From my brother John, a good writeup (from the Associated Press, by way of MSNBC) on the upcoming bicentennial of the birth of a president who served from 1861 through 1865. No, not the one you’re thinking of.
“It hasn’t been easy getting people excited about celebrating the 200th birthday of that tall, gaunt, bearded, Kentucky-bred president who was born in a log cabin and went on to lead his people through a bloody civil war.”
Enough suspense. We’re talking about Jefferson Davis. Doing a quick Web sift for a related item, I stumbled across this item in the Andalusia, Alabama, Star-News. In a column of local goings-on, which is worth reading for the strong local flavor, there is an extended account of a recent Davis bicentennial event: a re-enactment of his swearing in as president of the Confederacy in Montgomery.
Among the many gently disquieting observations delivered in the Star-News column is this one:
“The program was a long one, presided over by Mrs. Napier, who runs the White House of the Confederacy and is a great-niece of Douglas Southall Freeman, most famous biographer of Robert E. Lee, whose bicentennial was celebrated last year.
“Mrs. Napier spoke of ‘presentism,’ which she defined as ‘imposing today’s values on the past’ as a means of judgment. She did not favor that.”
You know, I love the code. We are not to judge the past by today’s values. By which the speaker means “we shouldn’t judge slavery, and the South’s embrace of it, by the enlightened standards of 2008.” Slavery was just a fact of life in the South, and no one today has the right to judge that. Uh huh.
It’s true that we Americans are mostly a little shortsighted about slavery and its legacies. It thrived in the North, for instance, and was only gradually outlawed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s true, too, that when the Civil War came one of the great bastions of pro-Southern and anti-emancipation sentiment was New York City. The brutal reality of slavery darkened the entire Union.
But there I go, calling slavery “brutal.” That’s just modern values judging the well-meaning gentlefolk of yesteryear.
Except, of course, it’s not: The contemporary reality of antebellum America, and of the world beyond, was full of recognition that slavery was barbaric and ought to be ended. That doesn’t mean the question was ever simple. But revisionism aside, that’s why that damned war was fought–based on 19th century values, not something we ginned up in the 1960s.
Now: Applying 1860s values to today? That I have a problem with. (And so does novelist John Scalzi, who over the years has made a cause out of puncturing latter-day delusions about the nature of the Confederacy.)
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