The monument to Jefferson Davis, before the city took it down Thursday morning, was also a monument to glaring contradictions.
Davis, the only man to serve as president of the Confederacy, was a slave owner, an avowed believer in the superiority of the white race and an opponent of black rights, even after the Civil War ended. Yet among the odd collection of diehards standing vigil around the statue recently was a black man with a Confederate flag stitched to his leather vest.
Then there was the statue’s inscription, describing Davis as a “Soldier-Statesman-Patriot.”
It seems like a strange thing to say about a man who “came to lead the great struggle to destroy the United States,” as Davis biographer William J. Cooper Jr. puts it.
But Davis really did identify with the Union he fought to end.
“He cherished the knowledge that his own father had been a Revolutionary soldier,” Cooper writes, and he considered the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution his “political testaments.”
He took an oath of loyalty as a student at West Point, fought in the Mexican War and prized more than any other office his role as a U.S. senator. After his home state of Mississippi voted to secede from the Union in 1861, Davis called the day of his farewell address in the Senate chamber “the saddest day of my life.”
The city of New Orleans seems to have felt the same contradictory pull when the Davis monument was unveiled on a chilly day in 1911: loyalty to an undivided union and a sentimental attachment to the heroes of a rebellion.
Contemporaneous accounts describe a scene that is easily recognizable and also strikingly alien.
The monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis was taken off its pedestal early Thurs…
There was a parade — typical enough for New Orleans — to the site of the new statue from the already-standing monument to Robert E. Lee. The mayor and governor marched along with the Boy Scouts and other dignitaries. The archbishop was supposed to give the invocation but missed his train. Girls from the city’s public schools sang songs for a crowd of several thousand, if the newspaper accounts aren’t exaggerated.
It all seems normal enough, except that the girls were arranged in dresses made of different colored tissue paper so that they formed a “living Confederate flag” as they stood on the reviewing stands.
In the midst of a public ceremony like this, there was no dissenting from the prevailing view of the Confederacy as a noble Lost Cause, and certainly no criticism of Davis' performance in office, which has received mostly withering reviews from modern historians. There was no mention of slavery or any evidence of the city’s black residents, living at the time under a growing list of Jim Crow laws.
The society that put up the Davis monument was not so removed from the one that fought the Civil War. There were still Confederate veterans alive to mark the occasion, though because of their age, they waited to join the parade until it hit Broad Street.
The founding president of the Jefferson Davis Monument Association, which had spent years raising money for the statue, was Mrs. A.W. Roberts. Jefferson Davis was her uncle.
Remarks that day from Louisiana Gov. Jared Y. Sanders captured the paradox:
The statues of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis have…
“We can be loyal to the Stars and Stripes, but let no one seek to tear away the tender sentiment we hold for the Stars and Bars. We can love the United States of America, but down deep in our hearts there is a sweet love and reverence for the dead and gone Confederacy. We can love our country and fight for it, but let none try to destroy in our hearts and breasts the feelings which we have when we think of the days that used to be.”
If there was any controversy at the time about putting up a monument to Davis, it is hard to discover. New Orleans may have been willing to grapple with the contradiction of a patriot who led a rebellion, but not with the central contradiction involved in the Civil War: that a country devoted to the idea that “all men are created equal” would also hold millions of men and women in bondage.
Davis, as Cooper explains, never saw these things as opposed. He had grown up among his father’s slaves on a modest farm in Mississippi. His own slaves, some of them purchased in New Orleans, had cleared the plantation where he grew cotton along a bend in the Mississippi River. He saw the arrangement as completely natural and as beneficial to both owner and slave.
In his last address to the Senate he insisted that the promise of equality enshrined by the Declaration of Independence applied only to “each member of the body politic,” not to slaves. The Constitution had designated “that very class of persons as property,” and they were “not put upon the footing of equality with white men.”
For almost two years now, New Orleans has debated whether it makes sense to leave in place a monument to a figure who chose to reconcile the country’s most basic contradiction in this way. For better or worse, it is apparently a contradiction that residents of New Orleans will not have to live with any more, at least not in the form of a bronze Jefferson Davis staring out over Canal Street.