Alexandria Letter: Keep Jefferson Davis Highway

Alexandria Letter: Keep Jefferson Davis Highway

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

As an Alexandria citizen (who hails originally from Chicago and believes in Lincoln’s malice toward none sentiments about the war), and a long-serving soldier and a Civil War historian, I want to add some historical perspective toward the importance of the eternal memorial of our Civil War history around Alexandria. I do not believe any notion that Jefferson Davis was a symbol of something wrong. He was not, and he participated in important American Confederate history that should be honored along with all of our American history.

A recent writer says he wants to “single out Jefferson Davis’s bigotry.” Jefferson Davis was not a bigot any more than was George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, or Abraham Lincoln. I have read many writings by Jefferson Davis, and I have never found anything bigoted. All of the men I list lived in a time when slavery was widely viewed as a normal institution. As such, we should not judge these figures by the standards of our own time. To do so is a type of faulty reasoning called “presentism.” Washington, Jefferson, and Grant (yes Grant) were all slave holders. The Grants brought two slaves to Washington D.C. in 1864 when Lincoln promoted him to lead all the armies. They were not freed until the 13th Amendment. Slavery was not about our modern ideas of bigotry or racism, it was about work. It was also a give and take, and Jefferson Davis was known for a sense of responsibility for the care of his slaves, which is well documented.

Jefferson Davis, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and U.S. Grant all thought that slavery took primitive Africans and placed them in a civilized world, and out of the darkness of primitive life. Their belief system was not about harming blacks because of the color of their skin, it was about putting these beings to work in the Christian world. They did not believe that blacks could fend for themselves if set free, and to suddenly set free blacks would have been a calamity akin to releasing small children into the world with no education and ability to thrive. In the decades before the war, pro-slavery people often counter-criticized this exact treatment of blacks crowded in the slums of Boston and New York, with zero prospects. Consider this quote by a northern paper (Keokuk, Iowa) during the war: "this is a government of white men, and was established exclusively for the white race; that the Negroes are not entitled to, and ought not to be admitted to the political social equality with the whiter race. But it is our duty to treat them with kindness and consideration, as an inferior and dependent race." This was 1863, and these sentiments are the same of Washington and Jefferson for sure. Millions of Americans thought this way into the 1860s, to include millions in the north as well, and was a basic tenet of the Democratic Party platform of the period on their view of slavery.

Let us also examine a quote from Lincoln — a Republican. In 1858 Lincoln stated: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” Today, if someone said this they would be called a bigot and a racist, but in the 1850s and before, this was the understanding of most Americans. This was not a matter of bigotry, it was a matter of knowing (except for the European peoples and their subset which sprung up in North America), other races were still largely tribal hunter-gatherers. What Lincoln thought was the same as Jefferson, Washington, Grant, and Davis.

Jefferson Davis was also a reluctant Confederate president, he was not happy about the breakup of the Union, he had served a career in government, and even selected the Capitol dome we have today, among many important decisions he made. When secession came, he wanted to be a general, not a president, but he did so dutifully and tried to win an independence like Washington had. He was a Jeffersonian Republican and Jacksonian Democrat through and through, not a bigot. He was an important American figure who in fact helped shape the nation we have now. Let’s honor him without malice.

Harold Knudsen