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Will Bowdoin revoke its award of the LL.D. to Jefferson Davis?

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Jefferson Davis

The recent furor over monuments to Confederate leaders – reaching its peak recently with the fatal demonstration in Virginia – has occasioned a nationwide reevaluation of similar testimonials elsewhere.

Governor Paul LePage, for example, entered the fray, weighing in on the side of those advocating caution in dismantling the memorials.

Though as Gov. LePage has reminded us some Mainers did support the Confederate cause – even though the precise number of those joining forces with Dixie may not be as great as our Governor has estimated – and though there were draft riots in Kingfield protesting the state’s involvement – the Pine Tree State was in the forefront of abolitionist causes. It sent a greater percentage of its youth in support of Lincoln’s forces than any other state, particularly during the first year of the war, this under the leadership of Governor Israel Washburn. (He was one of the illustrious Livermore Washburn Brothers, one of whom was among Lincoln’s closest Illinois based proteges.)

Nevertheless, less than three years before the war began, the state’s premier institution of higher learning awarded an honorary LL.D. to Jefferson Davis, a future President of the Confederacy.

This occurred during the second summer the then-U.S. Senator from Mississippi spent vacationing in Maine, partly for health reasons.

Why did this happen?

No doubt a key player would be Bowdoin President Leonard Woods. Woods was a pacifist who tried to appease both sides in the controversy leading up to and all the way through the Civil War itself.

On the same day Davis was awarded his degree in 1858, for example, the other recipient was Senator William Pitt Fessenden, the state’s most outspoken abolitionist.

It may well be that President Woods was trying to balance both sides of the impending conflict by awarding degrees to those at opposite ends of the issue.

The college might also have been hospitable to a person like Davis because he had served as Secretary of War in the cabinet of one of Bowdoin’s most noted alumni, U.S. President Franklin Pierce, during Pierce’s term from 1853 to 1857. Such an association likewise also no doubt could well have played a role.

Nevertheless it is somewhat curious that it was in the home town of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose “Uncle Tom Cabin” had become a rallying cry for anti-slavery sentiments, that Davis was honored. Future Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain was a Bowdoin faculty members at the time, though both Harriet Stowe and her husband, Calvin, also a faculty member, had left Brunswick six years earlier.
Thanks to the resourcefulness of the late William H. Williamson, a columnist for several Maine newspapers for many years until his death 12 years ago, we are afforded a survey of news media attention that was given the Davis award at the time.

Generally, according to Williamson’s 1996 analysis, the Maine press was quite enamored with Davis during the extensive time he spent in Maine. Coverage of his stay was detailed and largely complimentary.

The state’s leading abolitionist paper, The Portland Advertiser, for example, bestowed upon the event that it was the “the most brilliant commencement festivities Bowdoin has enjoyed for many years.” However, within a couple of weeks the Advertiser ran an editorial denouncing both Bowdoin and Davis, citing the degree as “prostitution of the honors and degrees of one of our first literary institutions.” The Advertiser went on to condemn the proceedings as “a public grievance demanding stern reprobation and a most extraordinary circumstance necessitating an explanation.”

The Davis degree was for entirely different reasons met with disapproval in the South. The South Carolina Mercury accused the future Confederate President of being disloyal to the South in agreeing to accept the honor.

Predictably, the Portland Argus, a Democratic paper sympathetic to southern causes, laid into the Advertiser for its attack on Bowdoin, the Argus reciting that it had “universal gratification” and that Davis was “not only a distinguished statesman and soldier but a thorough scholar.”

As a recent write-up by the Press Herald’s Matt Byrne points out, Davis also accepted several speaking invitations before Maine political organizations and was also a high school graduation speaker while in the state.

The question becomes, however, as to whether Bowdoin will consider revoking the degree. This will be a step which the college has declined to take when asked to do so before. Bowdoin’s News and Media Relations Director Doug Cook, for example, in an e-mail to this columnist last year, stated that it “has never been revoked by the college, and there are no plans to do so.”

Just two years ago, however, the college did return an endowment given to it in 1972 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. This was on the grounds that it would be “inappropriate for Bowdoin College to bestow an annual award that continues to honor a man whose mission was to preserve and institutionalize slavery,” according to President Clayton Rose.

No doubt Bowdoin will – in light of the recent Virginia episode and for reasoning similar to that expressed by the college’s president two years ago – be under renewed pressure to reassess the Davis degree.

The controversy over honoring Southern leaders as symbolized by the Bowdoin award to the future Confederate president illustrates the maxim that sometimes the perceived statesmen of one day are not the icons of another. It also brings into focus the extent to which as Benedetto Croce once observed, “All history is contemporary history.”

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine.  He can be reached by e-mail:  pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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