Jefferson (who?)

If you thought the dearth of events commemorating the bicentennial of Robert E. Lee’s birth was depressing you ain’t seen nothing yet.  This year is the bicentennial of Jefferson Davis’s birth, but even his home state of Mississippi is uninterested.  According to an AP story:

"Even Mississippi, the state where Davis made his plantation fortune and
to which he retired after the war, gave the idea of commemorating Davis
a lukewarm reception. A bill to establish a commission "for the purpose
of organizing and planning a celebration in recognition of Jefferson
Davis’ 200th birthday" easily passed the House, only to die in the
Senate appropriations committee."

Bertram Hayes-Davis, head of the Davis Family Association and
great-great grandson of the only president of the Confederate States of America, has had little luck in organizing activities in honor of his
great-great grandfather.  The Department of Defense refused to even
consider organizing an event to acknowledge Davis’s service as
Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. The Jefferson Davis
Bicentennial Organization has very little listed on its calendar of
which is more than likely how it will remain throughout the rest
of the year.   

Part of the problem is that Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial is overshadowing everything as it should be.  Civil War historian and Davis biographer William J. Cooper had this to say:

Lincoln "saved the Union. He emancipated the slaves. I mean, he won the
war," Cooper says. "Fighting against Lincoln is, you know, fighting
against motherhood."

True enough, but that is only part of the story.  It does not explain why so little has been planned in states like Mississippi and by Southern Heritage groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  One can assume that they are not rushing to acknowledge Lincoln’s historical significance.  But perhaps last week’s reenactment of Davis’s inauguration provides a clue.  Hayes-Davis took part in the reenactment of his ancestor’s
swearing-in ceremony in Montgomery on February 15; however, rather than repeat
the oath he simply kissed the Bible and turned to the crowd
and said, "So help me God."  One is left wondering exactly what he was reenacting.

I suspect that Hayes-Davis did not want to be perceived to be engaged in another act of treason, but it is the very oath of office to defend the Confederate Constitution that both reflects Davis’s significance to American history and perhaps why he has been so easily dismissed as an object of public commemoration.  No doubt the fact that the oath was to defend a constitution that was explicitly written to defend and perpetuate slavery shaped their decision to bypass it altogether.  It is much easier to focus on the battlefield heroics of Lee and Jackson, in part, because their actions can be interpreted as apolitical.  We can wrap their actions around the Victorian ideals of masculinity and courage without acknowledging that the armies they led were extensions of a political system.  Davis on the other hand could never be understood apart from the muck and mire of Confederate politics even though he achieved, according to Donald E. Collins, a certain amount of public acclaim in the South towards the end of his life – and more importantly, even if his policies and decisions in Richmond contributed substantially to the growing popularity and eventual legendary status of Lee and Jackson. 

Perhaps the failure to commemorate Davis’s life reflects our continued preoccupation with battles and leaders and our unwillingness to more fully appreciate or come to terms with the political realities of the war.  In the end, did anyone come close to embodying the Confederate cause more so than Jefferson Davis?

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7 comments… add one
  • John Maass Feb 27, 2008 @ 22:33

    Isn’t this like celebrating Benedict Arnold’s birthday?

  • Craig Feb 25, 2008 @ 10:42

    I understand that Jefferson Davis acquitted himself fairly respectably in Wisconsin after the Blackhawk War of 1832 and before the War of Texas Independence in 1848. He worked for the U.S. Army, surveying the Chippewa River basin and enabling the development of a notable lumber industry.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2008 @ 15:15

    Paul, — You are absolutely right and to a certain extent I don’t blame our public officials for ignoring it. No doubt this explains Eric Wittenberg’s frustrations in Ohio. That said, Virginia is making steady progress in the organizing of activities for the Sesquicentennial. We will have to wait to see if problems arise.

  • Paul Taylor Feb 24, 2008 @ 14:19


    As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, I’m sensing that there is a great fear by the “powers that be” that ANY type of “commemoration” or “rememberance,” no matter how scholarly or objective, will be interpreted by some (many?) as a “celebration.” Or perhaps that by publicly and formally remembering, we somehow “justify” the decisions of the past. Given the CYA-first mentality of many politicians at any level of government, the unspoken perception may be that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose by sponsoring Civil War-related activities. Why? Well, I guess it’s simply that the racial component is still so intense that they’d rather let the sleeping dog lie and not stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy.


  • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2008 @ 6:09

    Jeremy, — I should have been more careful here, but I was not in any way suggesting that Jefferson Davis ought to be commemorated. My interest is squarely on the question of why he is being ignored. Thanks.

  • Robert Moore Feb 23, 2008 @ 23:30


    Good post. I think that it was hard enough to find much enthusiasm for Davis at the time of the war. So, apart from those who have re-invented memory of the war and who are generally smitten with all things Confederate, I see even less enthusiasm for Davis in this day and age.


    Robert Moore

  • Jeremy Young Feb 23, 2008 @ 22:21

    Maybe I’m being insensitive here, but what exactly is it about Davis that you want commemorated? The man was the leader of a treasonous regime that supported slavery and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans on both sides. Davis refused to surrender after the November 1864 election, despite the fact that he knew the South stood no chance, and despite the desire of Alexander Stephens to give up. In doing so, he was personally responsible for thousands of additional deaths.

    Why should we remember this man as anything other than a maniac and a butcher? In fact, why should we remember him at all?

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