Whitewashing History — Don't Let Neo-Confederates Make a Lie of the Past

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Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Meacham argues that we cannot allow the worst elements in American society to use the Civil War sesquicentennial to recast that conflict into a romantic fable of freedom fighters and states rights. Read the entire New York Times column at www.nytimes.com/2010/04/11/opinion/11meacham.html?th&emc=th

Last week, Virginia’s governor, Robert McDonnell, jumped backward when he issued a proclamation recognizing April as Confederate History Month. In it he celebrated those “who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth” and wrote of the importance of understanding “the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”

The governor originally chose not to mention slavery in the proclamation, saying he “focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.” It seems to follow that, at least for Mr. McDonnell, the plight of Virginia’s slaves does not rank among the most significant aspects of the war.

Advertently or not, Mr. McDonnell is working in a long and dispiriting tradition. Efforts to rehabilitate the Southern rebellion frequently come at moments of racial and social stress, and it is revealing that Virginia’s neo-Confederates are refighting the Civil War in 2010. Whitewashing the war is one way for the right — alienated, anxious and angry about the president, health care reform and all manner of threats, mostly imaginary — to express its unease with the Age of Obama, disguising hate as heritage.

If neo-Confederates are interested in history, let’s talk history....

As the sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter approaches in 2011, the enduring problem for neo-Confederates endures: anyone who seeks an Edenic Southern past in which the war was principally about states’ rights and not slavery is searching in vain, for the Confederacy and slavery are inextricably and forever linked.

That has not, however, stopped Lost Causers who supported Mr. McDonnell’s proclamation from trying to recast the war in more respectable terms. They would like what Lincoln called our “fiery trial” to be seen in a political, not a moral, light. If the slaves are erased from the picture, then what took place between Sumter and Appomattox is not about the fate of human chattel, or a battle between good and evil. It is, instead, more of an ancestral skirmish in the Reagan revolution, a contest between big and small government.

We cannot allow the story of the emancipation of a people and the expiation of America’s original sin to become fodder for conservative politicians playing to their right-wing base. That, to say the very least, is a jump backward we do not need.

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