April 14, 2010 9:39:00 AM
Steve Mullen - [email protected]
Here we are, halfway through Confederate Heritage Month, and I didn''t even realize it was going on -- that is, until the fracas over governor''s proclamations in Virginia and Mississippi.
Gov. Haley Barbour has routinely signed annual proclamations for the month. The one-page document mentions that the state designates a day in April as Confederate Memorial Day, contains some largely innocuous boilerplate including "it is important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation''s past, to gain insight from our mistakes and successes." It then charges the citizens -- you and me -- to "become more knowledgeable and better understand the role of the Confederacy in American history." It also calls on the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and other groups to help educate us.
A look at the documents
Let''s be fair here. Mississippi''s one-page proclamation is pretty cut-and-dried. A few sentences, a couple of Whereas this and Whereas that''s, and we''re out. Barbour has signed the document each of his seven years as governor.
Some have said the proclamation should have mentioned slavery. Really, it doesn''t mention any particulars about the war at all.
We have a different story in Virginia.
That state''s new Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, designated April Confederate History Month in that state for the first time. Its proclamation is much more detailed. Lots more Whereases. Lots of statements such as "Whereas, it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth''s shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present," etc.
Virginia''s proclamation recounted all aspects of the war except for the role slavery played. This was an "oops" moment. McDonnell apologized, and last week reworked the proclamation to include another 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 ..."
Problem solved. We''re moving on. Even former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, the nation''s first black governor and a descendant of slaves, said the episode was "an honest mistake by an honorable man."
In comes Barbour.
Sunday, on CNN, Barbour fired the nit picked ''round the world. His assertion -- that the fuss over the Virginia proclamation was a "nit," "not significant" and "trying to make a big deal out of something doesn''t amount to diddly" -- has been the rage of the media since then.
Why did Barbour jump in to this media morass? I think he did so for one reason: Because he could. As they say, only Nixon can go to China. And only a wildly popular Republican governor from the deepest of all the Deep South states can get away with saying slavery "doesn''t amount to diddly." And really, when mentioning it in the context of Mississippi''s proclamation, it''s not a big deal.
Here''s the play by play: CNN "State of the Union" host Candy Crowley asked Barbour if not mentioning slavery in the Virginia proclamation was a mistake.
Barbour''s response: "Well, I don''t think so. My state legislature has made a legislatively enacted holiday, Confederate Memorial Day, and done it for years under Republican governors, Democratic governors. And for seven years as governor, I have issued a proclamation because of what the legislature has done. My Democratic predecessors did so as well.
"I don''t know what you would say about slavery, but anybody that thinks that you have to explain to people that slavery is a bad thing, I think that goes without saying."
Crowley counters: "But the sensitivity of it, because we heard from a number of African-American politicians and just people on the street that were interviewed in Virginia going, this is offensive to celebrate something that really was about slavery and have absolutely no mention of it. What do you do in your state?"
Barbour: "Well, maybe they should talk to my Democratic legislature, which has done exactly the same thing in Mississippi for years. And as far as I know, the Democratic legislature -- we have a majority, both houses are Democrats. I''m unaware of them being criticized for it or them having their supporters feel uncomfortable with it."
Crowley: "You know what I''m trying to get at here is that there is sort of feeling that it''s insensitive, but you clearly don''t agree."
Barbour: "To me, it''s a sort of feeling that it''s a nit, that it is not significant, that it''s not a -- it''s trying to make a big deal out of something doesn''t amount to diddly."
A learning moment
So we have a learning moment. Mine is that some things, like the cause of the Civil War, shouldn''t "go without saying." Even in the context of a one-page proclamation.
If it goes without saying, the void might be filled with statements like this: "The War Between the States was fought for the same reasons that the tea party movement today is voicing their opinion. And that is that you have large government that''s not listening to the people, there''s going to be heavy taxation."
This from Mississippi''s own Rev. Cecil Fayard, chaplain in chief for the national Sons of Confederate Veterans, who also told an Associated Press reporter: "And the primary cause of the war was not slavery, although slavery was interwoven into the cause, but it was not the cause for the War Between the States."
"Slavery was at the core of the events that provoked the secession of the first seven states from December 1860 to February 1861," Civil War historian James McPherson told The Washington Post. "If it had not been for the election of an antislavery party to the presidency, there would have been no secession, no firing on Fort Sumter, and no secession by the other four states (including Virginia) that followed the first seven out after Fort Sumter."
I checked that out. Other sources are backing him up, including Mississippi''s own Articles of Secession: "... Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth ... There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin."
I looked in my own state history book from Ole Miss, written by eminent Mississippi historian David Sansing. He mentions the threat of a loss of political power after Lincoln''s election, surrounding the threat of the abolition of slavery, as the main reason Mississippi seceded. He also mentions, ironically, that pro-South Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. If the states hadn''t seceded, a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery would have been impossible. And of course, there would not have been a war.
Sansing doesn''t mention "large government" or "heavy taxation," or "not listening to the people." Mississippi''s leaders, it seems, were the ones not listening to Lincoln. The state seceded before he took office.
Sansing does mention another cause: Mississippi newspaper editors of the day were the most rabid secessionists of all. They "seemed compelled by a responsibility to maintain the orthodox attitude and were often vituperative in their criticism of anyone departing from that position."
Fair enough. But if the "orthodox attitude," today, is to accept the war''s cause for what it really was, then I''m comfortable in that camp.
Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.