Bicentennial Moment

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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3 Replies to “Bicentennial Moment”

  1. I read that John Scalzi stuff. It’s very good. Well thought out…and pretty much sums up how I feel. Jeff Davis was a very smart man. Somewhere in that brain of his he had to know that the Southern “Cause” was a non-starter, a sort of flying brick. Maybe that explains the petulant expression in the photos of him. He had to justify something that was completely unjustifiable…the CSA. I remember too the stuff about Alexander Stephens’ rationale for slavery as a cornerstone of the CSA and how the institution was enshrined in the Confederate constitution. But it is good to be occasionally reminded of these things.

  2. One question: You weren’t required to turn in a bibliography or sources page with this paper?
    I rail at my fellow students on a regular basis about applying contemporary standards to history on a regular basis. I too love that code. It makes me crazy when people who are supposed to be trained or are being trained as historians don’t make the attempt.

  3. Hi, Stephanie:
    What paper? All I wrote was a blog post, and the main piece of writing I pointed to was another blog post. I only promise to attempt well-informed opinion; if I come across good sources, I do what most other bloggers do and offer links.
    I agree with you that it’s tricky to interpret any period of history through the lens of today. But that’s exactly where the critics of the critics of the Confederacy are wrong. A substantial minority in the United States considered slavery to be a moral evil in the years leading up to the Civil War; the existence of this substantial body of opinion in the United States was one of the key reasons the South decided it wanted out of the Union. So I agree with what Scalzi says: We’re not imposing 21st century reasoning or morality on the honorable folks of the mid-19th century Confederacy to view their cause as unjust and wrong. Plenty of people thought so at the time, based on their 19th century view of things.
    (If there’s any misunderstanding here, it’s probably my fault; I was being ironic when I said “I love the code.” I was talking about the coded language I believe present-day apologists for the Confederacy continue to use.)

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