Roger Vance has been an outstanding mayor of Hillsboro, but it needs to be said that he is a much better mayor than he is an historian. In his Jan. 18 “A View from the Gap” column, he passes a moral judgment on Confederate military leaders, asserting that their ideology of racial superiority was “inimical to those of American democracy” and “spawned generations of extremists and terrorists.” Consequently, he implies that Confederates were racists and Unionists were not, and that responsibility for this unseemly side of American life can be laid at the door of Southerners.
This sweeping generalization is wrong. Attitudes of superiority if not hostility have been a fact of life in the country from colonial times. While a detailed rebuttal is not possible in a newspaper column, a few examples should suffice to show that racism has been endemic in the United States, and that blame for its presence in American life cannot be attributed to the Confederacy.
In 1775, when the 13 colonies were moving toward independence from Great Britain and slavery was legal in all 13 colonies, Dr. Samuel Johnson—of dictionary fame—asked: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Virginia’s royal governor Dunmore offered emancipation to any slaves who took up arms against the rebellious colonists. Those who accepted this offer were organized into the “Ethiopian Regiment” which fought at the battles of Kemp’s Landing and Great Bridge near Norfolk. Similar offers were made in other colonies. For example, in 1779 British commander-in-chief Sir Henry Clinton offered freedom “to every Negro that shall desert the rebel standard,” and thousands of slaves thronged into New York City in response. Lord Cornwallis exhibited hostility to slavery by his refusal to allow runaway slaves to be recovered taken from his camp, even when their owners were Loyalists. Notwithstanding its sonorous preamble, the Declaration of Independence complained that the British Crown “has excited domestic Insurrections among us…”
Beginning in 1777 and continuing into the early 19th century, the emancipation of slaves in the northern states took place. It should not be inferred, however, that free African Americans were welcome in the free states. In his 1835 book “Democracy in America”, Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “The prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.” Legal or de facto barriers were erected to discourage free African Americans from living in virtually every state which had either abolished slavery or prohibited it at the time of statehood, Beginning with the admission of Maine to the Union in 1819, the constitutions of all new states barred African Americans from voting. Connecticut and New Jersey amended theirs to include such a restriction. In Illinois, Indiana and Oregon which never had slavery, anti-immigration provisions were placed in their constitutions to exclude free African Americans from these states. Virtually, every northern state enacted “Jim Crow” laws which enforced segregation of the free African Americans.
Abraham Lincoln said in the first of his 1858 debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas that “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races… [and I] am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.”
Certainly, the dispute over the place of African Americans in the United States was the prime reason for the secession of the lower South. However, Virginia only withdrew after President Lincoln called for state militias to be placed into federal service to invade the seceded states. Most Virginians in 1861 believed that the U.S. Constitution had not created a unitary state but only a union of independent states which were free to withdraw at any time. Such a view is understandable because Virginia had been essentially self-governing as to internal affairs from the time of its establishment as a colony until the coming of the break with Britain. On June 29, 1776—days before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence— Virginia declared its independence and adopted its first constitution. In its ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Virginia reserved the right to withdraw, and its ordinance of secession was a repeal of ratification. Consequently, Virginians viewed the entry of federal armies as an invasion and they fought to protect their homes and their state’s independence. Restoration of the seceded states to the union was Lincoln’s aim—not the elimination of slavery. Consequently, the issues giving rise to the war and why men fought were multiple and far more complex than Mayor Vance asserts. And certainly racist views were shared by North and South.
Despite accepting military defeat and the rejoinder of their states to the Union, many Southerners continue to honor their ancestors’ sacrifices and struggle. Mr. Vance is wrong to dishonor and denigrate Southerners who honor their Confederate ancestors as being “self-avowed racists” who hold “hate-filled views.” Frankly, it is more than wrong—it is hateful. While not all Virginians share, much less approve of, this veneration of the South’s struggle for independence, we now live in a diverse society and it is incumbent of us to be respectful of others and their beliefs and values. It is this lack of mutual respect which contributes to the current atmosphere of social hostility within American society.
It is true that members of the “alt-right” expropriated, for their own political purposes, the effort of Charlottesville’s city council to remove statues of Lee and Jackson from city parks. However, none of these white supremacists acted to honor the Confederate dead. It is therefore unjust to project their despicable views on the honoring of the Confederate dead. The Ku Klux Klan—whose members were from throughout the United States—conducted massive marches down Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1920s in which they carried the American flag. The Washington Post recently ran a story about the head of the American Nazi Party that included his picture standing in front of the American and Nazi flags. Just because the KKK and American Nazis associated their movements with the American flag, no reasonable person would suggest that the U.S. flag is emblematic of their views. Similarly, reasonable people do not project the murderous views of ISIS onto the majority of peaceful Muslims. If such reasonable distinctions can be made, fair-minded people should distinguish between racist extremists and the honorable and responsible citizens who honor the sacrifices of the Confederate dead. And in so distinguishing we would be taking one small step towards restoring domestic tranquility.
Stephen Price, a resident of Philomont, has practiced law in Leesburg since 1977. He is the chairman of the Mosby Heritage Area Association, however the views expressed in this column are his own.