Consummatum est

In his final speech (1889), Jeff Davis told his audience of Southern college students,

Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to take your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished–a reunited country.

I find this strange and telling.

an account of the massacre

title page from the novel "Hanover"

A whole generation had passed since the War Between the States, yet the division so dominated national thought and policy that a wise person may have been able to foresee the violence yet to come.  I think especially of the convulsion in Wilmington, NC nine years after this speech, when the party of race hatred–the Democrats–seized municipal power with a Gatling gun, leaving black bodies bloating in the river and forever changing the character of that idyllic-looking waterfront as both North Carolina’s governor and President McKinley looked the other way.

We tend to forget just how divided the so-called United States still was in 1889. As the former president of the Confederacy, Davis remained until and after his death a poster-boy for its best and worst aspirations, whether he liked it or not.  Like slaves before them, white supremacists learned to talk in code of which his earnest-sounding graduation speech may have been an example.

Jeff Davis is citing Shakespeare, an honorable enough pastime for any public speaker of the time: but as every young man in the audience recognized full well, Hamlet’s famous soliloquy was about whether to commit suicide. The “consummation” in question was death; he devoutly wishes it, yet hangs around prompted by the need for revenge.

So Davis is saying that reuniting the country, even 24 years after the Civil War, would be suicide. What a sad and bitter man he must have been–even if he was unaware of the full implications of what he was saying to this new generation of bright minds, none of whom had even been born when the war broke out.


Comments are closed.