A Great Intellectual Silence

The message sent to us today when reading the biography and accomplishments of Jefferson Davis of Mississippi include the following: West Point graduate, married to Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of General and President Zachary Taylor, colonel of Mississippi Volunteers in the Mexican War, served in both the United States House and Senate, Secretary of War, pleaded for peace between North and South in 1860-61 as a Unionist, and served as president of the Confederate States of America, 1861-65. Few Americans exhibited as distinguished a career as Davis.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org


A Great Intellectual Silence

“So the anti-Confederate backlash has come to Dallas . . . but, then, maybe not. Maybe that isn’t fundamentally what happened when the Dallas school board, in June [1999], voted to rename mostly black and Hispanic Jefferson Davis Elementary School for Barbara Jordan, the late Houston congresswoman.

Here, likely, is what happened: Within the community at large, a failure of nerve occurred, a moral power outage, leaving residents plunged in darkness. The same failure of nerve afflicted New Orleans over a year ago, when the name of infamous slaveowner George Washington was removed from an elementary school, to be replaced with – I don’t recall and don’t care to; Sojourner Truth or some like luminary.

You could say, and I wouldn’t argue the point, that on both occasions the antebellum South received deliberate kicks in the groin, and that this form of reprisal was unfortunate and unjust. Davis, Washington: prisoners in a kangaroo court, due to peripheral association with the peculiar institution of slavery. Malarkey!

Also, you can bet your bottom dollar this species of malarkey is sure to spread, two large Southern cities having capitulated so cravenly.

Now, to begin with, we’re talking here about education. Well, about public schools at least. You might expect, in the context of a controversy over the naming of a school, some attention to historical accuracy. Ah, no.

“The name sends a very bad message,” says Se-Gwyn Tyler, who represents the city council district in which ex-Jefferson Davis Elementary is located. Well, ma’am, do you really know that?

Ever read a biography of Davis? Know where he lived, what posts he held before the war? How historians evaluate him? If this is the standard of knowledge regnant at the decision-making level in Dallas, how can one be sure the Davis critics are right that Barbara Jordan is the ideal role model?

Are we to sit quietly while a dead man is vilified and misrepresented? While history itself is distorted? We’re not to utter a peep or reproach? Not so much as a civil objection? That would seem the case.

The major fault in the Davis matter, it seems to me, doesn’t attach to those who sought a name change. The major fault attaches to those who sat through the name-change procedure with eyes and mouths resolutely closed, believing apparently that expiation was a larger public good than truth. Failure of nerve indeed! Cowardice on the half-shell. Hush, we mustn’t offend.

Well, actually, it’s all right to offend those who retain some reverence for the dead; we just mustn’t offend members of cultures and subgroups arguing for affirmation.

A great intellectual silence descends over modern society. We can’t talk about everything; we certainly can’t talk in a spirit of honesty. And we know it. This is what rankles: We know we can’t, and we pass it off as of no great or immediate consequence. Failure of nerve.”

(Roll, Jordan, Roll; Letter from Texas, William Murchison, Chronicles, October 1999, excerpts pg. 37)

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