The government and legal studies department will no longer give out the Jefferson Davis Award, named for the president of the Confederacy who was also awarded an honorary degree from Bowdoin in 1858. The change was President Clayton Rose’s idea and was approved by the Board of Trustees last weekend.
“It is inappropriate for Bowdoin College to bestow an annual award that continues to honor a man whose mission was to preserve and institutionalize slavery,” said Rose in a press release provided to the Orient.
The Jefferson Davis Award was a cash prize presented to a government and legal studies student excelling in the study of constitutional law. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), an association of female descendants of Confederate soldiers, endowed the Jefferson Davis Award in 1972. Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees voted at its meeting last weekend to return the entire value of the endowed fund to the UDC.
Honoring Richard Morgan
Though the Jefferson Davis Award has been discontinued, a new award honoring the late professor Richard E. Morgan ’59 will ostensibly take its place by recognizing the same accomplishment in constitutional law—Morgan’s specialty.
“You wouldn’t want to—in any way, shape or form—associate the remarkable accomplishments of Professor Morgan as a scholar and teacher at Bowdoin and all the things that he stood for and his values, with Jefferson Davis. That’s wholly inappropriate,” said Rose in a phone interview with the Orient.
Morgan taught at Bowdoin, his alma mater, for 45 years before passing away suddenly last November. He was a renowned constitutional law scholar.
“He could see a major case coming well before it was ever picked up in the press,” said James Stoner, a constitutional law professor at Louisiana State University and a friend of Morgan’s, in an interview with the Orient last November. “He knew constitutional law so well that he had a whole feel for what the Court was doing and, mind you, that’s not because he thought the Court was doing the right things, but he still had a real sense of what direction they were heading in.”
Current mayor of San Francisco Ed Lee ’74 and former Bowdoin President Barry Mills ’72 are among Morgan’s former students.
“While I did not have the privilege of knowing Professor Morgan, his national reputation as a scholar of the institutions and principles central to American government and society make it wholly appropriate that we honor him and his lifelong accomplishments with this annual award,” said Rose.
Confronting the past
The discontinuation of the Jefferson Davis Award comes amidst reconsideration of the use of Confederate symbols across the country, including at the South Carolina state house, Yale University and the University of Texas-Austin.
Professor of History Patrick Rael wrote an essay about the change titled “The past keeps changing.”
“The changing memory of the past has always been a potent reflection of American’s shifting values. Since the Founding, our national story has never been unitary or static. It has always moved to reflect new commitments, and acknowledge (at last) old realities. This can make us uncomfortable, particularly when it challenges what we think we know, or what we want to think, about our past. But as we change, our history changes,” wrote Rael.
Davis was awarded an honorary degree from Bowdoin in 1858, three years before the outbreak of the civil war. Davis, then a U.S Senator representing Mississippi, found himself in Maine for health reasons and decided to attend Bowdoin commencement on a whim (he was a close friend of Franklin Pierce and had served in Pierce’s cabinet as Secretary of War).
Even then, the Board of Trustee’s decision to recognize Davis was contentious given that he was an ardent proponent of slavery.
“[Davis’s] principles were diametrically opposed to those of the majority of the people of Maine; but when a man of his ability and prominence, from a distant state, was present at Commencement, it would have been almost a personal insult not to give him a degree,” wrote Louis Hatch in “The History of Bowdoin College.”
Some fear the unintended effects of discontinuing the Jefferson Davis Award.
“I worry that this change is a means of erasing that history that is still so important,” said Kate Berkley ’18. She explained that history is often written by the winners of conflicts, and as a loser in the Civil War, it’s important to preserve Davis and his legacy in some capacity.
The College will recognize Davis’ relationship to Bowdoin with a panel in Memorial Hall, placed next to the pre-existing plaques containing the names of Bowdoin alumni who fought in the civil war—both for the Union and the Confederacy.
"We clearly do not and will not honor [Davis] in any contemporary way going forward. We have a historical connection with him, and that is a fact of history that is undeniable,” said President Rose. “One of the things that I think is important for institutions like ours is to be transparent and clear and to acknowledge our history, and then for each of us to take lessons from that history.”
This article was updated on October 23, 2015 at 4:57 a.m.