The Texas State Board of Education’s Reasons for Elevating Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson


John Willingham is a former election official in Texas. He now writes about history, culture, and election issues. He holds an MA in American history from the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Willingham can be reached at john.texport.willingham@gmail.com.

Recent news reports have commented on the Texas State Board of Education’s elevation of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis in the social studies curriculum of the state, but in treating the development as just another example of the board’s bizarre behavior, the reports do not recognize that the action is part of a coordinated effort by social conservatives on the board to emphasize states’ rights and Christianity throughout the curriculum.

From the beginning of the debates, the strong social conservative faction was successful in tilting the curriculum in favor of states’ rights, making clear their aversion to what they see as federal meddling.  Members have made repeated denunciations of the Obama administration’s requirements placed on states that receive federal funds under its Race to the Top reform program.   

Other examples are amendments that stress Fifth Amendment property rights and the benefits of industrial and technological change versus the alleged encroachments of environmental regulations.  The Tenth Amendment, with its protections of state sovereignty, is also a favorite topic.

The elevation of Jackson and Davis not only boosts the study of states’ rights in the curriculum, but the placement of Jackson in a “citizenship” strand gives teachers greater ability to discuss the general’s devout Christian faith.

Barbara Cargill, a Republican from The Woodlands, a Houston suburb, had the Civil War (or maybe the War Between the States) on her mind when she offered some of her amendments. 

A section for eighth-graders called for them to “analyze Abraham Lincoln’s ideas about liberty, equality, union, and government as contained in his first and second inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address.”

Cargill proposed an amendment to require study, in the same section, of Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address, given when he assumed the office of President of the Confederate States of America.  A section just above the one she wanted to amend already required students to study Davis, along with Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Lincoln, a list remarkable for balance. 

The significance of Davis’s inaugural could easily be covered in that section; and States’ rights in general, and in conjunction with the Civil War, are also taught in other sections. 

But placing Davis’s address alongside the profound and brilliantly written addresses by Lincoln makes the section more narrowly focused on the constitutional issue of state’s rights and less concerned with Lincoln’s enduring thoughts on national unity and reconciliation, the mystery of discerning God’s will, and the affirmation through the Civil War of a national commitment to equality, as first proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.

Cargill succeeded in her argument for balance, capitalizing on the superficial currency that the word sometimes carries; students in Texas will receive yet another dose of states’ rights, and students in other parts of the country may surprise their parents with a quote or two from Jefferson Davis.

Previously, Cargill had cited national “unity” as a reason not to discuss “redundant” groups in American history--women and minorities-- yet through her amendment she diluted study of the one American who has contributed more than anyone to the cause of true national unity. 

Before increasing the presence of Jefferson Davis in the curriculum, Cargill had already made a successful argument for including Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in a list of United States leaders in the “Citizenship” section for eighth graders.  John Paul Jones, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and James Monroe were already on the list.  Cargill wanted Anthony removed, but failed in that attempt.

Aside from the fact that a Confederate general is a peculiar choice as an example of citizenship in the United States, the addition of Jackson is interesting because he was a stern and Calvinistic Presbyterian, whose religious views resembled those of the Puritans, particular heroes of social conservatives.  

With human experience foreordained by God, Jackson was unconcerned about death (his own or others'), and waged war accordingly.  He is not otherwise mentioned in the curriculum, and he should be included in the history section on the Civil War.

Many social conservatives, however, want to make Jackson a different kind of historical figure than his extraordinary generalship would warrant; they see him as an exemplar of Christian manhood, and in a section on citizenship, this is much more likely to be taught.

John Paul Jones was as severe in war as Jackson.  His alleged statement, “I have not begun to fight,” yelled in answer to a British captain’s demand that Jones surrender the foundering Bonhomme Richard, is in the same spirit as Jackson’s writing, in requisitioning pikes for his men, that “Under divine blessing, we must rely on the bayonet when firearms cannot be furnished.”

The actions of both men illustrate the undoubted value of extreme tenacity in life or death military situations, but they are curious examples of “citizenship.”  Jackson, however, embodied three types of extreme beliefs--political, military, and religious--whose relevance to good citizenship may be more evident to the board’s social conservatives than to others.

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John Willingham - 3/17/2010

My article does not recommend that they not be studied. Davis is already in a section with all of the above, except for Sherman. The problem is where they put Jackson--in citizenship instead of history of the Civil War. I argue that they did this because in a citizenship section they can discuss his fundamentalist religious beliefs. As a military leader, he definitely should be studied.

Tom L Cox - 3/16/2010

Unless you are going to totally ignore the military side of the civil war it would be difficlut to discuss or teach without mentioning Davis, Lee, Jackson, Grant and Sherman.

John Willingham - 3/15/2010

I don't believe the Texas State Board would view General Sherman as an example of good citizenship, even though he, unlike Jackson, was never a citizen of the Confederacy. That Sherman was greeted by slaves in Georgia as another "Moses" come to free them would not qualify him,in the minds of social conservatives on the Texas State Board, as a good Christian soldier worthy of emulation.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/15/2010

If they are going to include Stonewall Jackson, balance would seem to suggest that William T. Sherman be included, too.

The big news here, however, is that Robert E. Lee will go back into the classroom, from which he should never have been exorcised. Compared to Robert E. Lee, men with the stature of Jackson, Sherman and Davis were mere pygmies.