Time for Jefferson Davis Statue to Leave KY Capitol Rotunda
The center statue, appropriately enough, is Abraham Lincoln. Born in Kentucky of a long time bluegrass family who initially came into Kentucky after crossing the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone, Lincoln is not only the state’s most famous sons, but is, in many ways, the father of our United States.
In Lincoln’s shadow stand four other towering historical figures. There’s Ephraim McDowell, the man who performed the world’s first success removal of a tumor from a woman’s ovary; in some ways the father of gynecology.
Henry Clay is there too. Clay, one of the leading statesmen in American history, served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, in the Senate, and as Secretary of State. He was a crucial leader for the Whig Party in the 19th century and ran as their Presidential candidate three times.
Representing that acclaimed generation of progressive Kentuckians allied with Roosevelt in support of the New Deal is Alben Barkley. Barkley was Truman’s Vice President and, before that, FDR’s loyal Lieutenant in the U.S. Senate where he served as Senate Majority Leader. Given the role of Kentuckians such as Ed Pritchard and Fred Vinson in that important era, it is appropriate that Barkley, the most emminent of this group, is accorded a statue.
Then there’s the odd man out: Jefferson Davis. Davis is a complicated historical figure in American history. Born in KY, he bravely served the United States as a soldier in the Mexican American War. He twice served as a United States Senator from Mississippi. During President Franklin Pierce’s administration Davis was the country’s Secretary of War, the predecessor office to today’s Secretary of Defense. In that capacity, Jefferson strengthened America’s coastal defenses and directed several surveys for the Trans-Continental Railroad that would ultimately link America from coast to shining coast.
Sadly, however, despite his service to this great nation, Jefferson Davis will forever be known as the man who led the effort against it during the Civil War and the man who sat atop the cause of the slave states to keep millions of Americans in bondage. This history makes Davis’s inclusion in the rotunda both a historical oddity and a tragic reminder to the more than 300,000 African Americans who live in Kentucky that the cause to keep their ancestors in chains still enjoys some modicum of political acceptance in the bluegrass.
Davis’s statue arrived in the state capitol way back in 1934, nearly 60 years after the Confederacy’s surrender. A gift of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the statue was accepted by then-Governor Happy Chandler and unveiled in 1936. It stands out today in both historical significance and aesthetics: it’s the only statue of the five that’s cast in 100% marble.
There are several reasons Jefferson Davis shouldn’t be accorded such prominence in our state’s capitol. Most importantly, Davis labored mightily to keep millions of African Americans in bondage for an indefinite amount of time. If he had succeeded in his war against his country, it’s impossible to know when slavery would have ended in America. Given how long after the Union victory it took for full Civil Rights to arrive in the United States, the potential consequences of such an outcome are staggering to imagine. In a related vein, much of what America has been able to accomplish for freedom over the past 100 years is directly related to the fact that Abraham Lincoln’s vision of America as a single, united nation, represented by a robust and powerful federal government, triumphed over Davis’s vision of country fractured in (at least) two. Consider: Would America have come to Britain’s defense in two world wars? Could it possibly have stared down the menace of the Soviet Union? Is it remotely possible our nation would be the economic and political powerhouse it is today had Davis succeeded? To celebrate Davis, the loser in the epic historical fight for the direction of America, in such a position in our state’s capitol is simply wrong.
For these reasons I believe it’s time that Kentucky’s Jefferson Davis statue find a new home. But where should he go and who should replace him? First up, where should Davis go? It would be naïve to assume that Davis will go anywhere without at least a small fight. The Daughters of the Confederacy and other sympathetic groups will doubtless combat any effort to remove the Davis statue. What’s more, a legitimate argument can be made that Davis, pre-Civil War, rendered much service to the United States and therefore deserves a vaunted place in Frankfort. Some will even make the argument, sure to persuade some if not this author, that Kentucky’s many Confederate veterans deserve the current recognition and that Davis’ statue accomplishes this.
Given these arguments, a special home for Davis should be found. Perhaps the Kentucky Military History Museum is the first place to look. The Kentucky History Museum and the old state capitol grounds would seemingly be other alternatives. Even a more secluded spot on the first floor of the capitol would be better than its current location.
It’s not enough, however, to simply move Davis out. A suitable replacement should also be found. Several names come to mind. Outside of government there are a few business and cultural icons who represent Kentucky well. Colonel Harland Sanders, though not a Kentucky native, spent several decades of his life here. He adopted the “Colonel” moniker after then Gov. Ruby Laffoon made him a Kentucky Colonel in 1935. Sanders’ innovative restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken, has become one of the most successful brands in the world, something that’s important to acknowledge in this ever flattening world of globalization, commerce, and sophisticated brands. Cassius Clay, or Mohammed Ali, is another. Born and raised in Louisville, the black boxer was certainly the most famous individual from Kentucky in the 20th century. Robert Penn Warren would be nice if Kentucky wanted to honor its most famous author. But neither name packs the punch or carries the stature to go toe-to-toe with Davis.
What about a military hero? Kentucky has long held respect as a martial state. From service with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans to their high number of 21 Medal of Honor winners in the 20th century, the bluegrass has always stood ready to lend its hand to help America fight its wars. A statute of Willie Sandlin, one of the most famous medal winners in the 20th century would be one option. Zackary Taylor is another, though as a former slave owner, he would also pose problems.
John Marshall Harlan is the second best choice, in my mind. The former Kentucky Attorney General who eventually became a Supreme Court Justice is most known for his dissents from the court’s majority. A Republican, Harlan was nominated to the bench by President Rutherford B. Hayes. His views on the 14th amendment and its applicability to civil rights and his views in the so called Insular Cases were important additions to our nation’s jurisprudence as were his repeated dissents in cases like Berea College vs. the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and the peonage cases.
Most importantly, Justice Harlan is best remembered for standing firm, though alone in his dissent against the rest of the court in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case. He lost that battle, and because of his loss our nation in general and African Americans specifically, continue to pay a steep price. Nonetheless, Harlan’s words in that famous dissent would make a wonderful statue citation:
"… in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this
countryno superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here.
Ourconstitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes
amongcitizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the
law. Thehumblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man,
and takesno account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights
asguaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved…"
Harlan would probably be a better fit than any of the aforementioned historical personages to stand in our Commonwealth’s seat of government. Further, he’d have the added benefit of paying homage to the Judiciary in a gallery filled with statues of lawmakers.
Then there’s my favorite, Daniel Boone. Boone did more than any other Kentuckian to populate the eventual Commonwealth. He helped build the Wilderness Road, established Boonseborough, brought hundreds of families, including Lincoln’s ancestors across the Cumberland Gap, and, like hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians since, eventually moved on to perceived greener pastures. Boone was a businessman, a surveyor, and a warrior. Though a slave owner and an Indian fighter, he showed humanity to Native Americans, something that’s worth noting given the statue I’m proposing Boone’s replace. Boone also stands out in the cultural sense in a way that no other Kentuckian save Lincoln ever has. From Lord Byron to James Fennimore Cooper, from Audubon to Daffy Duck, Boone has inspired people throughout the world and would be a worthy foe to go head to head with a foe like Jefferson Davis who has, after all, always played a skilled defense.
Whether we ultimately choose Boone, or Harlan, or some other foe to do battle with Davis, its past time for the only President of the Confederacy to seek a home elsewhere. His presence in such a vaunted manner in our state’s capitol hardly does justice to a state seeking to move forward in the 21st century.
Originally Posted @ www.cyberhillbilly.com
Editor's comment: BRAVO, my esteemed friend, BRAVO.
I join in your analysis and conclusion, and I hold Justice Harlan to very HIGH esteem, though I am in agreement on Daniel Boone.
At this point, pretty much ANYONE -- other than Attila the Hun, Saddam Hussein, Adolph (Rupp or Hitler) or folks like those -- will do.