There’s no point in repeating what’s been said about how half the population of his state—that is, the 500,000 slaves who lived in Virginia at the time of the Civil War--somehow slipped Governor Bob McDonnell’s mind when he proclaimed April Confederate History Month.

And it shouldn’t need to be said that informing people about Confederate history is a good thing, or that using a state’s history to promote tourism is a legitimate role for a governor.

But something does need to be added: no politician of high rank, certainly not the governor of one of the fifty states, is ever solely or even principally responsible for what he does or says. What this means is that we must assume the 500,000 slaves either slipped the minds of all those who make up McDonnell’s circle of advisors and handlers, or it registered with them, but got shelved. Those are the only two ways their boss could have been allowed to blunder the way he did.

Think about it: think about all the meetings and chalk talks, all the brain-storming sessions that must have followed the first Eureka! moment when someone decided it would be great to have a month set aside to remember and examine what took place in Virginia during the nation’s most tempestuous period. How many people were involved in arranging for photo ops, interviews, publications, reenactments and videos for this initiative? Imagine the clever, ambitious men and women hastening through the State Capitol and the Governor’s mansion, earning their keep by focusing on some aspect of this major, month-long project.

In other words, McDonnell’s “oversight” means something more than just another instance of a politician fitting his well-heeled foot into his mouth and, days later when the outcry has grown deafening, deciding to take it out so he can eat humble pie and apologize.

It means those responsible for the machinery of Republican politics in Virginia—at least those who answer to or for the governor—are unwilling or unable to incorporate the central fact in the greatest of our national disasters into their thinking and planning. Either those 500,000 slaves came up in meetings and were judged to be an avoidable embarrassment, or they never appeared on anyone’s radar.

It’s hard to take in. But when Virginia journalist Steve Tuttle tells us that when he was a schoolboy, schools were still teaching students to refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression, it all becomes easier to understand. What Tuttle calls “the fetishization of the old Confederacy and all its supposed glory” for school children makes it more possible to see how keeping the fetishists happy is the politically sensitive issue for the governor and those around him, not the matter of slavery.

That is, until everyone who isn’t still obsessed with the glory days of the Old South realizes what’s missing from the gov’s proclamation.


  1. I think you mean his circle of white advisers.

    Virginia's history of slavery is especially shameful. The slave owners there often lived a high life beyond their means and sold slaves south to finance personal debt. They broke up families without even thinking twice about it, although that did mean that they could continue to sip good bourbon on their verandas.

  2. Excellent post. I'll be sharing it with others. Everyone should be aware and ashamed of our country's history as slave owners. Personally, Virginia can secede from the U.S. right now if it wants and don't let the door hit you in the ass.

  3. I imagine the Gov's Guys are a lot like Sanford's staff, here: all of a piece and not a nay-sayer in the bunch. It is strange to me, though, that the history of the Civil War that I was taught in grade school in NC in the 1950's did not treat the subject in as biased and blinded a fashion as is now described. It was called The Civil War; Lee was described as beloved by his troops, but slavery in his Virginia was not ignored or glossed over. We knew NC was a slave state and we were embarrassed and ashamed of that. I'll have to ask my kids; they attended elementary school in Virginia for four years when we were stationed at Langley and they will remember how it was taught in the eighties. I helped them with their homework, so I would probably remember if their textbooks were slanted far right, and I don't recall that. Wouldn't it be horrible if Virginia's textbooks and teaching had grown more and more racist instead of less over the years?!

  4. K-
    Maybe even in Virginia a governor's staff needs to reflect diversity. If so, this raises interesting questions. Assuming the gov does have some non-white advisors, they would still need to be team players. Depressing to think about.

  5. Jayne-
    Personally, I don't think shame is what we should feel. But those who reach physical maturity and are still unmoved by the lives of the disadvantaged and short-changed can't be viewed as complete adults. Anyhow, not by me.

  6. Nance-
    Some day, you will have to explain to me how something so porous and arbitrary as a state line can separate two such different mind sets-NC and SC.
    In a small but important way, I am guilty of misrepresenting what Steve Tuttle said in his piece. The War of Northern Aggression was a teacher's usage, not something in Tuttle's textbook. But who knows? If Kansas can expunge any text that fails to devote the same number of syllables to creationism--excuse me, to Intelligent Design--as it does to evolution, maybe Virginia is hard at work in the print shop.


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