When former Gov. Gerald Baliles passed away recently, the tributes focused on the highlights of his 1986-1990 governorship, which is appropriate.
Today we’re focusing on a controversial speech he made that few in Virginia ever heard about.
That was the speech he delivered at the Gettysburg National Military Park where he said the South was wrong about the Civil War. That might seem obvious to people—well, most people—now, but it was definitely not what people expected a Virginia governor to say in 1988.
The occasion was the 125th anniversary of the battle and Baliles was one of many dignitaries invited to speak that July 2. It was the kind of observance that typically would be marked with fluffy words about sacrifice and history. But that was not the kind of speech Baliles intended to give.
Baliles is often described as “boldly cautious,” a “dull, gray mist” in one satirical formulation. This is a mistaken simplification of the man. Baliles personally was a quiet, studious, thoughtful man, who was also not afraid to do things that other politicians would have never dared to do. For a candidate elected as a centrist with the support of the state’s business community, Baliles also turned out to have social justice streak few expected outside those who knew him best. He called for women to be admitted to the Virginia Military Institute long before that was a popular thing to do. And he gave that Gettysburg speech.
It began the way everyone expected. The governor talked about “the brave boys of Virginia” who charged up Cemetery Hill. He mused about why the South lost that day.
But then, as he turned to the second page of his speech, he started making a more substantive turn that no one expected: “Now, a century and a quarter later, we look back upon this strange and bitter crisis, so deeply riven with conflict, and only ask: Why? Why did the regimental flag of the 18th Virginia come to be raised at all? Why did young Virginia boys from Danville and Farmville and Pittsylvania and Charlotte counties die on Pennsylvania fields and hillsides?” Baliles did not offer the usual Southern answers, either. He pointedly referred to “51,000 American casualties at Gettysburg”—not Northern ones and Southern ones. And then he got to his main point, as rhetorically sharp as a bayonet: “For the South, there was a much greater tragedy: The nobility of its sacrifice was matched only by the misjudgment of the cause.”
Misjudgment? Had any Virginia governor ever gone to a Civil War battlefield and said such a thing? Baliles did. “Through force of arms, the South sought to sever the unity of our nation and with it the legacy of our finest achievement, the American Constitution. And here, the irony rests with Virginia.” Virginians, he pointed out, were instrumental in drafting and ratifying that Constitution. “And yet, 75 years and a week later to the day, a Virginia army led by a Virginian arrived here intent upon dissolution of the Union.” This was not a tribute; it was an historical indictment.
Baliles wasn’t through, either. “We have not lost our cause,” he said. “We have found it.” He then went on to enumerate what he felt those causes should be—among them, “a future that embraces all our citizens.”
No Virginia journalists were present that day and, in a pre-Twitter age, there was no hashtag to make the speech go viral. But word got around anyway, mostly through the reenactment community. For the rest of his term, the angry letters showed in the governor’s mailbox. Here’s a typical one: “It distresses me to know that the governor of Virginia could stand on the field of Gettysburg and imply that Virginia’s sons were ‘intolerant’ and their war ‘misbegotten,’” wrote a man from Chesterfield County. Baliles had, indeed, called the war “misbegotten” but he didn’t exactly call Southern soldiers “intolerant.” Instead what he said was this: “Each generation bears a responsibility for the democratic institutions it inherits, that nothing can be taken for granted. That absolute ends sought by absolute means can yield absolute destruction. That democracy only lasts so long as intolerance does not.”
More than three decades have come and gone since Baliles gave that speech. But his words seem just as appropriate today—indeed, perhaps even more appropriate. Our democracy isn’t a given; it was something that previous generations created and our generation must preserve so that we can pass it on to those generations yet to come. In a diverse society such as ours, intolerance is a corrosive that eats away at civil society. Baliles was a keen student of history but always had his eye fixed elsewhere—on the future. “Let us only remember the past,” he said that day in Gettysburg, “not become prisoners to it.”