by James A. Bacon
The Washington Post recently published a story about a gubernatorial appointment to one of Virginia’s more obscure commissions: the state Board of Historic Resources, which oversees state historic-site designations. The article focused on Governor Glenn Youngkin’s selection of Ann McLean, who believes that Virginia’s heritage is “under attack,” and has condemned the destruction of Confederate monuments as a “dangerous” rewriting of history.
Only three years ago, before the protests unleashed by the George Floyd protests, views on Confederate statues were radically different. A special commission appointed to study the statues on Monument Ave. was debating what to do with the monument which, even before George Floyd’s death, some considered a problem. The committee was leaning then toward “recontextualizing” or “reinterpreting” the statues to reflect the fact that the public understanding of the monuments had changed since they were erected more than a century ago. It was a perfectly acceptable position to argue at that time, as McLean did, that these magnificent works of public art should be preserved in place.
Today, some paint that view as racist.
The WaPo quotes Delegate Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, as saying McLean’s appointment showed Youngkin’s “callous attitude toward Black history in Virginia and the lingering effects of institutional racism.” In a text message to the Post, he said that Youngkin seemed intent on “erasing our voices, images and pain without flinching. He must believe no one is paying attention to his appointments or he’s just that brazen to repeatedly thumb his nose at us.”
Count on Bagby to insinuate racism, and count on the Post to publish his comments.
The Post quotes McLean as saying in December that “these statues were built to tell the true story of the American South to people 500 years from now.” The Civil War was fought for the “sovereignty of each state and constitutional law.”
“This whole tragedy is that these statues were built to tell the true story of the American South to people 500 years from now,” McLean said to a Richmond radio host last year. “People want to destroy the evidence of that story.”
To the Post’s readership the idea that Virginians fought for “state sovereignty” and not to uphold slavery will be viewed self-evidently absurd, a confabulation of the Lost Cause narrative. Without rehashing the timeless debate over the causes of the Civil War, however, it is indisputable that while the first Southern states to secede from the Union did so explicitly to preserve slavery, Virginia voted initially not to join them. Only when President Lincoln announced the mobilization of an army to force the Southern states back into the Union did Virginia vote to leave the union — on the grounds of preserving state sovereignty.
McLean lays legitimate claim to expertise on the history of Civil War statues. She wrote her PhD dissertation at the University of Virginia on the topic: “Unveiling the Lost Cause: A study of Monuments to the Civil War Memory in Richmond, Virginia and Vicinity.”
The dissertation, written in 1998 before the statues became a culture-wars flash point, acknowledges the links between the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue and the Lost Cause mythology as well as African-American opposition at the time to erecting the statues. But the motivations behind the memorials were more complex and nuanced than conveyed today. As McLean wrote:
Agreement existed among white city leaders to establish a corridor based on War memories which promoted Richmond’s self-perception and identity as a place of historical importance. The Avenue’s statues were erected to proclaim the virtues associated with war (courage, leadership, devotion to duty, scientific ingenuity) with which the South wished to be identified. They also are a collective political message about a failed nation’s strength. Today they reveal the dominance of a white, patriarchal, Protestant society and women’s willingness to uphold that social norm.
Other statues honoring enlisted soldiers testified to a “New South” mind-set and America’s ideal of a democratic republic.
“Placing a monument was in some sense a dutiful end-statement, from which society could then move forward,” McLean wrote. But the statues were also political statements, inspired by a search for virtue in tradition and to glorify the past. “They are about resistance to changes imposed from without, resistance to a perceived “northern” way of life…. They also testify to a society condition, the lack of racial equality in the military and in many social institutions at the time of their founding. Thus they supported Jim Crow laws which denied power to minorities.”
In other words, the history is complicated. The statues, wrote Mclean, were “multivalent.” Her dissertation sought to elucidate multiple layers of meaning.
Bacon’s bottom line: Bagby and the Post are signaling in the article that complexity and nuance are unwelcome in any discussion of Civil War memorials. They’ve got their own narrative about the statues’ meaning, they’re sticking to it, and there is zero room for compromise. A new orthodoxy has replaced the old, and dissidents like McLean must be portrayed as extremists whose continued participation in the public dialogue is a matter of controversy.
Full disclosure: I serve with Ann McLean on the board of The Jefferson Council and have published her articles on Bacon’s Rebellion. We are also collaborating on other initiatives relating to Virginia’s culture wars and assaults on individual liberties.