History Test: Remembering Jefferson Davis

by ekramer on June 22, 2008

This year saw the launch of celebrations marking President Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009. This month, southerners in several states are celebrating the 200th birthday of Jefferson Davis.
Davis was President of the

Jefferson Davis, by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume, c. 1862-65. Credit: Courtesy of the R. W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, Louisiana.Confederate States of America during the Civil War. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer went to his birthplace to find out who’s celebrating.

“Well, this is the Jefferson Davis monument. It is 300 and 51 feet tall — and eight inches,” a tour guide announces.

This obelisk was built in 1917 at Jefferson Davis’s birthplace to commemorate the native son of Fairview in southwestern Kentucky.

Hundreds of visitors are here, and some are taking the elevator up to see the view. Below are dozens of Civil War reenactors who are camped out and clad in period clothing in 90-degree heat. The crowd is here to remember Davis with artillery  demonstrations and speeches by Davis’s descendents. Davis Webb is one. He calls his ancestor one of the most misunderstood men in American history.

“He was president of the Confederacy. The Confederacy lost the war. He owned slaves. And those are the two things that people know about him,” Webb says.

Webb details his forefather’s achievements as a military leader in the Mexican-American War, a U.S. Senator and Secretary of War from 1853 to ’57 under President Franklin Pierce.

Webb’s cousin, Bertram Hayes-Davis, says recognizing his great-great-grandfather doesn’t mean supporting slavery or racism; it means putting history in perspective.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that you don’t change history,” Hayes-Davis says. “The institution of slavery was not acceptable any time in the public interest. However, it was part of the society then. We cannot go back and change what we’ve seen but we can learn from it.”

For some here, the lesson is that the Civil War continues in the battle for stronger states’ rights. One believer is James Ronald Kennedy. He’s on the lawn signing books he co-authored, including one called “Was Jefferson Davis Right?”

“Jefferson Davis and all of his men and women that followed him into the Confederacy were fighting for limited government, constrained by the strictures of a written constitution. Now, obviously, we didn’t win — this time around.

“What do you mean by this time around?” I ask.

“It ain’t over, honey. It ain’t over,” Kennedy says.

Those feelings are echoed by members of the League of the South. It’s a southern nationalist organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center designated as a hate group in 2000. The center calls its members “neo-Confederates.”

Euan Hague is a professor at DePaul University and writes about neo-Confederates.

“A lot of neo-Confederates argue that the trajectory of the United States and the Constitution as established by the founding fathers was ripped apart by Lincoln,” Hague says. “So, Lincoln acted as a war criminal in an aggressive, offensive war and ever since then the United States has acted in an unconstitutional manner.”

Hague says the League of the South formed in 1994, and their ranks grew until the 2001 terrorist attacks. Then members began joining the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, a southern heritage group. The new members began voicing extremist and sometimes racist views causing longstanding members to leave.

Hague says neo-Confederates are promoting their ideas via conservative think tanks hoping they will gain traction among prominent politicians. It could be working. This month, Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb talked to CNN about his 2004 book that suggests the Civil War was more about state sovereignty than slavery.

Likewise, admirers of Jefferson Davis say his main concern was self-government. Hague says it’s an argument that validates these celebrations.

“He’s not just a hero for Confederates,” Hague says. “He’s a hero for all Americans because he was the one that was bravely resisting this usurpation of the constitution.”

But many southern heritage groups and historians simply see this anniversary as an opportunity to understand America’s past.

Historian William J. Cooper Jr. has written extensively about the Confederate leader.

“I think one should study him and try to understand him,” says Cooper. “I’m not about celebrating. That’s not the point in my humble opinion. And groups that say, ‘The South shall rise again,’ or fly the Confederate flag everyplace, I don’t have any truck with that. I think that’s just as bad as people who say that, ‘Well, we should never study Jefferson Davis because he was a slave owner and fought for slavery.'”

And what could the attitudes be about Davis in another 100 years? Tony Horwitz, author of the bestseller “Confederates in the Attic,” says shifts in demography could erode neo-confederate philosophies. The country has a growing nonwhite population, and young Americans are less conservative. But Horwitz says that change shouldn’t be a reason for Americans to forgo in-depth study of the Civil War and Davis.

“I don’t think that history should simply be forgotten, I think it should be remembered, debated and, you know, honored in most cases,” Horwitz says. “But particularly with the Confederacy, that’s a delicate exercise.”

That exercise could prove to be very difficult in a country where research shows citizens don’t know the facts of American history very well — which gives some people the opportunity to twist the truth.

 OTHER LINKS

Kentucky Historical Society, June 27, Symposium
“The Contested Legacy of Jefferson Davis” with William J. Cooper Jr.

June 10, 2008 article about Jim Web on Politico.com
“Webb’s rebel roots: An affinity for Confederacy”

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