Today's Paper State News Hutchinson 2024 LEARNS Guide Newsletters Opinion Sports Obits Games Archive Notices Core Values

COLUMNIST: Jefferson Davis’ fate a cautionary tale

by Ron Grossman The Chicago Tribune | April 1, 2023 at 3:00 a.m.

With barricades surrounding the Manhattan criminal courthouse and plainclothes officers ordered to dress in their full uniforms, it's only human to ponder the wisdom of trying Donald Trump for a nonviolent offense related to buying a porn star's silence.

Richard Nixon's story suggests it is better for the nation to forgive and forget. But that of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy's president, says it is dangerous to let losers tell the tale.

Could President Joe Biden be persuaded to pardon Trump, much as successor Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon after he resigned the presidency? Ford explained that not doing so would have prolonged the national agony.

Nixon reluctantly accepted the pardon, which implied he was guilty, wrote his memoirs and cautiously tiptoed into the limelight. The Republican Party was leery of being publicly linked with him.

Davis' initial reception by his former countrymen was infinitely more hostile. Union soldiers captured him at the end of the Civil War and threw him into a prison where he was left to rot while federal authorities debated what to do with him.

Some wanted him charged as an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Others considered him responsible for the 13,000 Union soldiers who died in the Confederacy's Andersonville prison.

Then an epidemic of profound war weariness rolled across the North.

"There has been an almost radical change of opinion as to the best and wisest disposition to be made of Jeff. Davis not only in many of the most prominent Republican leaders but also in the loyal public at large since last August," the Tribune reported in November 1865.

Authorities released Davis in 1867 pending trial on charges of treason. Northern luminaries such as New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley signed Davis' $100,000 bail bond.

But Frederick Douglass was outraged. "What more could government have done to encourage another treasonable outbreak!" the Black abolitionist wrote. "Mr. Davis has started on his travels, to return no doubt, when ever the farce of a trial may still further disgrace the nation."

In fact, the trial was quietly shelved, leaving Davis free to spin the story into a "lost cause." In his two-volume book "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government," published in 1881, Davis argued that the Civil War was the North's fault.

Enslaved people weren't abused, Davis believed. To the contrary, "you cannot transform the Negro into anything 1/10 as useful as slavery enables him to be," he wrote in 1861.

Davis died in 1889, unrepentant and not a citizen of the United States. He refused to ask for a pardon, since that would have required he acknowledge he did something wrong by leading the Southern states' rebellion.

But the North enabled the narrative of his fabled "lost cause." It dropped a virtual curtain on the Civil War. Behind that curtain, Jim Crow's re-subjugation of Black people and countless deaths by lynching commenced, away from Northern liberals' view.

America didn't resume discussing racial problems until the nation's slums exploded in the 1950s and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched for civil rights.

Now imagine Trump's take on our era, should he get a pass. He would transform his brazen attempt to get Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to throw him 11,780 votes after the 2020 election into this: "It was a perfect phone call."

Print Headline: A cautionary tale


Sponsor Content