Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Steven T. Corneliussen column: Senate candidates should debate slavery, Civil War controversies

Steven T. Corneliussen column: Senate candidates should debate slavery, Civil War controversies

  • 0

Whatever else can be said about Republican nominee Corey Stewart’s challenge to incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine, when it comes to civic memory of slavery and the Civil War, this campaign offers Virginia a chance to begin rising above vividly muddy contentiousness — or to at least face it.

A sometimes vocal Confederacy advocate, Stewart proclaims he’ll “fight” to “protect Virginia’s history.” Kaine, no stranger to history politics, wants three debates plus joint appearances. Why not encourage the candidates to invigorate — maybe even occasionally elevate — statewide discussion?

True, it’d be 90 percent angry, repetitive noise. But this is Virginia, which claims special standing to tell America’s freedom story to the world — yet doesn’t even have its own story straight. If just 10 percent of the debate makes sense, that would justify the enterprise.

Citizens of the former Confederacy’s leading state disagree ferociously about slavery days, alleging that facts are disrespected, overlooked, forgotten, suppressed, distorted, or misinterpreted. And, of course, they disagree about what from the past should be honored.


Here are a few questions the Senate candidates could address, though readers will surely be able to improve on these suggestions:

  • Does a community have a right to secede — even if unwisely — from its own past decisions about statues and school names? Are those
  • literally
  • history? Are they just expressions of esteem?
  • Is a community’s removal of a century-old statue equivalent to barbarians’ destruction of millennium-old antiquities?
  • Any comment on the biggest Civil War question — what caused the war? In a six-minute video, West Point’s Col. Ty Seidule — a Washington and Lee graduate and former battalion commander with five rows of ribbons, and a history Ph.D. — argues that it was caused by states’ rights to perpetuate slavery.
  • When it’s claimed that slavery was “accepted,” could the accepters have included millions of enslaved Americans? And does the term “Virginia heritage” embrace everybody? Can the same be said for “Confederate heritage”?
  • What about “presentism,” the goofy application of present standards to the past? Before the Civil War, what were America’s moral standards concerning slavery? Did legality confer legitimacy?
  • Concerning that moral legitimacy question, to what extent might it matter that slavery pervades human history? That black people enslaved black people? That Abraham Lincoln said racist stuff? That the North profited from slavery and helped sustain it?
  • Is “revisionism” inherently pernicious? If civic memory in Japan treats the 1937 Rape of Nanking counterfactually, does asserting facts constitute unhealthy revisionism?
  • Some questions incite especially strong passions. To what extent do race resentments discolor public memory?
  • Can individual human dignity be retrospectively respected by word choice? Is it just snowflake “political correctness” to remember Monticello’s Sally Hemings not as a “slave,” but as “enslaved”?
  • What about the genteel word “plantation,” connoting serenity, grace, and refinement? Does honest accuracy require instead “torture-enforced slave-labor farm”?
  • Was the Emancipation Proclamation really just a declaration of partial cessation of legalized crimes against humanity?
  • “Legalized crimes against humanity” is obviously linguistic presentism. Yet even the cruelest slaveholder would have understood the phrase. Volatility notwitstanding, does it clarify things?
  • And then there’s Fort Monroe, the Union’s bastion in Confederate Virginia. The fort in Hampton Roads is America’s pre-eminent landscape for remembering the self-emancipation movement that transformed the Civil War into a freedom struggle.

Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. says that by seeking sanctuary there, three black slavery escapees “unofficially ignited the movement of slaves emancipating themselves with their feet.” It was “the beginning of the end of slavery,” Gates declares.

In parts of Fort Monroe in 2011, developer-kowtowing politicians engineered a limited, split national monument (national park). Now it’s all languishing. What should happen?

  • How should slavery and the Civil War be remembered in Virginia? Senate candidates, will you lead?

Steven T. Corneliussen, the Save Fort Monroe Network spokesman, recently retired as a media columnist for Physics Today Online. Contact him at

Virginia claims special standing to tell America's freedom story to the world - yet doesn't even have its own story straight


Related to this story

Most Popular

Moms occupy a unique place in the heart of every person born into our world. Thanks, and Happy Mother’s Day to all moms.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News