Beauvoir, The Last Home of Jefferson Davis

The quote from George Orwell’s novel 1984, “who controls the present controls the past” is unfortunately especially poignant under the Trump administration.[1] The threats posed to education and Americans’ understanding of their own history, thanks to his endorsement of “alternative facts,” have already received widespread attention. Indeed, journalist David Graham astutely states that, “when presidents play historian, it almost always says more about them than it does with history.”[2]

Trump’s relationship to the historic site at Beauvoir illustrates the need for historians to increase their public history outreach. Even prior to his presidency, Trump’s endorsement of historical figures prominent in American history has consistently reflected either an ignorance of the facts or a historiographical interpretation that is no longer taught at mainstream universities. Take, for instance, his interest in donating money to help renovate Beauvoir. Beauvoir, the home and presidential library where ex-president of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis retired, is near Biloxi. This coastal region of Mississippi, and Beauvoir specifically, were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. To the credit of the Mississippi locals, they have rebuilt this stunning coastal area. Beauvoir possesses beautifully well-kept grounds, the historic house has been exquisitely restored whilst being surrounded by washed up oyster shells, and the museum stands as an imposing building in the Greek revival style.

The Greek revival style of the museum, run by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A statue of Jefferson Davis stands outside the museum near the sign for the house tours. Photo by author.

Davis bought the antebellum home of Beauvoir in 1879 and it remained his home for the last decade of his life.[3] Since 1903, Beauvoir has been owned and operated by the Mississippi division of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.[4] The museum reflects how the Sons of the Confederate Veterans actively question Civil War and Reconstruction historiography influenced by the Civil Rights movement. There is a seeming avoidance of discussion of the Civil War, apart from one exhibit room in the small museum that displays some Civil War weaponry. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have disputed that slavery was ever a cause of the Civil War, and instead of seeing the Civil War as an inevitable conflict, they would likely endorse the president’s perspective that the Civil War could have been avoided had it not been for a “blundering generation” of politicians.[5] The museum contains a description of one of Davis’s “loyal slaves,” a historiographical trope that is still pervasive at many historic sites, even those not administered by a heritage organization like the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.

The large and imposing museum building on the grounds of Beauvoir. Photo by author.

As a historic site in the Deep South, the museum at Beauvoir exemplifies the pro-Confederate Lost Cause ideology of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, historian William J. Cooper Jr. states in his biography of Davis that, “when Davis settled at Beauvoir, his main goal was to prepare his memoirs.”[6] Davis was motivated by a keen desire for his memoirs to provide vindication of “the cause” of the Confederacy.[7] Through the museum’s portrayal of the life and times of Davis, Beauvoir has perpetuated his legacy apparent in his wish for vindication.

A paternal statue of Jefferson Davis on the grounds of Beauvoir. Photo by author.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Donald Trump donated money toward Beauvoir’s restoration. This is a fact that was proudly stressed by the tour guide of the Davis home, who made a comment about the irony of a New Yorker donating to restore the home of a fire-eating secessionist Confederate Southerner. The Confederate Gazette, a publication of a Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, proudly ran on the front page of their March 2006 issue that, “Trump Gives $25k To Beauvoir.”[8] Somehow this fact that provides insight into both Trump’s past donations and his understanding of history, was missed during the presidential campaign. In 2011, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote on the blog ThinkProgress that, “To be fair to the Donald, he apparently made the donation at the recommendation of Richard Moe, then the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”[9] However, considering that the historical controversy and significance of Jefferson Davis and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans is relatively common knowledge, it is difficult to exonerate Trump of ignorance.

Beauvoir also offers opportunities for gender analysis, since the museum contains a row of Barbie dolls dressed in the style of the Old South, made at the end of the twentieth century. In glorifying a mythic ideal of the genteel Southern woman, they arguably do not reflect our twenty-first century American values. Mattel, the company that produces Barbie dolls, certainly has attempted to reflect this change with their “Imagine The Possibilities” ad campaign released last year that emphasizes gender equality.[10] The display at Beauvoir encourages a conservative, traditional feminine ideal, something that President Trump would likely endorse. The museum provides no explanation as to the relevance of the Barbie doll display, so a visitor is left with the conclusion that this image and understanding of the Old South, which ignores the vital role of women in society to instead privilege a modern obsession with physical appearances, lives on and continues to haunt us.

Made available in April 1992, a Barbie doll representing a vision of the Old South and femininity. Photo by author.

Arguably the depiction of the Lost Cause ideology displayed in the museum is both Beauvoir’s greatest fallacy and perhaps its greatest potential. A video shown at Beauvoir focuses on Confederate memorial events and celebrations that occurred on the grounds in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The fact that Beauvoir was not utilized as a plantation has provided a convenient veil of the museum’s use of the Lost Cause narrative by disassociating the home with slavery and the tumultuous race relations that defined the South in the second half of the nineteenth century. The benefit of focusing on competing memories is that it provides a clear representation of the contested meanings of the Confederacy. A compelling approach would be to show visitors these Lost Cause narratives alongside more historically sound stories about the true meaning of the war. As Davis’s retirement home, the museum at Beauvoir would better serve public history by describing the evolution of the Lost Cause and its inaccurate portrayal of American history, rather than perpetuating pro-Confederate ideology.

These contested meanings retain their relevance as Americans continue to grapple with their understanding of race in American history, apparent through the ongoing controversy over the use of the Confederate flag and the removal of Confederate monuments that recently occurred in New Orleans. Notably, the Crescent City possesses a unique history as a comparably progressive Southern urban center that provided antebellum free persons of color opportunity to gain wealth. This unique history further exemplifies the geographical differences in the contested meanings of the Confederacy as analysts ponder whether other Southern states will follow suit.[11]

Under the Trump administration, historians must make more of an effort at public history outreach to ensure that those with a bully pulpit get their facts straight. Beauvoir’s interpretation, and its administration by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, exemplifies this need. Historians possess the utmost responsibility as defenders of free speech and educators of young Americans. Trump cannot be permitted to become the person, “who controls the present controls the past.” There are no “alternative facts” in history. There are simply facts and informed interpretations that are constantly being revised and updated by ongoing research. The profession of history stands as a bulwark against ignorance and no single person should be permitted to control the past.

[1] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classics, 1950 [1949]), 34.

[2] David A. Graham, “Trump’s Peculiar Understanding of the Civil War,” The Atlantic, accessed May 21, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/05/trump-magna-cum-laude-from-the-dunning-school/524892/.

[3] William J. Cooper Jr., Jefferson Davis, American (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 677.

[4] “Beauvoir,” accessed May 21, 2017, http://www.visitbeauvoir.org.

[5] Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Trump on the Civil War: ‘Why Could That One Not Have Been Worked Out?” New York Times, accessed May 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/01/us/politics/trump-andrew-jackson-fact-check.html?_r=1 .

[6] Cooper, 660.

[7] Cooper, 660.

[8] John C. Perry, “Trump Gives $25k to Beauvoir,” Ancestry, accessed May 21, 2017, http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~tx1250/gazette/scv18-10.pdf .

[9] Alyssa Rosenberg, “Donald Trump Loves Jefferson Davis,” ThinkProgress, accessed May 21, 2017, https://thinkprogress.org/donald-trump-loves-jefferson-davis-cd34f23d62c8 .

[10] “Imagine The Possibilities,” YouTube, accessed May 21, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1vnsqbnAkk .

[11] “New Orleans took down its Confederate monuments. Will the rest of the South?” The Washington Post, accessed May 25, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/new-orleans-took-down-its-confederate-monuments-will-the-rest-of-the-south/2017/05/21/b2ac662c-3cd9-11e7-a058-ddbb23c75d82_story.html?utm_term=.67f09f0f16ad .

Laura Smith

Laura Smith is a PhD Candidate at the University of Mississippi. She gained a Distinction in her MA in U.S. History and Politics at University College London and was awarded the America’s Excellence Award. Her first article was published in January 2016 in the journal Maine History. Most recently she has written for The Daily Princetonian and the National Council for Public History’s blog, History@Work.

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