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Posted at 6:04 PM ET, 04/ 7/2010

McPherson on slavery and Virginia's governor

By Valerie Strauss

Events have led me to ask renowed Civil War expert James McPherson for the second time in a few weeks for help in explaining what’s right and what’s wrong.

This time I asked him to tell me how historically accurate Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was when he declared that April will be Confederate History Month in Virginia, did not include a reference to slavery in his proclamation and then said he left out the subject because "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia."

The governor late in the day issued an apology for not mentioning slavery in his initial announcement. This time he said in a statement, "The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation."

Obviously somebody gave the governor a history lesson in a hurry.

McPherson, a Princeton University professor and author of numerous Civil War books including the award-winning “Battle Cry of Freedom,” said that McDonnell initially had it wrong when he indicated that slavery was not “most significant” for Virginia as an issue during the Civil War period.

Here’s what McPherson said in an email before the apology was issued:

With respect to the governor’s statement that "Obviously it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia," I suppose his statement is accurate in a literal sense.

The war did involve slavery, and it did involve other issues, and I am sure that his statement focused on what he thinks are most significant for Virginia--whether they really were or not.

What is misleading about the statement is that slavery was at the core of the events that provoked the secession of the first seven states from December 1860 to February 1861.

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.

The vote in favor of secession at the Virginia convention on April 17, 1861, was 88 to 55.

Most of the anti-secession votes came from the Shenandoah Valley and from the mountainous counties of western Virginia (which eventually became West Virginia), where slavery was of less importance than in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions that voted strongly for secession, and where slavery was a crucial part of the socioeconomic order.

In fact, there was a pretty direct correlation between the percentage of slaves and slaveholders in a given district and its support for secession.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 7, 2010; 6:04 PM ET
Categories:  History  | Tags:  Confederate Month, Gov. McDonnell, James McPherson, Virginia, history  
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Comments

Facts are such pesky things.

Posted by: edlharris | April 8, 2010 6:15 AM | Report abuse

Facts are such pesky things.

Posted by: edlharris | April 8, 2010 6:15 AM | Report abuse

Your Civil War expert, James McPherson, glossed over some facts, too. The people of The South had been under attack by the rabid anti-slavery factions in The North for decades. The controversy even reached The Supreme Court of the United States which handed down a decision in the Dred Scott case that said Black slaves were not citizens of the nation and therefore they were not entitled to protection under the U.S. Constitution. When Abraham Lincoln was elected, the Southern states seceded because the state's right to have jurisdiction over its people was threatened. The Federal government does not register the births and deaths of American citizens; this right belongs to the states that make up The Union.

Posted by: hueygunner69 | April 8, 2010 7:37 AM | Report abuse

You would do well to also share the same question with Dr. James Robertson, a Distinguished Professor of History at Virginia Tech. I'd be willing to bet he'd give you a different answer. It's easy in the 21st century in a post-racial America, to state slavery was the "best" reason for the Civil War.

But anyone that has done any study of the early history of our nation knows there were a variety of issues that lead to succession of the southern states; with the core issue leading to the war being state's rights.

Get into the mind of the majority of Virginians that fought in the war for the south, as Dr. Robertson has done through extensive study of letters and artifacts, and you'll find that most Virginians fought to defend the sovereignty of their state, not to defend the institution of slavery. I'd suspect that it was in this context that Gov. McDonnell made his initial statement.

But the entire discussion makes an interesting overlay at a time when our federal government has run ramshod over the U.S. Constitution/10th Amendment.

Posted by: hokie92 | April 8, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Slavery could of been eliminated by letting the states vote on it on a state by state basis (states rights) instead Lincoln declared war to make states do things his way. Same happening today with health care. The people will not stand to have things rammed down our throat's from washington.

Posted by: SavedGirl | April 8, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

In college, we read the Confederate Constitution; apart from protecting slavery, there were only minute differences between it and the U.S. Constitution.

Besides, all the other "causes"--states' rights, economic problems, etc., came into being as a result of the existence of slavery in the South. Slavery not only caused the Civil War, but it kept the South from developing the economic power and attracting the immigration that gave the North its edge.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | April 9, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

hueygunner69: "The Supreme Court of the United States ... handed down a decision in the Dred Scott case that said Black slaves were not citizens of the nation and therefore they were not entitled to protection under the U.S. Constitution."

Err... you think that was a good decision? Come on.

We have to conclude you think slavery was justified then -- and would be right and moral today.

hueygunner69, would you care to address this?

Posted by: terry-the-censor | April 10, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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