200 years ago this year, a child was born on the frontier in Kentucky. He grew to become a tall, bearded man who became president of his country. Committed to principles he held dear, he led his nation into the Civil War, causing hundreds of thousands of his countrymen’s deaths. He’s a major figure in American history, so by all means, our nation should honor him, should it not?
For once, I’m not writing about Abraham Lincoln, but that other Kentuckian who rose to lead his nation, none other than Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. This year marks the bicentennial of his birth, just as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. But should we as a nation celebrate officially the memory of Jefferson Davis?
There can be no doubt that Davis was an impressive and accomplished man. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and West Point, served honorably in the Army in the Mexican War, was a U.S. Senator and also served as a U.S. Secretary of War. Unfortunately, of course, he also chose to lead a rebellion against the very government which educated him at it’s expense and sent troops into the field against the very army in which he served.
Today’s Arizona Republic newspaper carries an interesting article detailing how descendants of Davis are trying to push for official recognition of his birth anniversary. The family has contacted the Defense Department (the successor to the War Department which he led) to see if it would at least commemorate Davis. No response has been forthcoming. The article also quotes the esteemed historian James McPherson who gives various reasons why that no official celebrations should occur.
Even after the Civil War and hundreds of thousands of deaths, Jefferson Davis was basically an unreconstructed rebel and remained so until his death. In his own words, Davis stated that he believed in State’s Rights to very end. From his 2-volume “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Davis wrote:
“…it has not been my wish to incite to its exercise: I recognize the fact that the war showed it to be impracticable, but this did not prove it to be wrong; and, now that it may not be again attempted, and that the Union may promote the general welfare, it is needful that the truth, the whole truth, should be known, so that crimination and recrimination may for ever cease, and then, on the basis of fraternity and faithful regard for the rights of the States, there may be written on the arch of the Union, Esto perpetua.” The meaning of the last two words? “May It Persevere”. In other words, may the struggle continue.
Therefore, no matter the desire on the behalf of his descendants to honor their famous (or infamous) ancestor, I believe that no official government recognition of the bicentennial of the birth of Jefferson Davis should occur, lest it become a celebration for neo-Confederates and revisionist historians. Why should the Federal Government honor a man who sought to destroy it?