- Ken Herman American-Statesman Staff
Today, we have a topical “What Is That?” that’s really more of a timely “Who Is That?” It comes from a longtime Austinite who finds this newspaper a dependable daily source of information, entertainment, personal enrichment and health insurance: Me.
Here’s the deal. Recently, while hanging out in the Capitol rotunda, I asked a random passerby if he could identify the man proudly perched atop a horse on the official seal of the Confederate States of America, which is emblazoned on the rotunda floor as part of the familiar six flags concept Texans know from history class and amusement parks.
The random passerby could not identify the man, and I see no reason to embarrass him by publishing his name, especially seeing as how this was his second day on the job as Gov. Greg Abbott’s new chief of staff. And I’m pretty sure his ignorance on this particular topic is representative of a widespread ignorance.
The answer to the man-on-the-horse question ties into our current national discussion about the removal of public tributes to anything Confederate. I certainly don’t mean to trivialize this important discussion, but the Confederate States of America seal is a reminder of how tricky this discussion can be. And it also ties into President Donald Trump’s assertion, deemed ridiculous by many, about where the removal movement could lead and upon whom it could touch.
The man on the horse in the official Confederate States of America seal died in 1799, long before there was a Confederate States of America. He had enjoyed successful careers in agriculture, politics and revolution (sometimes called armed insurrection if you don’t like the cause). Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He went by the name George Washington.
Until checking into it, I didn’t know that Washington was the man on the Confederate States of America seal. They didn’t teach us that in the New York City public schools. We were too busy learning that everything about the Confederacy was evil. And I’m still not exactly sure why Washington, though a Southerner, is on that seal.
But the seal is a real deal and there’s ol’ George on the seal on the Capitol rotunda floor, atop the north and south entries to the Capitol and in several locations on the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library Building to the east of the Capitol.
So is it possible that Washington, through no malfeasance of his own, could get caught up in an effort to remove all things Confederate from the Capitol grounds?
The Texas State Library and Archives Commission tells us the Confederate States of America seal “features George Washington on horseback, encircled by the cash crops of the south: corn, cotton, wheat and tobacco.”
Corn, cotton, wheat and tobacco? Sure, why not? But George Washington — why?
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History tells us on its Price of Freedom website that the Great Seal of The Confederacy was adopted in 1863. Seems late, but you know how things can get back-burnered when you’re busy with armed insurrection. (I look forward to feedback from fans of the Confederacy.) The seal features the motto “Deo Vindice,” which translates to “God will vindicate,” and the words “The Confederate States of America: 22 February, 1862.”
Interestingly, the motto is included but the other words and date are not on the seal as displayed at our Capitol and archives building.
Feb. 22, 1862, was the day Davis was inaugurated for a six-year term he would not complete. Davis, running unopposed, won the popular and electoral vote in the 11-state Confederacy. That also was the date of the establishment of Richmond, Va., as the seat of the Confederate States of America government. You’ll also remember that Feb. 22, 1732, was Washington’s birthday. It’s an odd coincidence that two of our greatest presidents — Washington and Abraham Lincoln, b. Feb. 12, 1809 — both were born during mattress sale season.
So how did Washington wind up on the Great Seal of the Confederacy? Theories abound. And there’s a reference to the answer in Davis’ inaugural address in Richmond on Feb. 22, 1862, which actually was his second inaugural address because he had given one in Montgomery, Ala., on Feb. 18, 1861, after he’d been named provisional president of the Confederate States of America.
(Great line from Davis’ inaugural, inaugural address: “I approach the discharge of the duties assigned to me with an humble distrust of my abilities … ” I approach every day that way.)
Here’s how Davis started his second inaugural address, delivered in Richmond near a then-unfinished Washington statue with a Washington-in-the-saddle pose that was the inspiration for the Washington image on the Confederacy seal:
“Fellow citizens. On this the birthday of the man most identified with the establishment of American independence, and beneath the monument erected to commemorate his heroic virtues and those of his compatriots, we have assembled to usher into existence the permanent government of the Confederate States. Through this instrumentality, under the favor of Divine Providence, we hope to perpetuate the principles of our revolutionary fathers. The day, the memory, and the purpose seem fitly associated.”
The First White House Association, which celebrates and promotes the First White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery tells us, “The Confederates believed that it was they who were perpetuating the ideals of their revolutionary forebears, so in creating their new nation the Confederates essentially duplicated the institutions of the old Union. It was no surprise then that the seal prominently features George Washington on horseback.”
The Confederate States of America Historical Society tells us this about the seal: “Washington is pictured in his uniform of the Revolution securing American independence. He was the model for Confederate ‘revolution’ to secure independence for the American South.”
OK. Whatever. So does that put Washington in harm’s way as we rethink tributes to the Confederacy? And is possible that Washington would be happy to be disassociated with the Confederacy?
We’ll leave for another day what he might think about current goings-on in the city named for him.