Teaching Failed Ideas: Jefferson Davis’ Inaugural Address

Good men can, and probably should, contemplate evil, to prevent its re-occurrence. When we know an idea’s danger, or its falsity, there’s no danger in studying where it goes wrong.

This reasoning emphatically does not control in the primary school setting. So why is Texas pointing  kids towards the first (and only) Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, and setting him up as not just Lincoln’s foil, but his moral equal?

There are academic reasons, but they don’t apply here. Devotees of the Lost Cause will correctly point out that Davis’ inaugural address, the resource proposed for inclusion in Texas textbooks, is not actually a pro-slavery tract. It’s a long discourse on the concept of states’ rights. But it’s one that struggles, to the point of dishonesty, to avoid discussing the primary “right” the South sought to assert, and that’s more often than not simply factually wrong. For example, Davis tries to frame the Confederate ideal as a fulfillment of the federal Constitution —

We have changed the constituent parts, but not the system of our Government. The Constitution formed by our fathers is that of these Confederate States, in their exposition of it, and in the judicial construction it has received, we have a light which reveals its true meaning.

But the federal Constitution was drafted to provide a strong Commerce Clause, to replace the comically ineffective Articles of Confederation. By utterly abolishing any congressional ability to build internal improvements, for example (see Art. I, § 8, cl. 3) the Confederate Constitution attempts a reversion to a period before the Federalist Papers, before the Articles of Confederation, to some nightmarish twilight between colonization and true union. For anyone interested in a serious conception of “states’ rights,” consonant with our federal structure, the Confederacy is a terrible place to start.

The bottom line is, you don’t teach Confederate history for an honest look at the debate on federal power. Studying its history, divorced from its moral failings, and bereft of any discussion of where it went intellectually wrong, provides little if any information on the subject, and presents a real risk of confusion. So why study it, at the primary level?

Of course, the answer must be “politics.” Even if we acknowledge that our honorable friends opposite aren’t arguing for the radical de-federalizing that defined the Confederacy, they see, in that past, some virtue that we’ve forgotten, and seek to promote it by engaging in the fiction that the Confederacy only ever symbolized that value, and nothing else. That’s a terrible way to approach history, because it means never having to come to grips with the consequences and causes that define history. Maybe the Civil War wasn’t just about slavery, but it certainly wasn’t a model for a functional federal system, either.

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One comment

  1. So the textbook doesn’t discuss slavery or the Civil War at some other point?

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