Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia finds himself in an imbroglio he neither wanted, nor intended, with his recent proclamation making April "Confederate History Month" in Virginia. Now, 50 years ago, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, this would have met with a collective "yawn" as most American's know that Virginians tend towards an overly zealous regard for their history, given that much of what is the United States today was carved out of what was originally Virginia, that the Revolutionary War was won here, that most of the Founders were Virginians, that she has produced the most Presidents, and that you can't throw a rock around here without hitting a battlefield of some sort. Every other rain storm washes up bullets and other artifacts from some conflict or another, testament to the blood that has been shed here since the country's beginning, more here than any other state. The very freedoms we take for granted and the origins of much of what we consider American "rights" such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and the bearing of arms originated in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and much of what we consider Civil War history happened right here.
So yeah, this is a place steeped in history, and even today, newcomers to the state are struck by how much history is a part of every day life here.
But Governor McDonnell's proclamation, one originally proclaimed by Governor George Allen, by his successor Jim Gilmore, ignored by the two Democrat governors that preceded McDonnell, and then reintroduced this week, omitted any reference to slavery in it's original form. The usual suspects went apoplectic and Gov. McDonnell retreated, revising the proclamation to include obligatory language about what should be patently obvious to anyone born ..oh... after 1750. That slavery is a bad thing.
His original proclamation creating April as "Confederate History Month" angered the left, and his politically correct revision angered the right, and in the end, the whole thing was a mess that pleased no one.
But lost in all this was truly "a teaching moment" -- what REALLY is Confederate history? And why on earth is it important now?
Look at the headlines: taxes, Tea Parties, lack of representative government. Then picture yourself in 1857, and you begin to understand what actually happened.
A recent discussion I had with a learned historian boiled down to one point - he had consumed nearly 3000 books on the subject, while I had not. But in all his reading, he had never asked the question if what he had read was factual -- the "50 million idiots can't be wrong" school of logic.
I freely acknowledge he was better read than I, but in this instance, it mattered not; there were objective facts he was overlooking, facts I could not fathom he'd not incorporated into his views in the course of his voluminous studies.
But this is a case where volume does not render truth. Allow me to explore an example. First, let’s assume objective Fact “A” (what Fact “A” is isn’t relative. Fact A just “is”.). Now let’s assume that only one person states “Fact “A”. He isn’t describing it, he isn’t romanticizing it, or imbuing it with evil or sinister motive. He merely states it. Then let’s assume an entire industry sprouts up, producing libraries of tomes and analyses around Fact “A”, in many cases disputing it’s objective nature, and going so far as to punish experts in the field of Fact “A” should they accept such. Does this make Fact “A” any less true? Of course not.
In the years subsequent to the War, historians wrote volumes and libraries filled to overflowing of what the war was about, and why it was fought. These historians were primarily from institutions of higher learning that were more dominant in Northern states. 600,000 people had just been slaughtered, and no one was in any mood to countenance good “intentions” on the part of the Confederate founders. The North took to “moralizing” this bloodbath on their brothers by making it about slavery. The South took to romanticizing their lost cause and their leaders. In hindsight, this was predictable, and in both cases, quite wrong.
But as noted Massachusetts abolitionist Lysander Spooner wrote in “No Treason” in 1870, “The pretense that the ‘abolition of slavery’ was either a motive or a justification for the war is a fraud of the same character with that of ‘maintaining the national honor’”.
Look at our own Revolution. We teach our children it was about Liberty and republican democracy and that Britain was an evil tyrant. Yet the fact was 80% of the colonists were more than happy staying British, if only the King would stop taxing us to death, and give us some representation in Parliament that reflected our views (sound familiar?) It wasn’t about liberty — it was about taxes. But men don’t fight and die for taxes. They will fight for higher causes, though.
During the Civil War, from the Unionists, it was the higher cause of “UNION”, to save the country. Later it was “freedom” for slaves when “union” wasn’t selling so well any more, and New Yorkers themselves threatened secession. “Liberty” was again trotted out. In the South, too, "liberty" became the cry, the irony lost on all.
It wasn’t until the North had had it’s nose bloodied and lost countless battles, two full years into the war, that Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation, which of course emancipated no one.
In Lincoln’s own words — “Things have gone from bad to worse, until I felt we had reached the end of our rope on the plan we were pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics or lose the game. I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy.” (Paul M. Angle, ed. “The Lincoln Reader”, Rutgers, 1947).
Hardly the words of a man leading some great cause to free some oppressed minority! It was a tactic to save the union, nothing more. And a none-too popular one at that.
Even his own military was against freeing the slaves — “Fighting Joe Hooker”, Commanding General of the Union Army at the time Lincoln “proclaimed” emancipation, said: “A large element of the army had taken sides antagonistic to it, declaring that THEY WOULD NEVER HAVE EMBARKED IN WAR HAD THEY ANTICIPATED THIS ACTION BY THE GOVERNMENT” (ibid. Emphasis mine – sorry for the all caps, only way to do it).
Lost in all this until recently were all these objective facts that, given the volume of reading my friend had done, and which surely must have crossed his reading desk, didn’t play nice with the long-taught “meme” that this whole conflict was about slavery and that the South was a bunch of traitorous villains, intent on keeping a portion of their population under that boot.
Charles Adams, writing in his best selling book on the history of taxation “For Good and Evil” (1993 Madison Books), a Canadian no-less, pointed to the obvious. Why, at the 11th hour, when the South had the Supreme Court, the Congress, and even Lincoln himself bending over backwards to protect slavery, to institutionalize it forever, and to forbid the Federal government from taking any action to abolish it, would they secede?
If high school history is the last time you learned anything about the Civil War, then you've likely never heard this before.
Simply put, it was about taxes. And states’ rights, but not the states’ rights that later so-called “neo-Confederates” put forth, purporting it to be a state’s right to have or abolish slavery under the 9th and 10th Amendments. No, it was the state’s right to be treated fairly when it came to tariffs, and by 1850, the tariff’s imposed on Southern planters by Congress to satisfy Northern manufacturing interests had again gotten oppressive (I say again, because the South threatened secession over JUST THIS ISSUE in 1832, before a compromise was reached). John C. Calhoun had warned of the impending crisis if this situation persisted. In fact, as early as 1850, on his deathbed, he listed it as the only concrete reason Southern states would secede.
Read Jefferson Davis’ Inaugural Address where he highlights the import tax issue.
Read Edmund Ruffin (the Virginian who fired the first shot on Ft. Sumter) and his exclamation on the wealth wrongfully redistributed from the South to the North. Oh, and what was Ft. Sumter? It was a CUSTOMS HOUSE where tariffs were collected!
Read the notes from the British House of Commons in 1862, where commercial interests which dominated Parliament clearly show it was “The Tariff” that caused the war.
So while he may have had many volumes at his disposal that would validate my friend's viewpoint, I need only a single letter from General Lee, or a letter Jefferson Davis sent to Lincoln imploring him to end this slaughter two years before the war’s end and let the South be (slave-free at that!), or the proposal that Lincoln wrote (and which Congress adopted!) advocating constitutional enshrinement of slavery to keep the Union. It is clear this was never about slavery, and a thousand million books saying otherwise won’t make it so.
Given the mood of the country right now, the Tea Parties, the oppressive taxes, and the open and blatant redistribution of wealth in this country, I can think of nothing better than to conduct a real, and true, and thorough understanding of Confederate history, and how the very environment we currently live in is, in a very real respect, the kind of environment that gave rise to that rebellion.
If we ever hope to avoid another mindless bloodbath, an honest appraisal of why my ancestors took up arms against fellow Americans is needed. In the end, no one was fighting for or against slavery, and both sides were willing to sellout blacks to achieve their ends. Morally, both sides were bankrupt.
More to the point, though, is what the war was REALLY about. If you want to prevent another such war, then anyone interested in the history of this period needs to put aside the politically correct version of those events from both sides, and look to the economics — which is the source of every war ever fought in the history of mankind.
If Governor McDonnell’s proclamation can have this kind of impact, and we can reveal what TRUE Confederate history is, than it’s impact will have consequences far more important and far reaching than today’s soundbite from some MSNBC-type with their panties in a twist thinking we’re all eager to see the return of “Tara” and “Marse Lee” and fields of cotton bein’ picked.
Understand history, or be condemned to repeat it. — the stakes of not fully living out that tried and true expression are lethal. But I will concede this: "Civil War History Month" would have sufficed far better than "Confederate History Month". There’s a lot to be learned from the mistakes of BOTH sides.