That Alabama inaugural: A lesson from Jefferson Davis

February 18th, 2011

Since several of our recent Examiner articles focused on President Lincoln, we now spend a bit of time with President Davis. February 18, 2011, is the 150th anniversary of his inauguration as the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. Unlike Lincoln who had four months to prepare his inaugural address, Davis had but four days. There was also a new country to organize … with the possibility of war. The stress was enormous and without precedent.

After being sworn in, he offered this observation to his wife: The audience was large and brilliant. Upon my weary heart were showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers; but beyond them I saw troubles and thorns innumerable.

Media coverage proved interesting. The next day, instead of taking sides, the New York Herald slammed both presidents: Mr. Davis has been received with the greatest enthusiasm during his journey from Mississippi to Montgomery, Ala. He made five and twenty speeches en route, but we do not hear that he told any stories, cracked any jokes, asked the advice of young women about his whiskers…His speeches are rather highly flavored with the odor of villainous salpetre, (sic) and he evidently believes that civil war is inevitable… Mr. Lincoln was a splitter of rails, a distiller of whisky, a storyteller and a joke maker. He afterwards became a stump orator, and used his early experiences as his literary capital. Now we have the rails abandoned, the whisky still stopped, but the scent of both hangs about the manner and the matter of his speeches.

We know what followed so let’s put 50 years of water over the dam … and visit February 18, 1911.

The 50th anniversary of Davis’ inauguration received little national attention except in the Confederate Veteran magazine. Dr. Thomas M. Owen, Director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History organized the program and Governor Emmet O’Neal gave the main address to a miniscule local audience. The Veteran offered no comment on attendance but promised to follow up on “Social features, including the Confederate ball” in its May 1911 issue. That never happened but the Veteran did publish a photograph of the ceremony, included above, which rather sums up the lackluster attendance.

Fifty years later, Americans observed the Civil War Centennial with an enthusiasm that mixed heritage and history with heroism and Hollywood. From the start, some envisioned the whole deal as one grand pageant, from sabers and hoop skirts to glorious re-enactments on the very ground bloodied a century before. This time around, the word “celebration” (instead of commemoration) crept into a number of event programs.

The Alabama Civil War Centennial Commission headed up the 1961 Davis inauguration re-enactment, bringing in a far larger, more enthusiastic crowd than the 1911 event. But it generated milquetoast attention, a lame, single day’s snippet to a four year history parade that struggled to inspire Americans enamored not only by their “glorious past,” but also entranced by TV, professional sports, and the coming promise of going to the moon. Nationally televised assassinations, exploding space shuttles, and hijacked airliners flying into buildings remained in the future…as well as such divisive issues as Viet Nam, Burn Baby Burn cities, hippies, Watergate, the drug culture, Roe vs. Wade, illegal immigration, Red and Blue states, and special interest “entitlements.”

But now 50 more years have passed and some folks want to re-enact Davis’ inauguration again. This time, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, in the absence of any Alabama statewide organization, is organizing the event. Yet as we might expect, America will not perceive this as the America it was a half century ago.

There’s been … more water over the dam. For in the 1960s, while commemorating the civil war era, the nation also went through the civil rights era.

This time as history re-enacts Jefferson Davis’ swearing in, many in the media are full of outrage, cynically reminding us that the event will be near where seamstress Rosa Parks boarded that bus back in 1955 … where Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was firebombed in 1956 … and where King and his freedom marchers completed their Selma to Montgomery march in 1965

“The ironies are rich and particularly ugly,” decrys Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “This is a racist event celebrating a government that stood on a foundation of slavery.” Yet for Bernard Simelton of the Alabama NAACP, this 150th commemoration of the Davis Inauguration is simply “celebrating the Holocaust.” The vitriol is sure “out there” this time around.

But wait a minute, gentlemen. This is America. As in freedom of speech and expression. And where some say we should celebrate diversity.

Or does that not apply here?

If so, then we’re back to polarization. Lack of tolerance. Dividing ourselves along ideological lines. Mistakes of the past we should know by now. Troubles and thorns innumerable. Or do we want to re-enact that, too?

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