The state Historic Properties Advisory Commission wants to know what Kentuckians think of Jefferson Davis' statue in the Capitol. The panel is accepting written comments through July 29.
There's no doubt what almost all of Kentucky's Civil War lawmakers would say about the Confederate president's likeness: Not in our house.
The General Assembly considered the Kentucky-born Davis an arch traitor. In a September, 1861, "Address of the Legislature to the People of Kentucky," a House committee scorned Davis as a liar for permitting his "insolent" soldiers to seize Hickman and Columbus, thereby breaching the Bluegrass State's fragile neutrality.
"We were met by assurances from the President of the Confederate States that... [neutrality] should be respected; but the ink was scarcely dry with which the promise was written, when we were startled by the news that our soil was invaded," declared their address, which the Louisville Journal published Sept. 28, 1861.
The solons poured it on: "The [Confederates'] attempt to destroy the Union of these States we believe to be a crime, not only against Kentucky but against all mankind ... Let us show the insolent invaders that Kentucky belongs to Kentuckians, and that Kentucky valor will vindicate Kentucky's honor."
In declaiming Davis and his soldiers, the lawmakers were speaking for most Kentuckians. In August, 1861, voters enhanced the Union party's House majority to 74-26 over the Southern Rights or secessionist party. The Union bulge in the Senate jumped to 27-11.
After Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's troops occupied Paducah and Smithland to keep the Rebels from grabbing those two strategic cities, the legislature fully embraced the Union war effort.
On Oct. 1, 1861, the Union majority again showed its deep disdain for the Davis government by passing a law warning that any Confederate soldier from Kentucky caught invading the state would be declared "guilty of a felony and punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary from one to ten years," E. Merton Coulter wrote in The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky.
Under the law, too, anybody who persuaded a Kentuckian to join Davis' army and any man who enlisted were "deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not over $1,000 or imprisonment not exceeding six months," the historian added.
Perhaps the truest gauge of Kentucky's Civil War sentiment is the number of troops furnished to each side: 90,000 to 100,000 Yankees and 25,000 to 40,000 Rebels, according to A New History of Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter. (Some 23,700 African-American Kentuckians joined the Union forces, more than from any other state except Louisiana.)
Thus, the Davis statue mirrors Coulter's famous quip that Kentucky, "as was often remarked at the time ... waited until after the war to secede."
No sooner did the Confederates lose in 1865 than Kentucky became strongly pro-Southern. "This outward incongruity between the way white Kentuckians entered and participated in the Civil War and the way they remembered it has become one of the great paradoxes of Civil War history," historian Anne E. Marshall wrote in Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State. "The Lost Cause and the conservative politics that went with it seemed not only a comforting reminder of a past free of late 19th-century insecurities but also a way to reinforce contemporary efforts to maintain white supremacy," she wrote.
When the Davis statue went up in 1936, 10 years after the new Capitol opened, Kentucky was along the northern boundary of the segregationist, white supremacist Jim Crow South.
This lifelong Kentuckian applauds leaders of the state's Democratic and Republican parties for supporting the Davis statue's removal.
Attorney Gen. Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate for governor, expressed my views perfectly when he said, "I believe that the Jefferson Davis statue belongs in a museum, where history is taught, rather than in the state Capitol, where laws are made, where rights are upheld and where we strive for equal justice under the law."