The inauguration of Jefferson Davis and why it must be taught

The inauguration of Jefferson Davis and why it must be taught
© Getty

This past week, I had a matter before the Virginia Supreme Court, in Richmond, Va.  It was my second time at the Virginia Supreme Court, and despite it being the second time, the experience was just as memorable. 

It was not what happened inside the courtroom. Rather, it was the bronze plaque that I passed while walking to the Supreme Court, on the edge of Virginia’s capitol grounds. I found it shocking each of the two times I passed it, but this second time, I believe it deserves further consideration. 

There, a large monument sits, of George Washington, astride a horse, and a plaque. The plaque reads: "INAUGURATION OF DAVIS"

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On a platform erected on this spot, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the regularly elected president of the Confederate States of America, Feb. 22, 1862.

The monument is guarded around the clock by an armed Virginia Capitol Police officer. While I sat in the Supreme Court across the street, I thought not of my motion but of the plaque and the four upcoming sections of ethical leadership in the University of Maryland’s online MBA program, which I am scheduled to teach starting next week.

Civil War statues and plaques have resulted in midnight removals in Baltimore and Annapolis. The University of Maryland Band no longer plays the state song, "Maryland, My Maryland," because of pro-Confederate lyrics

Maryland and Virginia are two neighboring states, yet the divide is large. Some say Virginia’s approach legitimizes the very dark history of slavery and rebellion. Some say Maryland’s approach ignores the reality that many Maryland citizens were Southern sympathizers.

Maryland did not secede from the Union only because of the suspension of habeas corpus by President Abraham Lincoln and the selective jailing of the state legislature. The Mason-Dixon Line is at the Maryland border. That Confederate statues exist (or used to exist) throughout Maryland is an indication of Maryland’s true history.

So what should those of us who teach leadership and ethics do? Maryland takes leadership students to Gettysburg to study the uncertainties of battle, but the complexities of Civil War monuments in Maryland and Virginia are ripe for consideration as well.

With this introduction, here is my first attempt. Go easy on me in the comments.   

Lest those history students among you point out that Jefferson Davis was already the president, this is incorrect.  He was only the provisional president. A full election did not take place until November 1861, and he was sworn in as the elected president, for a six-year term, on Feb. 22, 1862, in Richmond.

He was a West Point graduate, and like many of our MBA students, he had previously served as a U.S. Army officer and later the secretary of War of the United States. He was reluctant to undertake the role of Confederate president, having written, “Upon my weary heart was showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers, but beyond them I saw troubles and thorns innumerable.”  

The date of the inauguration was a dreadful day. It rained heavily. Yet, Davis did not cancel the inauguration due to the significance of the date — George Washington’s birthday. As I understand it, he saw parallels between Washington fighting an oppressive government and the Confederate cause.

In his speech, perhaps the heaviest criticism he levied against the Union was the oppression of its citizens by virtue of President Lincoln having earlier suspended habeas corpus, with specific regard to the Maryland legislature and citizenry. Davis said: 

"[P]risoners, arrested without civil process or indictment duly found; the writ of habeas corpus suspended by Executive mandate; a State Legislature controlled by the imprisonment of members whose avowed principles suggested to the Federal Executive that there might be another added to the list of seceded States; elections held under threats of a military power; civil officers, peaceful citizens, and gentle-women incarcerated for opinion's sake — proclaimed the incapacity of our late associates to administer a Government as free, liberal, and humane as that established for our common use."

President Lincoln argued suspension was required because of a great national emergency, citing “public safety.” 

Lincoln made clear that he, and he alone, had the power, as a unitary executive, to order the suspension of habeas corpus, not Congress. Ultimately, he made this suspension not just for Maryland, but for all Americans:

"[A]ll rebels and insurgents, their aiders and abettors within the United States, and all persons ... guilty of any disloyal practice ... shall be subject to martial law and liable to trial and punishment by courts martial or military commission," and, "the writ of habeas corpus is suspended in respect to all persons arrested or imprisoned in any fort, camp, arsenal, military prison, or other place of confinement by any military authority or by the sentence of any court martial or military commission."

In other words, it applied to those he regarded as “enemies of the people,” a phrase that has now been used by a different president.   

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Despite Davis’ inauguration speech, just five days later, Davis suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the Confederacy. He did this on three successive occasions. His reasoning, also due to public emergency, was similar to that of Lincoln, and perhaps a different president who leads us today.

The powers of the executive are now being cited, through media forms that did not then exist, to once again justify the unitary executive, even in the absence of congressional action. 

So there perhaps are reasons to study history, leadership, and parallels of the present to the Civil War after all.

David P. Weber is an attorney and a certified fraud examiner. He is a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, where he teaches ethics, leadership and forensic accounting at both the MBA and undergraduate levels. He is the former assistant inspector general for investigations at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the SEC’s chief investigator. Follow Weber on twitter @umd_dpweber.