Whitewashing Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy

The New York Times has an article on yesterday’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy:

Before a cheering crowd of several hundred men and women, some in period costume and others in crisp suits, an amateur actor playing Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy on the steps of the Alabama Capitol on Saturday, an event framed by the firing of artillery, the delivery of defiant speeches and the singing of “Dixie.”

The participants far outnumbered the spectators, but it was to be the largest event of the year organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and one in a series of commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy and the War for Southern Independence. (Referring to the Civil War as anything other than an act of unwarranted Northern aggression upon a sovereign republic was rather frowned upon.)

The Sons’ principal message was that the Confederacy was a just exercise in self-determination that had been maligned by “the politically correct crowd” through years of historical distortions. It is the right of secession that they emphasize, not the cause, which they often describe as a complicated mix of tariff and tax disputes and Northern attempts to politically subjugate the South.

The Times article reports that the SCV sought to downplay as much as possible the fact that Davis’ motive for secession was to protect and extend the institution of slavery. Unfortunately for them and other apologists for the Confederacy, the real Jefferson Davis unequivocally stated in 1861 that the cause of his state’s secession was that “she had heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.” Other Confederate leaders also emphasized that slavery was the reason for secession (see here, here, and here).

Unlike most critics of the Confederacy, I am not necessarily hostile to the idea of secession as such. However, a secession undertaken for the profoundly evil purpose of perpetuating slavery does not deserve to be celebrated. Nor should apologists retrospectively try to whitewash the Confederates’ motives.