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Editorial: Meet the governor who signed off on the Lee statue

Editorial: Meet the governor who signed off on the Lee statue

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Philip McKinney

Philip McKinney

There are no statues to him and apparently nothing named after him.

Even in the histories of his era, Philip McKinney doesn’t rate many mentions. By contrast, his defeated political opponent earns whole chapters. And yet more than a century (and a few decades) later, the forgettable Philip McKinney now looms large over Virginia — although, admittedly, not as large as the 12-ton statue of Robert E. Lee that he had a hand in raising on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. That hand in question was the hand that McKinney — the 41st governor of Virginia — used to sign the paperwork that accepted the statue as property of the state.

All the other Confederate statues on Monument Avenue have come down — either by protestors or by the decree of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. Only Lee remains because Lee, unlike the others, is owned by the state and not the city. (Also, at 60-feet tall, it’s too big for protestors to pull down with ropes).

On Thursday, a Richmond judge will hear arguments over whether the state really can take down the statue; the descendants of the family that donated the land point to an 1890 deed in which the state pledged to hold the statue “perpetually sacred.” Signing on behalf of the state that March day in 1890 was the new governor of Virginia, the aforementioned McKinney.

McKinney’s 19th century role in this 21st century debate opens a door into the history of that era, and, we warn you, McKinney doesn’t come out looking very good. He was mostly a failed politician who finally got lucky enough to run against one of the most controversial men in Virginia at the time.

McKinney was born in Buckingham County, studied law at what was then simply Washington College (today Washington & Lee University), served as a Confederate cavalry officer, took a bullet at Brandy Station, and then spent about 20 years as Commonwealth’s Attorney in Prince Edward County. McKinney wanted more, though — repeatedly running for Congress, attorney general and governor and losing every time. In 1889, he finally got lucky — Democrats needed a candidate for governor and it was apparently McKinney’s “turn.”

Here’s a brief — very brief — history of Virginia politics of that era. One of the conditions that Congress placed on the readmission of Virginia and other Southern states after the Civil War was that they create a public school system. Northern politicians felt that the ignorance of Southern voters had allowed them to be too easily swayed by the slave-owning plantation class. Schools cost money, though. Where was Virginia going to find the money to run them — and still pay the huge debts that it had run up during the war? The “readjusters” wanted to “readjust” the state’s debt — and only pay part of it. Those who insisted on fully paying it were called the “funders.” There was a class divide at work — the state’s political establishment, to whom much of that debt was owned, was very much on the side of the funders. In time, those Readjusters morphed into the local version of the Republican Party, which was the more moderate party of the time; the funders were Democrats, the conservatives of that era, at least in the South. For a time, the Readjusters prevailed. When they controlled the General Assembly in the 1880s, they passed landmark civil rights legislation. Then came the inevitable conservative backlash, and Democrats regained power. Still, the state’s politics were surprisingly competitive.

The best-known Readjuster/Republican was William Mahone, a former Confederate general turned railroad tycoon responsible for creating the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad, a forerunner of the Norfolk & Western Railway and today’s Norfolk Southern. He was a brilliant businessman and political strategist. He was also considered highly dictatorial — and massively corrupt. Mahone’s political genius had been to persuade many poor white voters — especially in Southwest Virginia — that their political interests aligned with those of Black voters. Democrats, though, were horrified that Blacks were allowed to vote at all, much less hold office — and used that to discredit the entire Republican Party. In 1885, Democrat FitzHugh Lee had barely won the governorship over Republican John Wise. That meant the 1889 governor’s race was no certain thing. Democrats put up the bland but persistent McKinney; Republicans nominated the polarizing Mahone. Historian Allen Moger called that campaign “the most bitter in the history of Virginia.” He writes that “the traditional ruling classes” considered the Readjuster/Republicans “a blot on the state’s record” — and that Mahone personified everything they despised about the post-war social order. McKinney was the candidate of those “traditional ruling classes.” Mahone was not particularly “woke” to racial uses — he simply saw Black voters as useful for his party and repaid them with minor offices. McKinney, though, ran on a platform of unabashed white supremacy. The Danville Times called the election of 1889 “a great battle for the supremacy of the white race.” McKinney won — in a landslide. Historian Virginius Dabney writes that the election was a “severe reverse” for Republicans. “It would be generations before the party regained its influence in Virginia.”

As governor, McKinney satisfied the state’s ruling classes by paying off the state’s debt. He signed off on the creation of the state library, where his records are now housed. Among them: His letters “to inquire of different institutions on the potential dangers of electric lights.” McKinney also looked the other way while lynching was on the rise. Not until there was a riot in Roanoke — in which the militia took the unusual act of firing on a white mob to protect a Black prisoner (unsuccessfully) — did McKinney speak out. Basically, not until whites got killed did he intervene. In an address to the General Assembly, he excused lynchings of the past as unavoidable. He said that Blacks were “uncultivated in their morals” and that in the aftermath of emancipation the occasional lynching was “necessary” and “the only safe protection for society.” Now “the crisis is over,” he said, and lynchings should be avoided because they usually happened so quickly they didn’t do enough to truly intimidate the Black population.

This is the governor who signed off on the state’s acceptance of the Lee monument.

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