Matthew Yglesias highlights an interview Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour did with Politico wherein Barbour concedes that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery, that abolition of slavery was an imperative, and that it required the Civil War to do it. What he said is not news, per se, but that fact that it’s a Mississippi state governor that’s saying it is.
Barbour has been highly visible in contemplating a presidential run, and it’s highly likely he’s been forced forced into the admission due to his series of public missteps on history and race. First, going back last year to the brouhaha over Virginia Governor’s McDonnell’s hamfisted proclamation for “Confederate History Month” that neglected to mention the issue of slavery, and McDonnell claiming after the fact that slavery wasn’t “significant” enough to honoring the history of Virginia’s involvement to merit mention of it, Barbour brushed off the controversy, claiming it was a “nit” and “trying to make a big deal.” That didn’t sell well.
Then he stepped further into it when he reminisced warmly about the racial harmony of his boyhood town of Yazoo City, Mississippi, claiming that the town’s prominent Citizen’s Council, an organization so maligned by northerners, was just a civic leadership organization that kept the KKK out of things. It was quickly pointed out that the Citizen’s Council’s raison d’etre was segregation, and even Barbour’s boyhood best-friend emerged out of the woodwork to describe how violent and powerful the Citizen’s Council was in pursuit of it, not only against blacks but whites to accepted blacks as customers, clients, and friends.
And when the particularly vile neo-Confederate organization Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed a license plate honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the key founders of the KKK, Barbour killed it, but then ruffled feathers by saying that he wouldn’t “denounce” the proposal. “I don’t go around denouncing people,” he said.
So Barbour’s sincerity can certainly be questioned. Why should we pay attention to Barbour’s recent admission about the nature of the Civil War? Because it’s been said, regardless of the reasons for saying it. It would be great if there were sufficient political pressure building inside Mississippi to force its utterance, but the fact that it’s coming from outside Mississippi means that we should be glad that it’s registering at all.
The notion that the Civil War was fought over issues other than slavery – states rights, taxation, or what have you – was a myth first put forward by the Confederacy in the last days of the war and then given the nod by historians so that the South could save face after provoking a war for a patently amoral cause upon which it attempted to build a new nation. The inability of the South to face up to this brutal historical truth has perpetuated a cultural and political immaturity throughout the former Confederacy, particularly in its white governing class. That the South is today largely governed by an infantile claque of demagogues is largely the result of that refusal to own up to the truth.
Outside of the Beltway, and perhaps his own state, nobody takes Barbour seriously as a presidential candidate. Mississippi has far too much baggage for its governor to claim any sympathy or allegiance from the rest of the nation. And that Barbour seems, even against his own intentions, to embody a stereotype to which that baggage is attached pretty much means his candidacy is over before it even begins. But that a politician from the South has to say finally the hard truths that the rest of the nation put to rest long ago means that maybe the South will be finally able to grow up and get to work.