV; consider the recent controversy surrounding their attempt to place a statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber next to the Lincoln-Tad statue at Tredegar in Richmond. I was surprised that the governor decided to wade into these waters after two previous administrations decided to discontinue the practice. McDonnell could have set aside April as a month to remember the Civil War in a way that was much more inclusive rather than resorting to the old Lost Cause saw.

While the governor’s change of heart will be applauded by some let’s not delude ourselves in thinking that McDonnell happened to pick up a book by Ira Berlin or David Blight and had one of those moments of insight. These statements and subsequent decisions must be understood as political. We should remember that the Civil War memory outlined in the original proclamation would have gone unchallenged only a few decades ago and it would have gone unchallenged because it reflected the view of the ruling class.
Wait, did he say ruling class? Kevin, you naughty boy, Glenn Beck will not approve of you!

My own comment at Kevin's first post on the topic, prior to the amended version, was: The Confederate rebellion was also, you know, massive armed treason against the United States of America. Including by many military officers who had sworn allegiance to their country, the United States. And as Confederates, they were very proud and conscious of defending “our sacred institutions of slavery and white supremacy”, as the popular phrase went. If we’re going to honor them for their abstract qualities of courage and devotion to homeland and so forth, it seems more than appropriate to recognize what they themselves were proudly fighting for: treason in defense of slavery. But that doesn’t sound nearly so pretty as “the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities.” How do we “honor” the memory of men , especially the leaders in the civilian government and the Confederate military, by making up a pretty lie that obscures what they consciously and “honorably” stood for?

This sparked a discussion over whether the Confederates should be considered traitors, and how their actions related to the American Revolution against the British Empire. I replied with the following on that subject.

I don't see the point in splitting hairs about whether the Confederate rebellion was treason. It clearly was. And anyone actively participating in it could have been prosecuted for treason to the United States. Jefferson Davis was indicted for treason but wasn't tried. There's a good argument to be made that post-Civil War history would have run a more democratic course if the federal government had indicted and prosecuted a number of the key leaders on treason charges.

Everyone North and South clearly understood the Confederates were committing treason against the United States of America and doing so in defense of their "sacred institution" of slavery. It doesn't help understand either the Civil War or its lasting implications to try to put some nice spin on that ugly reality.

I don't agree that the American Revolutionary cause and the Confederate cause were somehow substantially parallel. The 13 colonies were, well, *colonies* that time and shared experience had turned into a nation. The colonies were never a full part of the English nation. They fought for national independence and democratic freedom, not to destroy the government in London of England itself. Yes, they were betraying the British King. And it's doubtful in the extreme if the British would have been so lenient on those traitors as the Andrew Johnson administrator was to those of the Confederacy, who killed far more American soldiers that the rebelling colonists killed redcoats.

The Confederate slaveowners justified their revolt to preserve slavery by invoking the precedent of the Revolutionary War. But it was a false use of history. The Confederate states was not colonies of the United States, they were an integral part of the United States and fully represented in the national government like all the other states. Actually, that understates their influence: the 3/5 rule in the Constitution gave the white voters of the future Confederate states a slave premium in their representation in the House, even though neither slaves nor free blacks could actually vote in those states. And the Confederates were fighting to restrict freedom - including freedom for white citizens - not to expand it, as the American Revolutionaries did.

But they did use the American Revolution as propaganda justification. It was part of their own national heritage - as part of the United States.

There's been a whole lot of blogging going on about this, so I'm giving some of the links here:

More from Kevin at Civil War Memory: Why We Need Cenantua More Than Ever 04/08/10; Governor McDonnell Apologizes 04/07/10; Dear Gov. McDonnell: Confederate History Month is Not “Shared History” 04/05/10

Gabriel Winant, Bob McDonnell's civil war -- and ours Salon 04/08/10

Robert Farley, Progress on the Treason-in-Defense of Slavery Front Lawyers, Guns and Money 04/07/10

Digby, The Other Neo-Cons 04/08/10

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