Representative Eric Johnson left Friday’s sit-down with Governor Greg Abbott confident that they agreed on two things. First: markers and monuments at the Texas Capitol should be historically accurate. Second: a plaque inside the Capitol that claims the Civil War “was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery” does not pass that test.
Almost immediately after the meeting, Abbott’s office half-denied, half-downplayed Johnson’s public statements that the governor was “supportive of the plaque coming down.” Abbott’s spokespeople insisted he simply asked the State Preservation Board to “look into the issue.” Johnson pushed back and, by Monday, Abbott’s office acknowledged that the governor thinks “substantially inaccurate” markers at the Capitol should come down.
What Abbott won’t publicly say is whether he thinks it’s “substantially inaccurate” to deny that the Civil War was fought over slavery. (We asked his office for comment and received no response.)
That’s not entirely surprising, considering that defending Confederate monuments has morphed into a sort of cause célèbre in some pockets of the conservative movement. After the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville this summer, Abbott resisted renewed calls to remove Confederate monuments and markers around the Capitol, cautioning that “tearing down monuments won’t erase our nation’s past.” Only 9 percent of Republicans who responded to the latest UT/Texas Tribune poll support relocating or removing the state’s many Confederate markers. White House chief of staff John Kelly even pushed the slavery-denying Lost Cause narrative this week, telling a Fox News host that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”
Johnson, who says he’s “seriously considering” a run for speaker of the House next term, wants to see every Confederate monument on the Capitol grounds fall, but his focus in recent months has been on the so-called Children of Confederacy Creed. Last week, Johnson filed his official request with the State Preservation Board to remove the plaque, which was mounted just steps from the Capitol rotunda during the civil rights era. The marker denies slavery’s role in the Civil War, despite the state’s declaration of secession, filed nearly a century earlier, that claimed the country was “established exclusively for the white race” and declared that black people were “rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.” The Texas Ordinance of Secession also states that “the servitude of the African race … is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.”
“We have a legal document that is housed in our state archives that tells the world why Texas seceded from the union,” Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, told the Observer. “We have this document that says the Civil War, at least for Texans, is about slavery. Then you have a plaque up outside my office that says the Civil War’s not about slavery? It’s just patently false. That’s why the plaque needs to come down.”
Johnson claims that Abbott agreed the plaque was historically inaccurate. He says the governor then brought up an instance two years ago when he threw out a mock nativity scene that a church-state separation group had set up in the Capitol basement. It’s unclear if Abbott was joking, or whether he really thinks a cardboard cutout “winter solstice” display featuring the Founding Fathers, the Statue of Liberty and the Bill of Rights is comparable to a plaque that’s for decades told Capitol visitors that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War.
Johnson hopes an analysis of the plaque’s history, which Abbott has publicly acknowledged asking the State Preservation Board to do, opens the floodgates on the larger discussion about the more than 170 Confederate markers in Texas. “This conversation has to start somewhere in Texas,” Johnson told the Observer. “This plaque makes it clear what was going on in the late ’50s when some of these monuments went up. It clearly shows the propaganda campaign, the attempt to rewrite the history of the Civil War.”
When it comes to the plaque at hand, Johnson says Abbott’s hairsplitting doesn’t really matter so long as the preservation board does its job. “If the whole thing swings on historical inaccuracy, then that plaque’s doomed.”