In 1977, Congress voted to restore Confederacy President Jefferson Davis’s citizenship posthumously.
At the time, it was reported to be a gesture to smooth the blow of then-President Jimmy Carter’s decision to pardon Vietnam War draft-dodgers, some of whom fled to Canada to avoid military service at the time.
“Our nation needs to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our nation and to discredit the principles on which it was founded,” Carter said in a statement about his decision to sign Congress’s bill on Jefferson Davis later in 1978. “Our people need to turn their attention to the important tasks that still lie before us in establishing those principles for all people.”
It would be hard to imagine what the reaction might be if the same was done by this Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump. It would likely be portrayed as some dog whistle to the often maligned Trump supporter — a secret nod, if you will, to rally their support for the 2020 election.
At the time, no one thought much about it. In fact, then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., supported the measure in committee and voted for it on the floor.
A year earlier, that same Biden — yes, the 2020 presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — voted to give Robert E. Lee his U.S. citizenship.
The point of this is not to say Biden should be criticized or praised for those past measures, and it remains to be seen how this will play out in the long run.
What it does show is just how much the goalposts have shifted in 40 years. That gesture of essentially pardoning two Civil War figures nearly a century after both of their deaths could never happen in 2020. In fact, at this rate, it could be repealed if elections go a certain way, and the media in concert with other elite institutions in America continue to apply pressure.
The merits of honoring and recognizing Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee is something in this time of pandemics and unrest that is suddenly the most urgent issue of the day. It seems misguided, as it probably is. Society has much more pressing woes it must deal with.
Nonetheless, Confederate symbols have moved to the top of the list, so here we are.
The rules have changed in 40 years.
Granted, the Democratic Party of the late 1970s, led by President Jimmy Carter, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., is ideologically different from the party of today with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Given this “progress” we have made since 1978, in that we are no longer going out of the way to recognize, honor or even mention in any flattering way figures of the Civil War, how strict will society be in 2060 based on the trend from 1978 to 2020?
If this is the real direction, then the future looks very Orwellian.
This is no longer a debate about the merits of honoring long-deceased Confederate figures. It has become a debate about what is proper. The term “Dixie” is no longer considered appropriate. The Confederate flag, a symbol of pop culture at one time in the South, is no longer appropriate.
History has to be rewritten. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Raphael Semmes are no longer considered honorable men. History books will no longer identify them as Confederate “heroes.”
Did they get it wrong all those years? Was it just about the Lost Cause era of the early 1900s or racism? How did we make this determination? Was there a committee or blue-ribbon panel that decided this?
It seems very sudden, and dare I say opportunistic.
Right now, we are told we all must agree anything Confederate is evil and must be rejected. If you disagree, you are a history denier, a bad person and are probably for slavery.
What is next? Where is the logical end of this way of thinking? Could we be forced to reject America’s founding principles? Might that mean an outright rejection of capitalism? These are systems thought out by flawed individuals that violated our modern norms, even though they practiced the norms of the day.
It sounds silly. But is there ever the point where enough will be enough?
All of these discussions about the sins of America’s past are supercharged because it is an election year.
Call it cynical, but we are likely being told we must care about Confederate iconography if we are to atone for sins of the past because the Democratic Party sees an opportunity for political gain. If anyone dares to speak out — and that would likely come from the Republican side of the aisle — then it is racism.
Since racism is bad, and it is mostly Republicans saying, “Wait a second before we do this,” then you should vote Democrat.
Will that work? Not in Alabama, but perhaps other parts of the country.
It may very well benefit Democrats and will be hailed as a brilliant strategy in six months.
Regardless, there will be new precedents established. It could be a slippery slope. Who knows what 50, 100, 200 years from now will look like.
Relitigating the first 200 years of American history means it is fair for future generations to relitigate this moment in time. That ought to make us feel a little uncomfortable.
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