Clio Logo

The rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort houses five statues, including one of United States President Abraham Lincoln and one of Confederate President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), both of whom were born in Kentucky. The presence of Davis' statue in the Capitol building has been contested for at least two years, with Republican and Democratic politicians alike calling for its removal. As Confederate statues have been increasingly scrutinized nationwide, the Davis statue in the Capitol has invited fresh debate.


  • Jefferson Davis statue in the Kentucky State Capitol rotunda (image from the Lexington Herald-Leader)
  • Jefferson Davis (image from the Civil War Trust)

History and Context
The removal of the Jefferson Davis statue in the Kentucky State Capitol was called for in 2015 by both Senator Mitch McConnell and gubernatorial candidate (now Governor) Matt Bevin. Debate within the Historic Properties Advisory Commission, as well as the public, resulted in the statue remaining; the Commission compromised by handing out educational materials to visitors to place Davis in historical context, particularly in light of the fact that both he and Lincoln were born in Kentucky. Since then, Bevin has reversed his stance as the NAACP and others in the state have argued for removal of the Davis Statue following the events in Charlottesville and, earlier in 2017, the shooting at an African-American church in South Carolina.

Nationwide, there are over 700 Confederate monuments and statues on public property such as courthouses and other official buildings, as well as parks. Though some were erected immediately following the American Civil War, there was a sharp increase in public art dedicated to the Confederacy in the first decades of the twentieth century, particularly in the South. During this time, states were enacting oppressive, segregationist Jim Crow laws while the Ku Klux Klan (formed immediately after the Civil War) revived dramatically. Kentucky's Jim Crow era resulted in 205 recorded lynchings of African Americans between 1882 and 1968. The statue of Jefferson Davis was erected in 1936, funded by the State of Kentucky and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).

The Daughters of the Confederacy, formed in 1894, in fact funded many of the public monuments of the Jim Crow era. The organization, composed of white women of the South, grew to 100,000 members by 1915, and was committed both to aiding veteran Confederates and their families, and to preserving the "Lost Cause" interpretation of Civil War history. The UDC lobbied for high school and college textbooks which celebrated the Confederacy and defended slavery, reinforcing white supremacy while reframing the cause of the South's attempt to secede, and referring to African Americans as, "savages...Christianized under [slavery's] influence," [6]. One of these textbooks even posited that the Ku Klux Klan was a "necessary protection" against former slaves, and later some claimed that slaveholders were actually "anxious for the slaves to be free," [6]. Such textbooks were used in Southern schools as late the 1970s. Today's UDC is only open to women related to veterans of the Confederacy, and has issued a statement expressing the members' rejection of Confederate symbols being used by hate groups. Still, as late as 1989 the UDC was publishing articles arguing that the true victims of the slavery economy were the white crews of slave ships and slave owners, minimizing or ignoring the suffering of the African American slaves themselves. There has also been public UDC support for racist groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens and the League of the South, as well as neo-Confederate and white supremacist leaders in recent years.

Jefferson Finis Davis himself considered whites a "superior race," praising slavery in his 1861 address to the Confederate Congress and elsewhere stating that U.S. slavery was "a moral, a social, and a political blessing," [5; 9]. Though Davis was born in (and attended college in) Kentucky, he grew up in Mississippi, the son of a Revolutionary War veteran, Samuel Davis. Jefferson Davis was a planter who graduated from West Point in 1824 and served briefly in the Black Hawk War. He became a Mississippi Congressman, but left to lead troops in the Mexican War. He turned down a military promotion when he was elected U.S. Senator in 1847 and was appointed U.S. Secretary of War from 1853-1857. Politically, he championed the spread of slavery into new territories and states, opposing the admission of California as a free state in 1850.

In 1861, when Mississippi seceded from the Union, Davis formally withdrew from the Senate. He was elected President of the Confederacy the following year. Though initially popular with his constituency, a combination of factors led to his unpopularity with the people of the South, as well as with the Confederate Congress and military. He had a reputation for being contentious and a poor judge of character; he neglected domestic politics, which led to hunger riots Richmond, the Confederate capital; and he allowed his personal feelings toward Confederate military and political personnel to affect strategic decisions. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard disliked Davis so deeply, he wrote of the President, "If he were to die to-day, the whole country would rejoice at it," and Davis publicly feuded with General Joe Johnston, whose "hatred of Jeff Davis amount[ed] to a religion," [9]. Davis was also heavily criticized in the Confederate press, though he did maintain good relationships with some of his generals and with some of the press. As the defeats mounted up in the war, Davis's popularity plummeted, and he fled Richmond by train shortly before the city fell to the Union in 1865. He was captured in Georgia and imprisoned in Virginia for two years on charges of treason. However, he was never tried, and was released on bond. Refusing to ask for a pardon from the U.S. Government or take an oath to regain his U.S. citizenship, he was forced to live primarily off the charity of others for the rest of his life. He became a driving force in the movement to erect Confederate monuments, and complained that "yankees and negros" [sic] had taken over the South.

1. Beam, Adam and Bruce Schreiner. "Debate Over Confederate Symbols Erupts in Kentucky." Associated Press, U.S. News and World Report. August 15, 2017. Accessed August 25, 2017. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/kentucky/articles/2017-08-15/kentucky-governor-against-remov....
2. Brammer, Jack. "Kentucky NAACP wants Jefferson Davis statue out of Capitol." The Lexington Herald-Leader. August 14, 2017. Accessed August 25, 2017. http://www.kentucky.com/news/politics-government/article167101122.html.
3. Civil War Trust. "Jefferson Davis." Accessed August 25, 2017. https://www.civilwar.org/learn/biographies/jefferson-davis.
4. Foner, Eric and John A. Garraty, ed. The Reader's Companion to American History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 1991. Accessed August 25, 2017. http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/jefferson-davis.
5. Harris, Jordan. "Replace Jefferson Davis statue with Ali in Kentucky Capitol." The Courier-Journal. Louisville, Kentucky. July 24, 2017. Accessed August 25, 2017. http://www.courier-journal.com/story/opinion/contributors/2017/07/24/replace-jefferson-davis-statue-....
6. Levin, Kevin M. "How Dixie's History Got Whitewashed." The Daily Beast. August 19, 2016. Accessed August 26, 2017. http://www.thedailybeast.com/how-dixies-history-got-whitewashed.
7. Loftus, Tom. "Black leaders urge Matt Bevin to remove Jefferson Davis statue from Kentucky Capitol." The Courier-Journal. Louisville, Kentucky. August 25, 2017. Accessed August 25, 2017. http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/2017/08/25/black-leaders-urge-matt-bevin-remove-c....
8. NAACP. "Take the Jefferson Davis statue out of the Kentucky Capitol." Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. https://www.kftc.org/actions/take-jefferson-davis-statue-out-ky-capitol.
9. Selk, Avi. "Jefferson Davis: The Confederacy's first, worst, and only president." The Washington Post. May 11, 2017. Accessed August 26, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/05/11/jefferson-davis-the-confederacys-first-....
10. Southern Poverty Law Center. "Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy." 2017. Accessed August 20, 2017. https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/whoseheritage_splc.pdf.
11. --- "The Neo-Confederates." Intelligence Report. Summer Issue. September 15, 2000. Accessed August 26, 2017. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2000/neo-Confederates.
12. United Daughters of the Confederacy. Official website. Accessed August 26, 2017. http://www.hqudc.org/.
13. "United Daughters of The Confederacy." Dictionary of American History. Accessed August 26, 2017 at Encyclopedia.com. http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/united-daug....