Sunday, June 3, 2012

Happy Jefferson Davis Day?

Jefferson Davis
in his later years,
circa 1888
Today is Jefferson Davis' birthday. He was born on June 3, 1808, which means he would have been 204 years old today.
If you happen to know who Jefferson Davis is, you are either 1. a student of the US Civil War or 2. a resident of one of the southern US states, or 3. both.

Jefferson Davis was President of the Confederate States of America (CSA), the southern states that seceded from the Union in 1861. He was appointed to that post in April, then legally elected in November. However, he only served four years of his six year term before he was removed from his office (or more truthfully, his office was removed out from under him).

Before he became President of the CSA, Davis was a general in the US-Mexico War. He also served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce (1853-57). He was actually against the idea of the southern states secedeing, but when called to serve, he answered.
Believe it or not, President Davis' birthday is a legal state holiday in Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. Of these, Mississippi celebrates it at the same time as the nationwide Memorial Day holiday (last week), but in Alabama and Florida he gets his own state holiday (tomorrow) to honor him.

Believe it or not (again), I asked a friend of mine who lives in Alabama, and he had no idea who Jefferson Davis was, let alone that Monday was any type of holiday for him. "Is he some former governor or something?" was his response to my question.

The more I think about it, the more I think celebrating President Davis' birthday is something of a  stretch. As a popularly elected official, he warrants honor. On the other hand, nationwide we only have one holiday for all Presidents (Presidents' Day) which honors two of our favorites, Washington and Lincoln. For him to have his own day, in a state that doesn't claim him (he was born in Kentucky) seems odd.

There's been a lot of talk in the last dozen or so years about the real "cause" of the Civil War. Maybe it was always there; I don't know. I have heard people say that the war was not really about slavery. I have read that people want to say that it was about "states' rights." In my opinion, it seems relatively simple. It seems that the southern states wanted to keep their governmental and social system in place without interference from the national government. Yes, this is States' Rights. The problem is, their then-current social system WAS slavery. So....ipso facto, it was about states wanting to maintain slavery. And in fact, it was not just about maintaining slavery: the southern states wanted to expand it. One of the reasons that the Civil War happened was because the US continued to expand westwardly. California became a state in 1850, followed in that decade by Minnesota, Oregon, and Kansas. The southern states wanted to maintain its roughly even-split in the US Congress, so they were insisting that slave states be added every time a non-slave state was. This doesn't sound like "States' Rights" to me.

As to what specifically caused the Civil War: 11 states seceding from the Union (13 if you count Missouri and Kentucky; some do and some don't). If they hadn't left, there would not have been a war. Period. Armed uprisings ala Harpers' Ferry or Bleeding Kansas almost surely would have continued, but full-on battles like what we ended up having? Almost certainly not. And why did the southern states leave? South Carolina seceded in December 1860. Ten more states seceded in the spring of 1861 BEFORE Republican President-elect Abraham Lincoln actually took office. President Davis actually took office before Lincoln did! Candidate Lincoln had said several times that he was NOT going to abolish slavery (he never actually did!) and yet the South, not trusting him, walked out anyway.

I have trouble understanding, more than one hundred years after the fact, how or why the southern states could believe that slaves were not human. I have trouble understanding how there was such a disconnect that the US Supreme Court at the time could decide the Dred Scott case (blacks were not humans or citizens and had absolutely no rights anywhere in the US) and think that it would not fan the flames of the problem. That's the real head-scratcher here: I can see where legal minds could (did) say: this is the law, period. But for the judges and politicians to be shocked that this decision would be met with derision and anger, that just boggles my mind. 

I guess it comes down to this: does supporting or honoring the Confederate States means that we are supporting or honoring slavery?

The Battle Flag of the
Army of Northern Virginia
The "rebel flag" is a great example of this. There are many people who fly the "rebel" flag of the Confederacy (actually the Battle Flag of The Army of Northern Virginia). In fact, I have a good friend who hangs this flag in his pole barn but can't explain to me why he does it. (He's from Kentucky.)   If the idea is to represent "rebellion," the official flag of the Confederacy would be a better choice, wouldn't it? Be that as it may, just what does the "stars and bars" flag represent...states' rights? slavery? segregation? the Dukes of Hazzard? (who were from Georgia) It seems to me that the image nowadays represents pure rebellion, if it isn't used to represent fringe groups like The Ku Klux Klan. However, because it CAN be used to represent segregation and fringe groups, it has been tainted by these associations.

Official CSA flag
Which leads me to my suggestion. In my opinion, it is time for the US government to review how we remember The Civil War. How about if we make April 9, the official end of the war, a holiday? Also, I think we should re-design our money. How awesome would it be if the $50 bill had General Robert E. Lee on it instead of Ulysses S. Grant? Or maybe together with Grant? What if the $5 bill had Presidents Lincoln AND Davis on it? I think it's time to say that the Conferacy was a Noble Mistake and move on. The southern states fought for something they believed in; it was an incorrect (evil) idea, but they had the right to do so and were noble for fighting for it. That idea sounds awfully American to me. We should disconnect the Confederate states from their racist past and honor the loyalty and sacrifices of the brave men and women, white and black, of that era. If we as a nation come to grips with the legacy of the Civil War, perhaps we can steal the images back fromt he fringe elements who have tried to co-opt them.

For another interesting take on the Civil War, I recommend borrowing the pseudo-documentary CSA from your local library. It is a documentary about what might have happened if the Confederate States had actually won the Civil War.

Look for it at your local library

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