Friday, April 9, 2010


One hundred and forty five years ago today, General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to General Grant in Appomattox, Virginia. It's an interesting time for this anniversary, given the flurry of responses to Governor McDonnell's recent declaration of Confederate History Month in Virginia. Without going into too much detail (the discussion is getting wearying), I personally think that it's not unreasonable to commemorate the Confederacy, but that it needs to be done in a very open and honest way. Governor McDonnell was wrong to not even mention the role that slavery played in the war, initially. He has since retreated from that position, which is good.

It is very bad history to anthropomorphize institutions. Institutions are complex, and they are composed of individuals with all manner of interests and goals. Too many people in this discussion have tried to apply adjectives like "racist" or "pro-slavery" to the Confederacy as an institution. It's a very hard charge to deny, considering the fact that secession would have been practically inconceivable without slavery. But I think we have a very impoverished view of the Confederacy if we end the discussion there. We have an especially impoverished view of Virginia's role in the Confederacy if we leave it there. When secession was primarily about slavery, Virginia voted against secession, as did many border states. This isn't to say that Virginians at the time were abolitionists; for the most part they and most Americans obviously weren't abolitionists. It's simply to say that the simple reactionary racism that many people attribute to the Confederacy doesn't seem to apply to Virginia in quite the same way that it applies to South Carolina or Georgia, who were among the first to secede before any army was raised in the North. And of course this doesn't even begin to engage the point that the interests and goals of the elite who spearheaded secession were not necessarily in line with the interests and goals of rank and file Confederates.

In other words, I think we make a mistake if we demonize Virginia and the Confederacy by reducing the entire society to a single dimension, like slavery, just as it would be a mistake to reduce other eminent slave owners like Washington and Jefferson to that single dimension. That's not a call to ignore slavery, of course. While I think it would be a mistake to demonize Virginia and the Confederacy, it would be both a mistake and an insult to deify the Confederacy and whitewash the slavery issue the way McDonnell's original proclamation effectively did.

Maybe I'm hedging too much, but I don't think I am. I'm not trying to deny the role of slavery, and I'm not defending secession. I just feel like people are overcompensating in their response to a truly thoughtless declaration by McDonnell. I've heard a lot of Nazi Germany comparisons, which I think are utterly indefensible. What justifies these comparisons? That the Confederacy was unapologetically a slave society? If that's the case then the antebellum United States itself could equally be compared to Nazi Germany, as could any of the numerous slave societies throughout history. I'm not quite sure this comparison is meaningful or helpful. It's one thing to say that for too long the South clung to an immoral institution that pervaded human society for much of its history. That is certainly true. But we have to be able to differentiate people who happened to have been born into this appalling institutional arrangement near the time of its death throes (like the Confederate secessionists) from people who invented wholly new terrors, hatreds, and immoralities and forcefully imposed them on a previously liberal, free, and democratic society (like the Nazis did). How different, really, was Robert E. Lee from General Washington? If nothing but their birthdays had been switched we would be honoring Lee and denouncing Washington. And if both these men were born in twentieth century Virginia, would either of them be advocating for the fresh imposition of chattel slavery the way Hitler advocated a fresh imposition of genocide on German society? Of course they wouldn't. Nothing in the historical record indicates they would even conceive of that. They knew what they were doing was wrong, but the inertia of the institution itself was too much for them to resist. So they refused to resist the institution of slavery. That isn't admirable, but it is different from what the Nazis did.

These are devastating human failures to think about. It's part of the reason why I largely stay away from Civil War history, and why I primarily read the history of the early Republic. The stain of the sin of slavery is still there in the early Republic, but somehow it's less distressing precisely because it hasn't yet come to the fore. And maybe that's a failure on my part - a failure to engage the hard issues.

But I suppose in the end that's my point. I take issue with some of the criticisms, which I think are hyperbolic to the point of obscuring the real suffering under slavery. But even more than taking issue with those people, who at least see the problem as a problem, I take issue with the people who would whitewash history of any problems. Not every tragic period of history is comparable to the Nazis; but what kind of mindset actually closes its eyes to the very deepest tragedy that is still influencing our society today - the tragedy of slavery? I don't know what motivates that sort of practiced ignorance. Nothing good motivates it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.