The Politicians Who Celebrate Jeff Davis
At the time, Confederate President Jefferson Davis characterized Lincoln's order as "the most execrable measure in the history of guilty man." Davis' response also promised to execute captured Union officers for "inciting servile insurrection," though the threat was pulled back. But the Confederates did in fact execute imprisoned black soldiers and their officers.
U.S. Sen. Trent Lott's long-standing advocacy of segregation and racial discrimination is now well chronicled. All of this was dramatized by Lott's laudatory tribute to Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign. But the support that the former Senate majority leader and many of his conservative right-wing Republican colleagues have provided for the defeated Confederacy has received less attention. That support suggests that Lott is only one of a number in public life whose nostalgia for the past has roots that run deeper than 1948.
Lott's love affair with Jefferson Davis -- he has stated that he feels "closer to Jefferson Davis than any other man in America" -- has manifested itself in his successful restoration of Davis' citizenship, notwithstanding a lack of any repentance for his pro-slavery position or his rebellion against the lawfully constituted government of the United States.
My great-grandfather, William B. Gould, an escaped slave fighting in the U. S. Navy, derided "would-be King Jeff" and made the following entry in his diary on June 16, 1865: "We heard that Davis has been carried to Washington to be tried by court-martial on the indictment of treason. We hope that the sour apple tree is all ready."
He was referring to the popular Civil War song "Good Bye Jeff," which noted that the conclusion of the war should find Davis "hanging on a sour apple tree" because of his traitorous conduct. Davis was not tried for treason, and today his memory is glorified, not only by Lott, but also by other prominent politicians in the Republican Party, such as Attorney General John Ashcroft, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey -- all of whom have given lengthy interviews carried by the extremist Confederate Southern Partisan magazine.
Like Lott, Ashcroft waxed eloquent about "setting the record straight" and "defending Southern patriots" such as Davis. Davis' position on slavery and race went unmentioned.
This past decade, political polarization flowered fully as the Republican Party acquired its current Southern cast, obstructing numerous initiatives of President Bill Clinton, attacking New Deal and civil rights legislation, and declaring war on the role for the federal government in the social welfare protection arena. This process achieved its logical absurdity when congressional Republicans produced a government shutdown in 1995.
The impetus for this tilt has its origins in the civil rights legislation of four decades ago, when President Lyndon Johnson accurately prophesied that the Democratic Party's support for these reforms would translate into electoral punishment in the South. Erstwhile Thurmond Dixiecrats and other Southern Democrats transplanted themselves into the Republican Party. Lott just happens to be one of the most visible proponents of segregationist and discriminatory policies rooted in Confederate philosophy. His leadership position lead to his exposure -- but he obtained leadership because so many in his party support his ideas, so long as they are expressed subliminally.
Again in 1865, my great-grandfather noted in April the "glad tidings that the "Stars and Stripes" had been planted over Richmond, Va., the capital of the defeated Confederacy by the "invincible Grant." He wrote in his diary: "While we honor the living soldiers who have done so much, we must not forget to whisper for fear of disturbing [sic] the glorious sleep of the many who have fallen" -- martyrs, he noted, to the "cause of Right and Equality."
As we mark the historic anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it will be appropriate to ask not only the former Senate majority leader but many of his colleagues on his side of the aisle, about which side they support -- that of Jefferson Davis (who viewed Lincoln's executive order as "execrable") or the flag of "Right and Equality" that brought him down two years later in the midst of unprecedented casualties and suffering. Only then can we truly begin to bind up the wounds of which Lincoln spoke eloquently in his historic Second Inaugural Address.