April 8, 2004

MORE ON DODD: Eric Muller has the full text of Dodd’s remarks up on his blog, and observes:

On balance, I think the comparison to Lott’s praise of Thurmond is fair. What clinches it for me is when Dodd says, “Some were right for the time. ROBERT C. BYRD, in my view, would have been right at any time.” Here, I think, Dodd makes clear that, unlike the views of some, which may have seemed right in their moment but were later revealed to be mistaken, Byrd’s views have been timelessly correct.

Yeah, that’s how it looks to me, too. Which makes the disparate treatment of the Dodd and Lott affairs particularly troubling.

UPDATE: Jim Lindgren sends this on Dodd:

Some commentators on Dodd’s praise of Robert Byrd assume that Byrd is so completely reconstructed that the Senator Byrd of the last twenty years, no longer the KKK leader he once was, would have been an asset projected back to the Civil War. But Byrd, while now criticizing slavery, refused on at least one important occasion to criticize the South’s entry into the Civil War and defended the motives and honor of those who fought for the South–this from a Senator representing West Virginia, a state that owes its existence to the loyalty of its people to the Union side.

In 1993, Byrd joined with Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms to defend Congressional protection of the confederate flag as part of the insignia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, opposing Carol Moseley Braun.

Byrd on the floor of the Senate, 1993:

Many informed people believe that the 11 states that comprised the Confederacy stood on solid constitutional ground.

Abolitionist sentiment in the North changed the terms on which legal questions had originally been settled in the old Union. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia, made a peaceful settlement of the slavery question nearly impossible.

Interestingly, only an estimated 5 percent of the population of the South owned slaves. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Southern men – most of them slaveless and poor – answered the call of the Confederate government to defend the sovereignty of their states. In West Virginia, it broke down about 2-to-1, I suppose, with about one-third supporting the Confederacy and the other two-thirds supporting the Union. Those men – brave and patriotic by their rights, almost to a fault – are the ancestors of millions upon millions of loyal, law-abiding American citizens today.

In the classic Ken Burns Civil War series on public television, historian Shelby Foote recounted a discussion between a Confederate prisoner and his Yankee captor, who asked the Confederate soldier, “Why are you fighting us like this?” To which the Confederate soldier replied, “Because y’all are down here.”

That was not racism. That was not a defense of slavery. That was a man protecting his home, his family and his people.

We are who we are today largely because of the War Between the States.

Americans of Southern heritage need not defend slavery in order to memorialize the legacy of which they are a part.

The Washington Times, August 7, 1993, WHAT DID EMBLEM SYMBOLIZE?, LEXIS/NEXIS.

While such carefully measured statements–praising those who fought for the South while criticizing slavery–[are] not disgusting, I hope that this is not the sort of leadership that today’s Republicans and Democrats would have wanted in the Civil War, especially from a person who has been called the “political king” of West Virginia, a Union state. One must remember that most of the pro-slavery arguments, at least before 1830, admitted the immorality of slavery as the starting point. The question for many in both the South and the North was not slavery’s immorality, which was widely (though not universally) admitted, but what if anything to do about it.


ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Robert Burg has more thoughts. Click “More” to read them.

Burg writes:

Byrd’s comments deserve serious and repeated correction. First, his “only five percent of the population of the South owned slaves” line borders on the ridiculous. To begin with, slaves were 33% of the population of the South in 1860. Second, 1 in 4 white households in the South owned slaves. In the western part of Virginia, not modern-day West Virginia, I’ve seen estimates of 1 in 5 white households owning slaves (Edward L. Ayers, _In the Presence of Mine Enemies_, 2003, pg. 33, which was just recently award the Pulitzer Prize). Maybe this is where Byrd’s number derives from–if his remarks can be described as mistaken, and not willfully deceptive.

The numbers above, in and of themselves, understate the influence of slavery, for they do not count the number of whites who rented slaves from larger plantation owners, or the numbers of whites who aspired to own their own slaves someday. Slavery was deeply imbedded in Southern society, and the value of slave property in 1860 was about 20% of the entire national wealth, or about 3X the value of the dominant industry (at that point) that we usually associate with the nineteenth century, the railroads (James L. Huston, _Calculating the Value of the Union_, 2003, pg. 28). The threat the Republican Party posed to the value of this property and the pervasiveness of this institution is what caused the South to secede, and this is what led Confederate soldiers to attack Fort Sumter and thereby have to fight Union soldiers “down

I daresay as well that slavery was not so widely morally disparaged, nor its immorality so widely regarded, as Lindgren (or the Times piece), seems to suggest, certainly post-1830. Abolitionists were widely reviled in the North, their petitions went undelivered in the South and unheard in Congress, and they were openly opposed by the majority party of the time, the Democratic Party, both North and South. Moreover, the Republican Party built its electoral success
around the threat pro-slavery forces posed to white voters, not to their moral inhibitions about slavery. The Slave Power was a threat to white liberties and livelihoods, in other words.

Proslavery arguments in the South often defended the morality of slavery, finding useful passages in the Bible in this regard, and Southern churches proved all too willing to split from their Northern brethren over the issue in the 1840s and 1850s. Even prominent Southern critics of slavery usually focused on slavery’s inefficiency versus free labor and the Northern system, not on its immorality. Focusing on the immorality of slavery in the antebellum South was a quick way to find oneself tarred and feathered.

I’m not an expert on this history, but Byrd’s comments do have the tang of revisionism. If I recall correctly, the Articles of Secession passed by many Confederate states put slavery right up front as the reason for leaving the Union, with self-determination coming second.

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