A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Ron Daley: Jefferson Davis forces Kentuckians to decide when we wish to be on right side of history


Kentuckians who wish to be on the “right side of history” and be proud of their heritage advocated for the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue in the Kentucky Capitol rotunda. This has encouraged both emotional divisive dialogue and reflection on our Commonwealth’s heritage.

Those who called the statue removal did not want to see the slave holder and president of the Confederacy honored in such a prominent public place. Davis supporters maintain that the removal is taking away their heritage. This presents a teaching moment concerning Kentucky’s heritage and history. Despite Kentucky being the home of Abraham Lincoln, the state has been on the wrong side of history on this issue and equality of races at times.

Jefferson Davis is a reminder that each of us need to consider our decisions and morals so that we are on the right side of history. Davis accomplished a great deal in the military and in politics but embraced the immoral system of slavery and became the president of the Confederacy which threatened this nation’s great Republic and constitution.

Ron Daley has a bachelor’s degree in history from Berea College and a master’s degree in history from Western Kentucky University. He is a member of the 2017 class of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. He lives in Lexington.

His career was remarkable; however, his inexcusable values and life decisions nullified his potential for greatness. This is the reason we need to understand our history and not repeat its mistakes. President James Monroe appointed him to a cadetship at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He married his commanding officer’s daughter. That officer was the future president of the United States Zachary Taylor.

Davis left his post in the House of Representatives to fight in the Mexican War (1846-48), where he was a successful military leader and became a national hero. He served in the U.S. Senate representing Mississippi while being a plantation and slave owner. He was praised for his work serving as President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War.

Looking back, we can so clearly see how wrong he was to support slavery, use enslaved people for his profit and have a blind loyalty to the Old South and its way of life leading to the Civil War. True, he was a product of his times which obscured his moral compass. He became a patriot to the Confederacy, but not the United States of America.

Jefferson Davis’s tarnished legacy is a reminder for each of us to revisit our values and not blindly follow others, but instead make decisions so that we will be on the right side of history and human decency.

Kentucky technically remained neutral by not joining the Union or Confederacy during the Civil War, however, many of its leaders were sympathetic to the southern cause. The Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin believed that the rights of the south had been violated and favored the right of secession. but sought all possible avenues to avoid it. The Union controlled General Assembly did not favor succession. In response to President Lincoln’s request that Kentucky send troops to help the Union Magoffin telegraphed back “I will send not a man nor a dollar for the wicked purpose of subduing my sister Southern States.”

Kentucky’s citizens were split regarding the issues key leading to the Civil War. In 1860, slaves composed 19.5 percent of the Commonwealth’s population, and many Unionist Kentuckians saw nothing wrong with slavery.

In 1861 group of Kentucky Southern sympathizers decided to create a Confederate government. Delegates from 68 of the 110 counties met in Russellville to pass a secession resolution. Bowling Green was named the state capitol. The newly Kentucky formed Confederate government was added to the Confederacy and Kentucky was given the central star on the Confederate war flag.

Support for slavery and the Confederacy did not end after the Civil War. Klan activity was vicious in the southern and western portions of the state in which those areas lost over 15 percent of the black population.

Confederate sympathizers under the Democratic banner won elections taking over the Kentucky General Assembly voting against federal Reconstruction measures and re-enfranchised former Confederates. Beginning in 1871 six consecutive Confederate supporters were elected governor.

The Kentucky General Assembly voted against the ratification of the 13th Amendment eliminating slavery in 1865. Kentucky finally approved the amendment 111 years later in 1976 becoming the last state to do so.

Kentucky voted against ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1867 which offered citizenship rights and equal protection under the law for former slaves. Kentucky holds the distinction of being the last southern state to ratify the amendment doing so also in 1976.

Likewise, Kentucky voted against the 15th Amendment in 1869 which prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen’s right to vote based on that their “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Kentucky finally ratified the amendment just two weeks before Tennessee did in 1976.

We cannot change our history or heritage. However, we can decide what elements of our history and heritage which wish to celebrate. We can decide in the present which side of history we wish to choose.


Related Posts

Leave a Comment