The trouble with historical figures is that facts can get in the way when we try to refashion them to meet our needs.
“Patriot, hero, statesman,” says the plaque on the statue of Jefferson Davis in Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda.
Those words were chosen by advocates of the “Lost Cause” that sought in the early 20th century to revive and sanitize the violent rebellion that tried to destroy the United States to preserve slavery.
They were false then, and they are false now.
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Black people weren’t consulted 80 years ago about installing the statue of Davis, the president of the Confederacy, in our seat of government. Today, their voices are stronger, and they and others are asking again that it be moved.
Gov. Matt Bevin should heed those calls and ask the Historic Properties Advisory Commission to reconsider its 2015 decision to keep the statue. Suggestions are to move it to the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort or the Jefferson Davis Historic Site in Todd County.
The Lost Cause painted a pretty picture of honor and tradition, keeping the brutality of slavery in very soft focus. It dovetailed nicely with the rule of Jim Crow, which enforced social, political and legal inequities on black citizens.
But nasty facts sharpen the focus and give lie to Lost Cause fantasies.
Davis directed an effort that resulted in more damage to this country than has ever been visited on it by external forces or natural disasters.
By the end of the Civil War, 620,000 soldiers had died — almost half the total of our dead in all wars fought by the U.S.— tens of thousands of acres and several cities had been devastated, and the federal government was sunk in debt that affected generations to come.
Is that what a patriot, hero and statesman inflicts on his country?
Let’s ask an even more basic question: Does a patriot, hero and statesman fight to keep other humans enslaved?
No and no.
Davis is an important historical figure. He graduated from West Point, served in the U.S. Army, as a member of the U.S. House and Senate, and as Secretary of War. He led the Confederacy, and was a slaveholder, who at one time owned over 100 human beings.
All this makes him worthy of study and remembrance.
It does not make him a hero, statesman and patriot worthy of veneration in our state Capitol.