Bob McDonnell, Republican governor of Virginia, issued a statement proclaiming April Confederate History Month. His first proclamation made no mention of slavery and this caused protest, even from some of his ardent backers. His later statement corrected this oversight, but it also included that ever popular weasel language "if any Virginian was offended, I apologize to them." This creepy non-apology implies that it is just the thin skinned who might dislike this sort of thing. This is the "fair and balanced" view that there are always two sides and each side should be heard.
This is wrong. Sometimes one side is completely in the wrong, and pretending that slavery is just an insignificant issue when dealing with the Civil War is completely wrong.
So I am going to write a post for Confederate History Month, not as a Virginian but as an American and not just about the four year act of treason the South committed, but the causes and consequences of this dark period in American history.
The stain of slavery and the founding of our nation: Most of the presidents of the United States before the Civil War owned slaves. Some of the non-slave owners had very clean hands, most notably John Adams and John Quincy Adams. It should also be noted they were the only one-term presidents among the first seven, all the rest slave owners.
At least one slave owner, Martin Van Buren, had a major change of heart and became an abolitionist late in his political career. The worst offenders were the richest men, Washington and Jefferson. The three presidents just prior to Lincoln did not own slaves, the northerners Pierce, Fillmore and Buchanan. But they were pathetically weak presidents who made the inevitable war that much worse by their inaction.
The leaders of the Confederacy were fools and the Bible makes that clear: Jesus states in Luke 14:31: "What king, marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king marching upon him with twenty thousand troops?" The situation at the beginning of the war was even worse than this, because the South fired first with an inferior force. Maybe they thought God was on their side. Perhaps they thought their generals as clever as Julius Caesar, who won several battles in the Roman Civil War with smaller armies than those who opposed him.
But this turned out not to be a war merely of battles but a war of attrition, and after Lincoln had run out of idiots to lead the Union Army and installed Grant, the bloody and vicious conclusion was an inevitability as long as the president did not waver in his resolution to restore the Union.
Turning bloody war into uneasy peace: The modern view of history is that though wars end, they often sow the seeds for the next war. Though he was killed by unrepentant traitors only months after the war's end, Lincoln set forward a policy of restoring the Union that worked, though the hard feelings and divisions last to this day. In my lifetime, the uneasiness between Northerners and Southerners has waned considerably, but the violent civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s were like low level warfare continuation of the Civil War that had ended some ninety years before the Montgomery Bus boycott.
From the end of the war to the end of the 19th Century, every presidential election was a political re-enactment of the war. Republicans then were not like Republicans now, except that that shared the trait of being bold. It was common for Republican politicians to "wave the bloody shirt", to remind voters that everyone who had been a traitor to his country was a registered Democrat. The polarization of politics today is tame compared to American politics after the Civil War. Many historians claim that the first event after 1865 that brought Americans together as Americans was the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana in 1898.
The great political inversion: For generations after the Civil War, the Democrats were the party of the South and the Republicans the party of the North. Glenn Beck, a weak historian with a relatively large audience, believes all evil in this land can be laid at the door of progressivism, and he includes Teddy Roosevelt in his list of villains. (Beck, an obvious buffoon, also thinks Thomas Paine, the most socialist leaning figure of the Revolutionary era, would be on Beck's side if Paine were alive today.) T.R. was definitely a Progressive, and his leaving the Republicans to start his own party is an important step in the Republican Party's move to the right. His cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt was a Democrat, and F.D.R.'s administration is a bellwether moment in the Democratic Party's shift to the left. But even in F.D.R.'s time, the Democratic coalition included the southern Democrats who resisted all efforts to give full de facto citizenship rights to the descendants of slaves.
The civil rights movement made a new breed of Democrats in the South, though credit should be given to Dwight Eisenhower for sending Federal troops to Little Rock, the kind of action that would strike fear into the hearts of the weak minded Tea Party people today. It was Richard Nixon, easily the cleverest Republican president of my lifetime, who made the inversion complete with the Southern strategy. Many of the unrepentant racists of the South, people who were always welcome to air their grievances in the pages of William F. Buckley's National Review, were welcomed into the Republican Party after they realized they would have no seat at the table in the new Democratic Party. A disgusting racist like Richard Russell of Georgia, who died in 1971, would remain a Democrat until the day he died, but those who survived either became Republicans like Strom Thurmond or independents like George Wallace.
I am all in favor of teaching Confederate history, the history of traitors and idiots, both the idiots at the top of the food chain that started a war they couldn't win and the useful idiots at the bottom of the food chain who gave up their lives in the hundreds of thousands to preserve the right to own slaves, a right they would never be able to exercise because they were dirt poor. Virginia in particular should remember their special place in the Confederacy, because it was their Slave Codes of 1705 that allowed the grotesque inequality of wealth that made the bloody conflagration inevitable. Perhaps learning a little Confederate history, the buffoonish people in the Tea Party will realize they are more the descendants the cowardly traitor John Wilkes Booth than they are the heirs to John Hancock.
Here endeth the lesson.