Governor McDonnell Apologizes

Governor McDonnell issued a statement late Wednesday in which he apologizes for failing to reference slavery in his proclamation.

“The proclamation issued by this Office designating April as Confederate History Month contained a major omission. The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed. 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. In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly approved a formal statement of “profound regret” for the Commonwealth’s history of slavery, which was the right thing to do.

When I signed the Proclamation designating February as Black History Month, and as I look out my window at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, I am reminded that, even 150 years later, Virginia’s past is inextricably part of our present. The Confederate History Month proclamation issued was solely intended to promote the study of our history, encourage tourism in our state in advance of the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and recognize Virginia’s unique role in the story of America. The Virginia General Assembly unanimously approved the establishment of a Sesquicentennial American Civil War Commission to prepare for and commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the War, in order to promote history and create recognition programs and activities.

As Virginians we carry with us both the burdens and the blessings of our history. Virginia history undeniably includes the fact that we were the Capitol of the Confederacy, the site of more battlefields than any other state, and the home of the signing of the peace agreement at Appomattox.

Our history is perhaps best encapsulated in a fact I noted in my Inaugural Address in January: The state that served as the Capitol of the Confederacy was also the first in the nation to elect an African-American governor, my friend, L. Douglas Wilder. America’s history has been written in Virginia.

We cannot avoid our past; instead we must demand that it be discussed with civility and responsibility. During the commemoration of the Civil War over the next four years, I intend to lead an effort to promote greater understanding and harmony in our state among our citizens.”

In addition the Governor announced that the following language will be added to the Proclamation:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history…

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23 comments… add one
  • Harry Apr 7, 2010 @ 16:11

    Nice to see the Governor step up and do what his predecessors failed to do.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2010 @ 16:35

      Yes, this is the second time in recent weeks where the governor has had to issue a retraction. To be honest I am much more relieved that he publicly renounced his Attorney General over discrimination policies re: gays and lesbians on college campuses.

      • Harry Apr 7, 2010 @ 16:42

        Was there any kerfuffle over previous Confederate History Month proclamations?

        • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2010 @ 16:52

          Good question, Harry. Offhand I don’t know. Part of the problem is that this is the first proclamation in eight years. I suspect that many thought the practice had ended.

          • Jeffry Burden Apr 8, 2010 @ 5:26

            Sure, there was plenty of comment when Gov. Allen issued enthusiastic proclamations similar to McDonnell’s first version this year. Governor Gilmore issued at least one watered-down proclamation that managed to antagonize both sides, not unlike the current amended effort. Governors Warner and Kaine wisely avoided the whole thing.

  • Keith Yoder Apr 7, 2010 @ 15:11

    Your use of this photo belies your assertion that this blog and your commentary are “about how Americans remember the Civil War.” I can recognize politics when I see it..

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2010 @ 15:14

      You are free to draw any conclusions you wish. For what it’s worth I did a quick search and came across the image. I actually gave it very little thought. Still, if it makes you feel better to hold tight to your assumptions than so be it. It doesn’t matter much to me. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      • Bob Huddleston Apr 7, 2010 @ 19:55

        What the picture and the initial proclamation say is that neither the governor nor his staff were sensitive enough to recognize that there was a potential problem with the governor’s booth being next to a CS flag seller, nor that issuing a SCV-generated Confederate Month recognition would bring protests. One hires staff to make one look good and prevent gaffs like these. Someone in his office should have asked the hard question, “Why hasn’t a Confederate Month declaration been issued for 8 years? And if we are going to issue one now, what should it say that will both please the SCV and avoid flak from the other side?”

        • Harry Apr 8, 2010 @ 3:35

          I don’t think it is the “Governor’s Booth”. It looks like it is the “Sportsmen for McDonnell” booth.

          • Bob Huddleston Apr 8, 2010 @ 8:11

            According to the Washington Post article linked by Keith, the booth was sponsored by the McDonnell Campaign organization. For the governor’s election (re-election?) campaign to have a booth in a sportsmen’s show is logical.

  • Jim Morgan Apr 7, 2010 @ 14:39

    No, Ken, we won’t declare him Public Enemy #1, though I am sorry to hear that he felt the need to apologize when no apology was necessary. As he noted, and as has been noted before, he addressed the slavery issue at some length in his inaugural speech. That should have been enough. But he’s a politician, after all.

    In any case, he has apologized for his oh-so-horrid comments. So the real question is, will his attackers now back off and give him credit for at least meaning well or will they just go after him all the more?

    This whole thing was a tempest that could and should have stayed in it’s teapot. Hopefully, it’s over now.

    Jim Morgan

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2010 @ 14:42

      Well, I am in the middle of composing a response to this. No, he is not Public Enemy #1, but many people around the state are pleased with the governor’s decision. I have a slightly different take on all of it.

    • Ken Noe Apr 7, 2010 @ 14:50

      Jim, you may well be right, I actually hope so, but my years in Georgia during the flagger era suggest that some anger is forthcoming.

      • Jim Morgan Apr 8, 2010 @ 3:23


        I’m sure that “some anger is forthcoming” by some people, SCVers and otherwise. But I’m not sure what that says in general about those of us who didn’t see a problem with the governor’s original proclamation.

        For reasons of my own, I’m not a member of the SCV (though I could be as I have Confederate ancestors) and I know that the SCV contains its share of crazies. I could name a few “liberal” organizations that do as well but that’s for another time and place. Maybe we can sit down over a beer sometime and argue politics.

        What has bothered me most about this discussion is the underlying assumption by those of you who opposed the proclamation that support for it must be motivated by racism. And I’ve seen that assumption in other Civil War-related discussions on other boards over a long period of time. Does every reference to the Confederacy really have to include an apology for slavery? My g-g-g-grandfather, according to the 1860 census, owned 204 slaves on a Louisiana plantation called Morganza (you’ll see it referenced a number of times in the O.R.). Does that mean I can never express admiration for his son, my g-g-grandfather who served in a Louisiana artillery unit, without adding, “… but he was probably a bad person because his family owned slaves?”

        Sorry. I don’t mean to personalize this but I use these examples only to make the larger point that it IS possible to look at the history of the Civil War and not automatically feel contempt for the people who fought for the Confederacy. I happen to believe that secession was a boneheaded and self-destructive idea from the get-go. And, yes, the war absolutely was ultimately about slavery. It is silly to deny that. I do, however, deny that preserving slavery was the motivation for every individual Southerner who joined the Confederate army. Individual motivations and ultimate causes are not the same thing but, in this case, they too often are treated as if they were.

        There was much more to the war than, as one person on here said, “treason in defense of slavery.” Those of you who criticized the governor’s original proclamation because it was narrow and simplistic ought not embrace an equally narrow and simplistic view of the war we all spend so much time studying and trying to understand.

        As I told Kevin in my initial post, we’re on the same side. In my view, however, way too much was made of a proclamation that, in itself, should not have caused anyone any heartburn. Hopefully, as this discussion gradually peters out, the issue will as well.

        Jim Morgan

        • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2010 @ 4:23


          I know you addressed this to Ken, but I would like to respond. I couldn’t agree more that not every reference to the Confederate past must imply racism. As said as much in my most recent post. The problem as I see it is that this narrative of the Civil War has been the standard narrative in Virginia throughout much of the century. It is the same narrative that framed the building of monuments in Richmond and around the state that reflect only one segment of the population. It’s the same narrative that led to the re-writing of the state’s history textbooks in the wake of the Brown decision. As I’ve said before it should come as no surprise that those who have historically been cut off from participating in this process would speak out in anger and frustration in response to such a proclamation.

          • Jonathan Dresner Apr 8, 2010 @ 4:48

            I think there’s a significant problem with the conflation of “South” with “Confederate”: I would think there’s plenty of room to talk about Southern Culture and History, even military history, without making slavery a central issue; on the other hand, the Confederacy, for it’s four-year life, was entirely about the defense of slavery. Though individual soldiers certainly varied in their views, a blanket commemoration like this proclamation would need to start with a recognition that the Confederacy was, in fact, all about slavery.

        • Ken Noe Apr 8, 2010 @ 9:33


          Several points. First, I didn’t assume at all that the governor was motivated by racism. Where did I say that? Nowhere. Rather, I took it that he was simply playing to part of his base, which is why you’ll note that I never commented on the original proclamation, only his abrupt turnaround. Nor do I think that everything about the Confederacy requires a reference to slavery, far from it. Clearly in retrospect, this did. The notion suggested by some that people needed to comb through all of McConnell’s prior statements and proclamations is just unrealistic. Finally, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Confederate soldiers over the last two-plus decades, and I don’t think you’ll find anything in my work resembling “contempt” or the notion that every Confederate was fighting solely for slavery, including my new book on “why they fought.” Far from it. To suggest otherwise is simply to paint a different stereotype with the broad brush you incorrectly ascribe to me.


    • Denise Apr 8, 2010 @ 5:58

      Kevin and Jim
      In response to Jim, no, the Governors critics on this latest kerfuffle will not back off. That level of intentionally provocative tone-deafness has portents of a very trying term of office. Yesterday Kevin felt that my intended sarcastic remarks to you about being grateful to the Loudoun S-Committee’s for a couple of signs regarding the extent of the black experience in VA during the Civil War years was condescending to your efforts. They were. It was a reflection of an inability that is still being expressed today to understand why I and others would be angered at such an off-offhandedly offered gesture coupled with myopic support for a deliberately narrow proclamation that couldn’t be sustained for 24 hours.

      You cannot wish for an objective study and understanding of the Confederacy without stating that it was formed and dedicated to upholding slavery as a way of life. Everything else that the supporters of its formation desired (states rights) flowed from that essential truth of its structure.

      Do I believe you support slavery and wish for its return? No, of course not. Should you honor your ancestors? Yes you should. Does every reference to the Confederacy have to contain an automatic apology for slavery? No, it does not, but it must forthrightly acknowledge the central role of slavery within the Confederacy. If you can’t get into the mindset of those who are and were grievously offended, then the 150 year celebration has the potential to be a flash-point that will marginalize all civil discourse hence forward.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2010 @ 6:01

        It is unfortunate that you continue to assume a great deal about Jim Morgan based on one comment. I’ve at least met the man and know quite a bit about his activities as a historian and as someone who cares about how the war is remembered. Instead of continuing to go after a fellow reader why not contribute something positive to the overall discussion?

  • Ken Noe Apr 7, 2010 @ 14:23

    Will the governor’s defenders now declare him Public Enemey number for giving in to the “PC crowd?” Will men with battle flags picket the governor’s mansion because he saddled their month with what amounts to an apology for slavery and an admission that slavery caused the war? Will the governor quietly wish that he had never heard of the @#$*@*&@ Civil War? Stay tuned until this evening, same bat time, same bat channel.

    • Ken Noe Apr 7, 2010 @ 14:24

      [Excuse the spelling errors, I hit the wrong button while still editing].

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2010 @ 14:25


      As you might imagine I am in the middle of a response to all of this.

      Earlier today I was contacted by NPR to right a short post for their opinion site. I somehow met their tight deadline, but the governor’s announcement undercut the whole thing. Still don’t know if they plan on publishing it.

      • Ken Noe Apr 7, 2010 @ 14:41

        I assumed that he would either stay the course or quietly issue a mild alteration. But his approving statement on “profound regret” plus the new “whereas” amount to almost a complete “180.” As someone who still calls himself a Virginian, I can’t help wondering if this is his “macaca” moment come early. Georgia’s Governor Purdue lost the heritage folks forever when he promised to restore the 1956 state flag and then didn’t.

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