Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization

This was the 1890 Commencement Address W. E. B. DuBois delivered at Harvard University [see here].

Dr. DuBois begins, “Jefferson Davis was a typical Teutonic hero; the history of civilization during the last millennium has been the development of the idea of the Strong Man of which he was the embodiment. The Anglo-Saxon loves a soldier–Jefferson Davis was an Anglo-Saxon, Jefferson Davis was a soldier. There was not a phase in that familiarly strange life that would not have graced a mediaeval [sic] romance: from the fiery and impetuous young lieutenant who stole as his bride the daughter of a ruler-elect of the land, to the cool and ambitious politician in the Senate hall. So boldly and surely did that cadaverous figure with the thin nervous lips and flashing eye, write the first line of the new page of American history, that the historian of the future must ever see back of the war of secession, the strong arm of one imperious man, who defied disease, trampled on precedent, would not be defeated, and never surrendered.”

Dr. DuBois tells us he doesn’t want to consider Jefferson Davis the man, but rather “the type of civilization which his life represented: its foundation is the idea of the strong man–Individualism coupled with the rule of might–and it is this idea that has made the logic of even modern history, the cool logic of the Club. It made a naturally brave and generous man, Jefferson Davis–now advancing civilization by murdering Indians, now hero of a national disgrace called by courtesy, the Mexican War, and finally, as the crowning absurdity, the peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free.” He connects Davis the “strong man” with a so-called “strong nation.” “Under whatever guise, however a Jefferson Davis may appear, as man, as race, or as nation, his life can only logically mean this: the advance of a part of the world at the expence [sic] of the whole: the overweening sense of the I and the consequent forgetting of the Thou. It has thus happened, that advance in civilization has always been handicapped by shortsighted national selfishness. The vital principle of division of labor has been stifled not only in industry, but also in civilization, so as to render it well nigh impossible for a new race to introduce a new idea into the world except by means of the cudgel. To say that a nation is in the way of civilization is a contradiction in terms, and a system of human culture whose principle is the rise of one race on the ruins of another is a farce and a lie. Yet this is the type of civilization which Jefferson Davis represented.”

After setting up the confederacy as a farce and a lie, Dr. DuBois then talks about how, as he put it, “the Negro” fit into the historical paradigm: “Wherever the Negro people have touched civilization their rise has been singularly unromantic and unscientific. Through the glamour of history, the rise of a nation has ever been typified by the Strong Man crushing out an effete civilization. That brutality buried aught else beside Rome when it descended golden haired and drunk from the blue north has scarcely entered human imagination. Not as the muscular warrior came the Negro, but as the cringing slaver. The Teutonic met civilization and crushed it–the Negro met civilization and was crushed by it. The one was the hero the world has ever worshipped [sic], who gained unthought of mistakes; the other was the personification of dogged patience bending to the inevitable, and waiting. In the history of this people, we seek in vain the elements of Teutonic deification of Self, and Roman brute force, but we do find an idea of submission apart from cowardice, laziness or stupidity, such as the world never saw before.”

In concluding, Dr. DuBois says, “The Teuton stands today as the champion of the idea of Personal Assertion: the Negro as the peculiar embodiment of the idea of Personal Submission: either, alone, tends to an abnormal development–towards Despotism on the one hand which the world has just cause to fear, and yet covertly admires, or towards slavery on the other which the world despises and which, yet is not wholly despicable. No matter how great and striking the Teutonic type of impetuous manhood may be, it must receive the cool purposeful ‘Ich Dien’ of the African for its round and full development. In the rise of Negro people and development of this idea, you whose nation was founded on the loftiest ideals, and who many times forgot those ideals with a strange forgetfulness, have more than a sentimental interest, more than a sentimental duty. You owe a debt to humanity for this Ethiopia of the Out-stretched Arm, who has made her beauty, patience, and her grandeur, law.”

I found it amazing that Dr. DuBois, in 1890, was speaking of Jefferson Davis and the confederacy in Teutonic terms as more or less a dictatorship if not in actual form then perhaps in metaphor, comparing Davis and the confederacy to a German construct–more than forty years before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. It’s only a coincidence this happened and that later some would compare the confederacy with Nazi Germany, whether that comparison is valid or not, when DuBois could not possibly have foreseen the rise of Nazi Germany when he gave this address. I think what this actually does is remind us to be careful in looking at history and trying to draw lines of connectivity. DuBois couldn’t possibly have foreseen Hitler’s rise, yet he coincidentally spoke of Davis in terms that might also have applied to Hitler, and then decades after World War II there would be people who, rightly or wrongly, would actually compare Davis’ confederacy with Hitler’s Nazi Germany. No valid conclusions comparing the two can be drawn using this address, yet it’s easy to be seduced into believing one can indeed draw such conclusions if we aren’t on guard. We can’t say DuBois was prescient, yet it’s tempting to make that claim if we aren’t on guard. We need to resist those temptations.

Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization
Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization
Student of the American Civil War
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