Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Quiet, Local Affair: The Jefferson Davis Bicentennial

Jefferson Davis, 1874

He was born 200 years ago today, but most Americans will not be celebrating the Jefferson Davis bicentennial.

I have no desire to beat up on the president of the Confederacy today. In many respects, he was a talented individual. He graduated from West Point, served in both the Black Hawk War and Mexican War, served terms in both the United States House of Representatives and Senate, as well as a term as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce.

And, of course, despite opposing secession, Davis served as president of the Confederacy.
When the war began, just one thing was certain: Jefferson Davis was far more accomplished than his counterpart, Abraham Lincoln.

But we know how things turned out. The unpredicatability of war turned such appraisals upside down.

A full century after Fort Sumter, historian David M. Potter wrote that the Confederacy might have succeeded if only the two sides had switched presidents. Historians have not wavered far from Potter's assessment. Perhaps the latest evidence of such scholarly consensus appears in the form of bicentennial celebrations.

We are still nine months away from the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, yet hardly a week goes by without a special event.
Conversely, the Jefferson Davis bicentennial is a much more quiet. local affair.

For example, the Davis Family Association held a reunion at Rosemont Plantation, near Woodville, Mississippi, over the weekend. Descendents who could trace their lineage from Samuel and Jane Cook Davis, Jefferson Davis' parents, were invited to attend. Not surprisingly, the descendants of the Davis family slaves were not invited. But also notice, the general public was not invited. However, for $10, adults can tour the plantation throughout the week.

In recognition of the big day, the state of Alabama gave its employees the day off yesterday.
They have more events planned for June 14th, which include a parade in Montgomery, as well as a "Jefferson Davis Bicentennial Ball in the Old Archives Room of the Capitol." The ball will, of course, feature music performed by, "The Un-Reconstructed Band."

If that isn't enough, how about some irony for the occasion? The Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans announced they have completed the restoration of Beauvoir, the last home Davis and his wife lived in. A dedication ceremony for the home is scheduled for tomorrow.

But where did the funds come from to restore the home? To be sure, generous individuals donated to the effort, as did the state of Mississippi, but funding also came from FEMA. Yes, the federal government, the government Davis tried to overthrow, helped fund the restoration because the home had been badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

And finally, the state of Kentucky, the state where both Davis and Lincoln were born, will host a symposium later this month. Instead of celebrating Davis' contribution to American history, panels such as "Jefferson Davis and Lost Cause Memory" will examine his "Contested Legacy."

Since most readers of LincolnStudies.com will not be able to go to Mississippi, Alabama, or Kentucky for the festivities, I encourage you to read one of the many fine books about Jefferson Davis. Here are a few of my favorites:

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