Matthew Stokes: Let Jefferson Davis go

Matthew Stokes: Let Jefferson Davis go

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Several news reports have recently noted a decline in visits to America’s Civil War battlefields.  The reasons are as varied as they are obvious. The baby boomers, whose great grandparents grew up with stories of the Civil War, are aging.  The beach is more fun. Something about smartphones and social media. There is also an assumption that everyone knows this bit of history, that all of America is well-versed in the narrative of the antebellum period that led to the Civil War.  Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes are a high school or college student has been quickly disabused of that idea.

In an education world obsessed with STEM, citizenship and social studies have taken a beating.  There is less emphasis on history and citizenship than ever before, and I think this is where some of the blame lies for the lack of nuance and understanding in our current political conversation.  History is intensely complicated; good people did bad things, and bad people at times did decent things. In our rush to tell the story of our nation’s history, we often lose this perspective. At other times, history affords us the opportunity to view the past with clarity, and we recognize that some figures were almost entirely wrong and historically irredeemable.  That brings us to last week in Alabama.

Last Monday, June 3, was the birthday of Confederate Jefferson Davis, and state government observed the day as a holiday. This has to end.

I am generally opposed to tearing down statues or monuments; the better solution is to build newer, perhaps better monuments alongside the old ones.  I worry that the tear-it-down crowd, no matter how well-intended, has no limiting principle, which is why we occasionally hear calls for renaming buildings and institutions and tearing down statues built to honor Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Given the complexity of our history, we do ourselves no favors by physically erasing the elements that make us uncomfortable. This conversation is often riddled with the tendency that C.S. Lewis identified as chronological snobbery, his term for the tendency of modern, civilized people to see themselves as morally superior to their forebears.  We’ve all been tempted to think that if we were alive in 1860 or 1963, then surely we would have been on the side of truth and justice.

We should not be so sure.  We know that many within the Union Army held racial attitudes that we rightfully reject today, and plenty of Confederate deserters left their post owing more to moral cowardice than to a principled objection to a war in defense of slavery.  What we can do is work to improve Alabama right now, and at a bare minimum we should agree that the state of Alabama should no longer honor the Confederate president with a state holiday.

At the risk of being old-fashioned, I still recognize that the Civil War was a tragic occurrence that took place for a multitude of reasons.  The participants in the war often felt themselves swept along by the current of history in such a way that they scarcely realized what was happening until it was already underway. In that sense I believe we ought to allow a degree of historical grace to those who did not see their own time as clearly as we would prefer.  Yet we cannot lose sight of the fact that for all of the issues that nudged the nation towards war, slavery was ultimately at the center. Brian Lyman of the Montgomery Advertiser wrote a fine piece on Davis’ birthday that recounted the narratives of nine slaves.  The centrality of slavery can never be outpaced by other narratives of the war, and when a political leader like Davis is honored, it is nearly impossible to separate him from his defense of slavery.

Statues, monuments, murals, and other public artwork can be complex in their origin, intention, and beauty, but the naming of public schools, roads and official government holidays bestow an ongoing honor to historical figures.  I’m willing to grant some rhetorical concessions to the ways defeated Southerners coped with the loss of the Civil War, but honoring Jefferson Davis is not one of them. We can dissect the ways the states argued for their rights over the national bank and various federal taxes throughout the antebellum period. We can have a dozen different conversations about Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Sidney Johnston, or the companies of troops that came from all over the South, and the ways the defeated South honored its army, with ill intentions as well as good, after the war.  The political leadership of Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders deserves particular scorn for agitating for secession instead of seeking to wean the South away from its particular institution. That Davis not be honored by his descendants is not a hard call to make.

I don’t believe that moving past our shared history will be an easy task.  Most of us have an emotional tie to something – a historical figure, a monument, something – that someone else finds objectionable, and only a slow, gracious process of give and take will allow us to bury the worst elements of our past.  Yet when we find easy concessions, we should make them, and this one is very easy. The government of this state should not take a day off in honor of a man whose leadership, or lack thereof, precipitated the Civil War and carried it to a conclusion that proved disastrous for his homeland.  Davis is not worth our honor today, nor in the future. Let him go.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at lookagain@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.