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Why Honoring Jefferson Davis Is Unacceptable

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President-Jefferson-Davis

The discussion that starts here raises a very important point. There’s one defense of monuments to Confederates that runs something like “sure, Davis was a slaveholder, but we have slaveholders on the $1 and $2, a white supremacist on the $5, a slaveholder and ethnic cleanser on the $20, and so on. Why is Davis different?”

I think the answer to this should be clear. There’s a difference between honoring a slaveholder or white supremacist from the 18th or 19th century and honoring them for their support for slavery and white supremacy. Washington isn’t on the $1 because he was a slaveholder, but because he was the first (and still one of the best) presidents and also a major leader in the Revolutionary War. Lincoln is widely honored because of his crucial role in preserving the union and smashing the slave power, not because of the belief he held for most of his life that a multiracial democracy was impossible. The Constitution protected slavery, but its sole purpose was not the protection of slavery. (And we should also remember that the options the framers had in 1787 were a Constitution that provided some protection for slavery, or no deal. The idea that Virginia or Georgia or South Carolina would have agreed to an antislavery constitution with better bargaining is Green Lanternism that makes “Obama could have made Joe Lieberman vote to nationalize the American health care industry” look plausible.) The Revolutionary War and the Constitution were both the product of a combination of admirable motives, immoral motives, self-interest, and practical politics. One can admire the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence while also being mindful that the “all mean are created equal” part was observed in the breach to disastrous effect. Evaluating these things involves complicated judgments.

The Confederacy is a different story. Protecting slavery was its sole reason for being. Confederate leaders aren’t honored in spite of their commitment to treason in defense of slavery; in 99% of cases they’re being honored because of it. (Nobody would be naming highways in Washington state after Davis because he was Pierce’s Secretary of War.) As I said in the previous post, the idea that people like Robert E. Lee are being honored because they were fine gentleman or fathers (except for, you know, the slaves) is absurd even if you take the assertions at face value like you shouldn’t. I have great parents and you probably do too, but nobody’s building statues of them or naming schools after them. Confederate leaders are honored because of their role in the Confederacy. And the purpose of secession was 1)protecting slavery, and 2)that’s it.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that tributes to non-Confederate leaders shouldn’t be assessed critically. (Personally, I’m OK with Washington and Lincoln on the currency, but would remove Jackson with all non-deliberate speed.) A norm may emerge that honoring slaveholders in any way and no matter what else they did is unacceptable, and that would be OK with me. Norms could develop against naming things after political leaders in general. But those are complicated questions. Confederate leaders are an easy case.

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