Monday, July 12, 2010

Malice Towards Some, Part II

from Old Virginia Blog:

12 July 2010

Malice Toward Some? - Part 2

(This is a follow up to a previous post.)

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds." ~ Abraham Lincoln

After reading the Civil War Times' August 2010 issue, which includes some op-eds that were in response to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's Confederate History Month proclamation, I thought I'd add a couple of additional thoughts for consideration. Some have called Virgina Governor McDonnell's original proclamation the "propagation of bad history" for his originally leaving out any reference to slavery. It's an understandable criticism, though not one I agree with, given the context of the proclamation as well as McDonnell's Black History Month proclamation. But is leaving out certain facts exclusive to proclamations and memorials related to the Confederacy and her heroes?

Governors and legislative bodies in the United States routinely issue proclamations and resolutions commemorating historical figures and events. It is certainly nothing new or out of the ordinary. Do these proclamations and resolutions go into great detail about the complete (and often complex) history and background of each figure or event? No, of course not. First of all, that is not the purpose of these proclamations and resolutions. More often than not, they are simply to note a historical event and/or to satisfy the desire of particular constituencies. Such was the case with the Confederate History Proclamation. It was intended to honor those men who fought defending their homes--which was the reason, despite what some say--many of these men fought. I personally believe that McDonnell could have addressed the slavery issue in the original proclamation without impugning the honor and memory of Confederate soldiers. But the fact he did not should not have given rise to the over the top criticism he and the Sons of Confederate Veterans received.

Isn't it true that most Americans are aware of the Confederacy's (as well as the whole Nation's) association with slavery? Of course. As Professor Brooks Simpson recently remarked:

"I don’t happen to think that every mention of the Confederacy has to be accompanied by a denunciation of slavery. That gets tiresome to hear." Precisely. (Do read all of Simpson's remarks to get the full context of those remarks.)

Yet Professor Simpson, as well as many other critics, felt it was necessary to mention "a denunciation of slavery" in Governor McDonnell's proclamation. Failing to do so was, in their words, propagating "bad history" and an attempt "to whitewash slavery from the story of the Confederacy." Ok, fair enough - that is fair enough if they truly believe that (and I actually believe some of them do) and if they truly believe that failing to mention something of which most folks are already quite aware was a disservice.

As I've pointed out here before, and as others have written about extensively in recent years, slavery's history is not just part of the "story of the Confederacy." It is part of the story of America.

Yet the critics seem so much more anxious to jump on "bad history" as it relates to the Confederacy, but much more "forgiving" when it comes to Lincoln's record on race and the North's connection to slavery. Why? I find it rather telling that we heard nothing about "bad history" when the U.S. Senate issued a proclamation "Commemorating the life and legacy of President Abraham Lincoln on the bicentennial of his birth." In that proclamation, there was no mention of Lincoln's racist views, no mention of his desire for the deportation of blacks, and no mention that Lincoln supported a constitutional amendment which would have prohibited the U. S. Government from ever abolishing or interfering with slavery in any state (the Corwin amendment). Where was the outcry and outrage of "bad history" over that proclamation? There was none. Why not? If it was necessary for Governor McDonnell to not "whitewash" the Confederacy's connection to slavery, why does the U.S. Senate get a pass in not mentioning Lincoln's ambiguous, if not complicit, attitude toward slavery? Should there not have been at least some mention of Lincoln's views; especially in light of the fact that far fewer Americans are aware of Lincoln's ambiguity regarding slavery than they are the Confederacy's connection to the institution? (Other states issued similar Lincoln proclamations, like this one from North Dakota. Again, no criticism for ignoring Lincoln's conflicting statements and actions regarding slavery.)

Of course, my question is rhetorical. I don't think that mentioning Lincoln's views on slavery were necessary in a commemorative proclamation - any more than I think it was necessary in McDonnell's proclamation. But if it is required of one, then it should be required of the other; if one is to be consistent in their desires for telling the whole story.

Most of the op-eds in the recent Civil War Times issue contained the prerequisite hand-wringing over "Lost Cause" adherence - the great boogie man of academic Civil War historians. Nothing of note or any original thought contained in those pieces. The best opinion came from someone who I've disagreed with on several occasions and someone who does not consider himself a historian, though I think he is well on the way of establishing himself as such with his rather prolific blog. Harry Smeltzer, host of the Civil War blog, Bull Runnings, gave the most accurate synopsis of McDonnell's proclamation:

I think the Governor’s proclamation was nothing more than a dusting off of previously issued proclamations, made at least in part in fulfillment of promises given prior to his election. I believe not much thought at all went into it, and that the apology issued was genuine.

I find most of the reactions to the proclamation and the apology repugnant, outside of the obvious disappointment of those who objected to either and, in curious cases, both. Pendulums are funny things, and after watching them for a while you get the impression they spend most of their time at either end, and not much in the middle. At the extremes, we see reactions ranging from claims that Confederates were nothing more than terrorists, that slavery had little or nothing to do with the Confederate cause, that the Tea Party movement is primarily a gathering of neo-Confederate racists, and that the same movement reflects frustrations similar to those felt by the slaveholding south. All are gross distortions of the truth, and politically motivated. Unfortunately little attention has been given to valid historical issues raised by the issuance of the proclamation, notably that of the diversity of the people of the State of Virginia before and during the Civil War. I’m left with the feeling we let an opportunity slip through our fingers in favor of forwarding political agendas.

Well said.

A couple of more points. Civil War Times wrote that they had invited several members of the SCV to comment, but never received a response. I find that difficult to believe, but will take CWT at their word. Actually, they did receive a response from at least one SCV member - Waite Rawls, III of the Museum of the Confederacy. Waite's response was, not suprisingly, calculated and measured. Of course, Waite was speaking on behalf of the MOC, not the SCV.

And one final observation. I've pointed out before that those persons and "market demographics" who are so often on the receiving end of jabs, insults, and mocking - the "Lost Causers", the "Confederate Heritage" crowd, etc, etc, apparently still make up a rather large segment of the readership of the various Civil War magazines. In the Civil War Times issue which included these op-eds, there were, not counting the covers, nine full page color ads. These are very pricey - and, I assume, profitable - ads for magazines such as CWT. Of these nine ads, four of them were related specifically and soley to the WBTS. Of those four, three of them catered to those who many would consider "Confederate Heritage" types: an ad for a tray table set featuring Confederate art by John Paul Strain (a frequent target of barbs by certain academics), an ad for Confederate toy soldiers, and an ad for a scale replica train set featuring, again, the Confederate art images of John Paul Strain. The fourth ad was for a set of Confederate Military History books.

Isn't it interesting that an issue of CWT which contained mostly criticisms regarding McDonnell's proclamation and "Lost Cause mythology" was funded with hefty ad revenues by companies selling "Lost Cause mythology?" I suppose the critics should be grateful that their platform was funded, at least in part, by the targets of their criticism.

Posted by Richard G. Williams, Jr. at 10:15 PM

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