Bob McDonnell’s Civil War — and ours

Ignoring slavery is an argument for racial inequality, and sorry or not, conservatives are still fighting for that

Topics: Race, War Room, Virginia,

Bob McDonnell's Civil War -- and oursVirginia Gov. Bob McDonnell delivers his State of the Commonwealth Address before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly in the House chambers at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Monday, Jan. 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Bob Brown, Pool) (Credit: AP)

It’s nice that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has apologized for omitting any mention of slavery in his proclamation of “Confederate History Month.” Apologizing is better than not apologizing.

But this isn’t forgetting to turn off the lights. It’s not really the kind of thing for which you can smack yourself on the forehead and say, “Man, I am so sorry I forgot about that.” The proclamation didn’t just fall out by accident, or happen automatically. The last two governors, both Democrats, made a point of not proclaiming a Confederate History Month. And even the Republicans before them had made some acknowledgment of the evils of slavery, even amid their celebration of slavery’s defenders. McDonnell was consciously reversing both policies.

Moreover, somebody actually asked him, after the controversy broke, why he’d skipped over slavery in urging citizens to “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.” The governor replied, “There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”

This is the point where a hundred amateur Civil War buffs always jump up and start offering their pet theories about the origins of the conflict. So let’s be clear, and wave them off now. Any attempt to downplay the role of slavery in the origins of the Civil War is historically uninformed at best, and white supremacist revisionism at worst. To imply that slavery was not “significant for Virginia” begs the question of just who, exactly, counts as Virginia.

A very, very abbreviated history lesson: Virginia’s origins as the seedbed of American liberty are the same as its origins as the birthplace of slavery. Freedom was possible for poor white people exactly because black people were made into property. You can’t imagine antebellum Virginia — or, for that matter, antebellum America — without slavery, and by 1860, one-third of the state’s population was enslaved. Nor is the significance of the Civil War separable from slavery and emancipation. Slavery’s why it started, and the end of slavery is what gives the war its most profound meaning. The conflict looms so large in our memory because, when slaves claimed their freedom, they were engaging in revolution on a scale that makes that other Virginian, George Washington, look downright small-time.

Of course, when you think of “Virginia,” you probably think of the state on the map, and the people who live in it. That’s not really what McDonnell was talking about. What his proclamation celebrates is more like Ol’ Virginny — the political entity in which African-Americans were not only not citizens, but legally speaking, not people.

All of this isn’t to say that McDonnell wants to repeal the 13th Amendment and bring back human bondage. That’d be absurd, and his apology makes that clear. “The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation.”

For McDonnell’s most trenchant critic in this whole thing, Ta-Nehisi Coates, that’s a satisfying answer. Coates wrote of McDonnell and his ilk on Tuesday,

If you believe that if we still had segregation we wouldn’t “have had all these problems,” this is the movement for you. If you believe that your president is a Muslim sleeper agent, this is the movement for you. If you honor a flag raised explicitly to destroy this country then this is the movement for you. If you flirt with secession, even now, then this movement is for you. If you are a “Real American” with no demonstrable interest in “Real America” then, by God, this movement of alchemists and creationists, of anti-science and hair tonic, is for you.

But he’s willing to accept McDonnell’s apology. Yesterday, Coates wrote, “I think I can speak for my folks, when I say the vast majority of us long to be done with this business. I think, and so dearly hope, that we’re headed that way. And I think that McDonnell made a small, but incredibly important, step to getting us closer.”

This is a nice idea, that we can address the endurance of white supremacy by extracting apologies from politicians who take it a step too far. It’s certainly worth appreciating, given that even an apology and an admission of the importance of slavery are more than is normally forthcoming from Southern white conservatives.

But, while we’re arguing about history here, we’re also arguing about power and wealth. Minimizing slavery is an implicit argument for inequality, another way of saying that everything’s fine now, because nothing was ever really that bad. In fact, McDonnell even does some of this in his apology.

Our history is perhaps best encapsulated in a fact I noted in my Inaugural Address in January: The state that served as the Capitol of the Confederacy was also the first in the nation to elect an African-American governor, my friend, L. Douglas Wilder. America’s history has been written in Virginia. We cannot avoid our past; instead we must demand that it be discussed with civility and responsibility.

Coates talks about his desire, and the desire of black people in general, to “be done with this business.” But in his first comment, before the apology, he pointed out how we still have a de facto party of white supremacy in this country.

Whether its members think of themselves that way isn’t really the point. People never really consider themselves racist; they just organize themselves to defend racial inequality. Inequality is a possession for its beneficiaries — an investment. And just because a one-term governor was forced to admit that slavery was indeed significant and evil doesn’t mean he and his allies are dumping their stock.

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>