Many uneasy about Jefferson Davis’ bicentennial bash

By Chris Kenning • • June 6, 2008

Both men were born in a log cabin in rural Kentucky 200 years ago. Both married Kentucky women. And both became politicians who led their people through a bloody civil war.

But while the nation has jumped on the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial bandwagon, kicked off by President Bush and celebrated from Washington to Illinois, people have been less enthusiastic about the 200th birthday of Kentucky’s less-favored son — Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Bertram Hayes-Davis, the Southern leader’s great-great grandson, who has been leading the largely uphill charge for bicentennial recognition, says that despite a few events such as one today in Kentucky, Jefferson Davis is getting the cold shoulder from many museums and agencies around the country.

"Lincoln has kind of overwhelmed the whole thing," said Hayes-Davis, a 59-year-old Colorado banker, whose relative once disparagingly called Lincoln "His Majesty Abraham the First."

Kentucky state historian James Klotter said the lukewarm interest is understandable, given Davis’ link to slavery.

"Davis has remained mired in controversy, in life and in death, because of the cause he was identified with and never repudiated," Klotter said. "And some people use him as a symbol for the ‘Lost Cause’ reborn."

Later this month, the Kentucky Historical Society will hold an academic symposium on Davis’ "contested legacy," and today Hayes-Davis will kick off speeches, re-enacting and a Miss Confederacy beauty pageant at the state’s official commemoration in Fairview, Ky., where a 351-foot concrete obelisk stands near the site of Davis’ cabin birthplace.

Davis historic site little known

The Jefferson Davis State Historic Site monument was conceived in reaction to the grander Lincoln memorial, said history professor Anne Marshall of Mississippi State University. But most of the 25,000 annual visitors stumble upon it by accident, according to park officials.

"Most don’t have a clue it’s here, or who Davis is," said Mark Doss, who has managed the site for Kentucky Parks for 23 years.

Kevin Hauntz, of Louisville, who will attend today’s event as part of a Confederate artillery re-enactor group, says Davis gets a bad rap from people who only know he led the Confederacy.

"People want to judge figures from the Civil War against today’s standards, and that’s really inappropriate," he said. "If you would remove the Confederacy, he was a pretty exceptional individual."

For example, Davis was a West Point graduate who fought in the Mexican War, had a hand in building the Smithsonian Institution as a U.S. Senator and served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce.

Davis a lifelong supporter of slavery

But Raoul Cunningham, president of Louisville NAACP, who led an unsuccessful effort in 2003 to get Davis’ statue removed from the Kentucky capital rotunda because he believed his connection to Kentucky was "thin," given his brief time here, said it’s also unfair to gloss over his view on slavery.

"He was a proponent of slavery, so as an African American, I wouldn’t go celebrate" his bicentennial, Cunningham said.

Davis was born in a log cabin on June 3, 1808, in Christian County, now Todd County — only about 100 miles from where Lincoln was born eight months later. His family moved to Mississippi shortly after, but he returned to Kentucky to attend elementary school and later to attend Transylvania University in Lexington.

He married the daughter of Zachary Taylor in Louisville. When she died in 1835 after contracting malaria during a visit to Louisiana, he remarried in Mississippi, where he would go on to become a pro-slavery Congressman. He believed in Southern states’ right to secede, but had argued it wasn’t time. More controversially, he advocated the revival of the slave trade.

"He held slaves. Most studies indicate his plantation was one that treated slaves in a more positive light. But slavery was still slavery," Klotter said.

He was called to serve as the president of the Confederacy in 1861, despite preferring to be a military officer. Historians differ on whether he was a lackluster leader, or did the best he could against a foe with more industrial might.

After the war, Davis visited Kentucky, and he never disavowed the cause he fought for — making him far more popular in the Bluegrass State than Lincoln for many decades.

"The Davis celebration has paled in comparison to Lincoln’s, but that would not have been the case 100 years ago in Kentucky," Klotter said. "To that generation, Lincoln was the villain in the story."

Davis’ descendants snubbed by some

Today, Hayes-Davis’ efforts for a proper bicentennial have paid off in some cases: There have been events in Woodville, Miss., and Montgomery, Ala.

Sixteen Davis descendants also attended the reopening of Beauvoir House, the antebellum mansion in Biloxi that Davis purchased in 1879 and renovated after being damaged in Hurricane Katrina.

But in many other cases, Hayes-Davis’ requests have been met with indifference. He got no reply after writing to the Department of Defense, since Davis served as secretary of war, to see if it wanted to participate in an activity "to educate the public about the real Jefferson Davis."

Even in Mississippi, where Davis lived before and after the war, a bill to establish a commission to organize a 200th birthday celebration died in the Senate.

Kentucky set aside $4 million for Lincoln commemorations, but barely any of that went to Davis events, beyond some funding for today’s event in Fairview.

"He has been sort of an afterthought" despite sparking some interest among "historians and lost-causers," Marshall said.

William Cooper, a professor of history at Louisiana State University and author of "Jefferson Davis, American," said people are conflicted about commemorating Davis because "he did lead the effort to break up the union, and an effort to perpetuate slavery. … it’s hard to even talk about him in some places."

After Robert E. Lee and other southern leaders died, "Davis became the visible symbol of the lost cause ideology: The way white Southerners viewed the Civil War and aftermath as the South fighting for state’s rights in a noble, courageous war against an overpowering, cruel foe," Cooper said.

The key, he said, is trying to understand Davis and appreciate his role without celebrating him.

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