I didn’t know until this week that an African-American student had given a commencement address at Harvard praising former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The address had the title, “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.”
Why wasn’t there a riot over his comments?
I also didn’t know until this week that the CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 was not the first failed attempt by Americans to overturn a Cuban government with mercenaries.
Why didn’t the media point this out after the Bay of Pigs fiasco?
Allow me to give the fascinating details of both stories, starting with the Harvard address.
To understand just how politically-incorrect the address was, let’s compare its theme to what just happened at Yale University. Yale announced that it was renaming its Calhoun College in order to expunge the memory of South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun, because he was a slaveholder.
Using that logic, Yale should shut its doors and sell its land and buildings to the highest bidder, because much of the original funding of Yale came from wealthy New Englanders in the textile industry, which relied on cotton grown by Southern slaves for its profits and international competitive advantage. Moreover, the tainted money from slave cotton has grown through investments over the years and been passed from one generation to the next of blueblood New Englanders, whose guilt over this probably explains their left-wing politics.
Anyway, the Harvard African-American student, whose name is William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, made the point that Jefferson Davis embodied the idea of “the Strong Man,” a man of “individualism coupled with might.” Du Bois went on to argue that Davis personified the contemporary world’s obsession with race and thirst for empire.
Even more remarkable, Du Bois gave the address in June of 1890.
Note to millennials who don’t know history: that was 25 years after the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, a war that was precipitated when anti-slavery Republicans took control of the federal government from pro-slavery Democrats. Yes, that would be the same Republican Party that you have been led to believe is comprised of a bunch of redneck racists.
Du Bois was making the brilliant larger point that the antebellum South’s use of slave labor backed up by military might was not that different from the imperialism and colonialism of the late nineteenth century, where Western countries used military might to subdue native populations and rely on extractive labor for economic gain.
The address must have been a shock to the audience, most of whom were former abolitionists, for it went against their self-righteous belief that they were far superior to the South in moral values and racial sensitivities—that the South was a distinct and separate sphere from the North. In actuality, Du Bois suggested, the North and South had a lot in common.
To put his comments in historical context, the Berlin Conference had taken place just five years previously. At the conference, the major European powers agreed to carve up most of the African continent. And as the nineteenth century drew to a close, most of the indigenous peoples from Central Asia to the South Pacific were coming under the military and economic dominion of Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Holland, Japan, and the United States.
This imperial prerogative was expressed by Theodore Roosevelt, of the Harvard class of 1880. (Note to millennials: Teddy was a Progressive who became president of the United States and is revered by many Americans, including Senator John McCain.) Writing in The Winning of the West, Roosevelt said that “It is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.” He would go on as president to win a Nobel Prize for brokering a peace between Russian and Japan, the terms of which gave Japan control of Korea and Manchuria, thus setting the stage for the war in the Pacific during the Second World War.
Let’s turn now to Cuba.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Cuba ranked third in slave population, behind the USA and Brazil and ahead of the fourth-ranked Republic of Texas. American slaveholders feared that a slave insurrection might occur in Cuba and spread to the United States, and also feared that Spain, which owned Cuba, might side with abolitionists someday. They pressured the Polk administration to try to buy the island from Spain, but the American offer of $50 million was rejected by the Spaniards.
After that, from 1849 to 1851, the Venezuelan adventurer Narciso Lopez mounted three private invasions of Cuba, to “liberate” it from Spanish rule. All three failed, and the third one ended with the execution of Lopez and 50 American mercenaries. History repeated itself 110 years later with John F. Kennedy’s ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
The 2016 book, The Vast Southern Empire, details the foregoing history and much more. It is a somewhat ponderous and repetitious read, but like so much history, it is also fascinating.
An aside: It’s unfathomable to me that many people find history boring. It’s never boring to me—but is often embarrassing to me—to discover that many of the beliefs I’ve held since childhood based on what I was taught as a kid were counter to historical facts.
Anyway, back to the book.
The book addresses the intellectual contradiction of Southern slaveholders, who were unwavering believers in states’ rights but at the same time wanted a strong central government and navy to keep Britain from using military force to end slavery in the Americas. (There is a similar contradiction today, whereby many Southerners believe in states’ rights and limited government but also want a strong federal government to project power overseas.)
There was so much interest in a strong, centralized military among the leaders of the antebellum South that for the 14 years between 1847 and 1861, men from the future Confederate states served as Secretary of War for 11 years (including Jefferson Davis) and Secretary of the Navy for nine. Combined federal expenditures for the War and Navy departments during these years ranged from a whopping 39% of the federal budget to an even larger 53%.
Ironically, federal naval power was used to blockade the Confederacy during the Civil War, and combined with other centralized military capabilities, resulted in the defeat of the South.
It’s time to end the history lesson for the day. Please send your tuition payment to my attention for what the lesson was worth. A nickel should cover it.