I wouldn’t have thought so, but someone asked me that question just the other day, after I’d given a speech on the late unpleasantness between North and South. The question was really an accusation, and the case for the prosecution was that Jefferson Davis supported an aggressive, expansionist, imperialist foreign policy; he was for free trade; and he opposed restrictions on slave-holders being allowed to take their “property” to other states, the Free States, which wanted, for the most part, to remain the preserve of all-white labor — and as such he was an advocate of diversity or multiculturalism.
Well, it seems a stretch, but other points could have been made as well. Neo-conservatism is often associated with Jewish conservatives, and the first Jewish cabinet member in North America was in Jefferson Davis’s Confederate cabinet, Judah P. Benjamin. Neo-conservatism is sometimes associated, too, with a certain sort of Catholic intellectual (Michael Novak and George Weigel might qualify), and Davis was well-disposed to Catholics, saying they had always been very kind to him (he spent a couple of years in a Catholic school as a young boy and after the war wore a scapular, a medal of St. Benedict, and a Miraculous Medal). One could even argue that Jefferson Davis was, to a certain degree, a “national greatness” conservative. Though he deprecated federal spending on “internal improvements” (the proper domain of the states and private enterprise), he made exceptions when national security or Southern interests were involved, as in the transcontinental railroad that he hoped would follow a Southern route.
Jefferson Davis was also, of course, a Democrat, and if he had never been a liberal, and so never in need of being mugged by reality, he was eventually mugged by defeat in a war that had, in his mind, been fought not over slavery but over high principle: the constitutional right of the sovereign states to determine their own destinies.
Davis, of course, would never have thought of himself as a neo-conservative, and it would be absurd to call him one now, especially as the word itself has lost most of its original meaning and become more of an epithet than anything else. And frankly, the very use of the word, at least in its present state, shows an unhealthy ossifying of conservative thinking down ideological channels, through which it should never run. The height of this sort of absurdity for me, at least, was when one prominent paleo-conservative argued in print that it was perfectly acceptable to support the Afghan War even though the neo-cons supported it. I dread the day — perhaps it has already come — when Rudyard Kipling or Lord Salisbury are derided as neo-cons because they were imperialists.
Imperialist though he was, Jefferson Davis is unlikely ever to receive much sympathy from the neo-cons, and this, too, I fear, betrays ideological thinking rather than a proper conservative disposition that sees our history through a sympathetic and realistic lens.
It is astonishing to me that so many purported conservatives find it so hard to understand the Old South on its own terms, which were very American terms. I have been told that the Confederacy was tyrannical because of slavery. If so, was George Washington a tyrant or Thomas Jefferson? Jefferson Davis originated no revolution in the institution of slavery. He was as ardently in favor of liberty as the founders, if as paradoxically bound to slavery as many of them were. Was the United States, which existed half-slave, half-free from its founding until 1865, a tyranny? Was the constitution really, as the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison held it to be, “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell”?
Then, of course, there is the accusation of treason. But can one really believe that men like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and A. P. Hill were “traitors”? These were men who had served the United States loyally in peace and war and in fact had fought in the Mexican War that a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln from Illinois ardently opposed (had David Frum been a scribbler at the time, he might have deemed Lincoln an “unpatriotic conservative”). Men like Davis, Lee, Jackson, and Hill had no interest in overthrowing the government of the United States.
On the contrary, their motives were those of patriots who upheld the rights of their sovereign states to self-determination. Robert E. Lee had said that he wished “to live under no other government, and there is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honour.” But what was dishonorable was the idea of maintaining the Union at the barrel of a gun, of subjugating the South through bloody and unnecessary war.
Men like Lee (and Davis, and Jackson, and A. P. Hill) believed in a union of consent, not one held together by swords and bayonets. When their states chose independence they stayed loyal to their homes, their families, their kin, their native soil, and the state government that represented them. They did not believe that the Federal government had the right to invade, terrorize, and lay waste states that did not want to be a part of it. How is that treason, save in a sense that Patrick Henry might have admired? As General Richard Taylor, son of President Zachary Taylor, said, the men in butternut and grey had “striven for that which brought our forefathers to Runnymede, the privilege of exercising some influence in their own government.”
It beggars belief that what motivated the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia was “treason”; that men like Richard Taylor, and men with equally celebrated lineages, kin of Washington, Jefferson, John Marshall, and others of the founding generation, were all “traitors.” The motives, indeed the very language used in declaring Southern independence, came from Thomas Jefferson; the hero on the great seal of the Confederacy was George Washington.
Political correctness feeds in part on conservative acquiescence. It wasn’t so very long ago that Confederate heroes could be seen as American heroes, that sympathetic portraits of the antebellum or wartime South were mainstream fare. Conservatives, those most supportive of tradition, most aware of the importance of appreciating our past, who acknowledge with Edmund Burke that people will not look forward to posterity who never look back to their ancestors, should be the last to disparage and dismantle our history. But what we might call hyphenated conservatism — whether paleo, neo, or some other variety — carries the virus of ideology, the very negation of what conservatism is supposed to be. Jefferson Davis might not have been a neo-conservative, but neo-cons and paleo-cons could do worse than study his life, without ideological blinders.