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We All Have Our Blind Spots



On this day in 1868, the Petersburg Index reprinted a speech delivered by Robert E. Withers upon his acceptance of the Conservative Party nomination for governor. In his remarks, Colonel Withers, a Lynchburg newspaper editor, suggested that worse than the “utter horror” of the late war would be the adoption of a new state constitution—”this miserable patch-work which degrades the name of Constitution—as proposed by the Republicans. He ended thusly:

My proudest duty will be to bear into the thickest of the fight that glorious old motto, “Sic semper tyrannis”—our guiding star in the past against defeat and dishonor—now trampled under foot, yet still dear to every Virginia heart. [Applause.] I accept it with the hope of again raising from the dust and planting on the capitol that hallowed banner by defeating the miserable, and audacious, and detestable specimen of the handiwork of carpet-baggers and negroes. [Applause.]

That was on page 1 of the Index. On page 2 was a note endorsing Union general Winfield Scott Hancock for president. While the editors do not note that Hancock was named for a Virginian, they do acknowledge that some might wonder how southern Conservatives like themselves could promote the cause of a former enemy:

People of small souls and prejudiced minds seem to find it impossible to account for that feeling, so common to brave and generous natures, of admiration for, and confidence in, a gallant opponent. It seems also very hard for Republican writers to believe that the South is anxious to bury dead issues, if allowed to do so, and anxious also to fraternize politically with those men who desire to use peace for the literal accomplishments of those ends which the United States Government proclaimed as its object upon declaration of, and repeatedly reaffirmed during the prosecution of, hostilities, viz: the restoration of the Union under the Constitution.

Of course, only a small soul would find a contradiction in editors who denounce miserable, audacious, detestable northerners and “negroes,” while also complaining that everyone thinks they hold a grudge. And Hancock, well, he was a special case. Only a few months previously he had released General Orders No. 40, which supported President Andrew Johnson‘s “can’t-everyone-just-get-along?” approach to Reconstruction and went against one what one scholar describes as “the whole philosophy of the reconstruction acts passed by Congress.”
Such was the nature of Hancock’s ambition. He became the Democrats’ nominee a few elections later, in 1880, but lost in a squeaker to James A. Garfield.
ELSEWHERE: To witness an analysis of Hancock’s military prowess, at Gettysburg and elsewhere, in addition to a discussion of why Hollywood can’t get his height correct, go here.
IMAGES: The Petersburg Index front-page banner, “The Speech of Col. Withers,” and “General Hancock for the Presidency,” all from May 11, 1868; and Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress)

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