Editor and author's note
I wrote this column several days ago but, not wishing to bunch up the appearance of my columns to an unprecedented degree, decided to hold it for a while and now events have overtaken it. According to the New York Times, the highway-renaming bill that I deal with here has died in committee. I decided to go ahead and run this SLU, though, because its general theme is the war over American symbols, and that struggle continues unabated. Indeed, who would be willing to bet that the very same Red Guards won't resurrect the very same highway-renaming proposal in the next session of the Washington legislature?
March 9, 2002
Strakon Lights Up, No.
Jeff Davis and the highway
to symbolic secession
That peculiar lump of history that the new Post-American Americans find it so difficult to digest the Confederacy is once again provoking sharp pains in the public gut. According to the New York Times, legislation is pending in Washington State to "rename Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway to honor William P. Stewart, [a] black Civil War veteran who fought for [the] Union and settled in Snohomish [Wash.]."
So it's a racial deal, right? It's all about slavery? Very well: trying mightily for a reductio ad absurdum, one member of the assembly proposed that the state go all the way and change its name from "Washington" to something more multicultural because old George was, after all, a slave-owner. But that was a non-starter: a Red Guardess who is sponsoring the highway-renaming dropped the whole racial thing in mid-shriek and piously reminded him that George Washington brought The Nation together, while Jefferson Davis tried to tear It apart. ("All Things Considered," NPR, March 4) I swear, no one can leap from one context to another and land on their feet as nimbly as the Red Guards. If there's ever a Sophistry Olympics, they're bound to bring home the gold-plated tin.
Naturally, the Sons and the Daughters and other Confederate descendants are once again charging forward under the Stainless Banner ... but wait a second, that's wrong. This time they're actually charging forward under another, much more popular banner, one that's got quite a few more stars, as well as quite a few stains. You know the one. It's very modish at the moment, even among soccerites, soggy yups, and left-wing media chatterboxes. I'll bet half the cars traveling Jeff Davis Highway are flying miniature versions of it right now.
The unpleasant truth which the Sons and the Daughters are doing their best to remind us of is that Davis did some important work under the Union banner. That's one of the reasons that, so far as I'm concerned, he falls into the category only of a "contextual hero," at best. When he was Franklin Pierce's war secretary and later when he was in the U.S. Senate, Davis pressed for opening the West through Central Government road- and railroad-building; that's why a road out in Washington, of all places, wound up being named after him. It's his dirigiste, Whiggish not to say Lincolnite! contributions to Central Government "public" works that the Daughters and the Sons are hanging their hat on, in their battle against the renaming.
One thing they're not telling Washingtonians is that Davis really wanted the route for the subsidized transcontinental railroad to run across the Old South and out through Texas, in order to specially benefit his region and give the slave economy a shot in the arm. He lobbied strenuously for that route, which wouldn't have terminated anywhere near the Pacific Northwest.
Secession ended the route debate in the United States, and the Lincolnites wasted no time getting their great public-private partnership in corruption rolling: Lincoln signed the transcontinental railroad bill, enriching various Republicans such as ironmonger Thaddeus Stevens, in 1862, barely a year after the last Southerners had left Congress. But if the Confederacy had achieved its independence, it's pretty likely that Davis would have stretched the famously "laissez-faire" Confederate Constitution to its limits, if not beyond, in terms of state-promoted railroad building. He certainly stretched it in other ways during the Second War of Independence, as his decentralist opposition in the Confederate Congress would testify.
Even with all his pre-war Whiggery aside, Jefferson Davis fails definitively as an "absolute hero" because he was the head of a nation-state, and, as if that weren't bad enough, head of one that sank ever deeper into Consolidation and War Socialism as its struggle for existence dragged on.
That accounts sufficiently for the "contextual" side of my designation "contextual hero." But what of the "hero" side? I hope that's the part that really motivates the Sons and the Daughters, even if they're afraid to talk about it.
Jefferson Davis tried to "tear The Nation apart"? Damn straight he did, and good for him. If only he'd succeeded. Say what you will about Davis, he had the right enemies. He was one of America's last great exponents of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, one of which principles is the inextinguishable, undeniable, unlimited right of secession.
Anarchists want to secede right down to the individual level, of course, and, also of course, Davis didn't want to go nearly that far. For that matter, I won't make any categorical pronouncements about how a victorious Davis would have reacted if, a few years down the road, Texas had decided to secede from the Confederacy, taking all those railway routes with her. But in the historical context in which he actually found himself, Davis was moving in the right direction, and in that crucial respect he stood up against Whiggery and its Unstoppable Locomotive of History, against the over-inflated moribund de-republicanizing imperial republic that Abrahamus Cæsar and the Lincolnites stood for. Down with The Nation! and up with two, three, many countries 300 million countries, homelands, heartlands, hearth-lands!
That's why lovers of Liberty and the Old America should encourage the Guards in Washington State to do their damnedest and rename that highway for some soldier of Lincoln's Union whom none of us has ever heard of. If Jefferson Davis is admirable as a foe of the imperial Union, his name ought not decorate one square inch of its "public" territory. As I wrote in "Let them keep the Stars and Stripes, and we'll take Don't Tread on Me,"
We should celebrate when the public square is finally stripped of all inspiring symbols. Let that square become as bare and lifeless as the courtyard of a public-housing project. Let bitter winds drive litter across its cold pavement in the harsh blue glare of security lights. Why should we strive to decorate it? Just what sentiments, what actions do we expect it to inspire in our dark time?
Far from deriving inspiration, we risk suffocating our mind if we continue to associate the regime and its works with symbols and heroes we admire. For God's sake, let us take them and depart!
March 9, 2002
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