Jefferson Davis: The Man and Myth

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, died this week (Dec. 6) in 1889 in New Orleans.  He was 81.   He had spent the last years of his life in relative comfort, and his reputation, at least in the former Confederate states, had been restored after suffering mightily after the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865.  Southerners criticized Davis for mismanaging the war effort, including refusing to appoint a general-in-chief until very late in the war (Robert E. Lee), and he often appeared aloof and removed from his everyday constituents.  It also was not lost on many southerners that Davis, a former congressman and senator, an honored West Point graduate, a hero of the Mexican War and an extremely effective secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, had been bested in battle by Abe Lincoln, a one-term congressman whose only military experience was, as he himself described it, fighting mosquitoes during the Black Hawk War, which was more skirmish than war.

In the North Davis’s reputation was, of course, even worse.  He was considered an arrogant, racist, slave-owning traitor who had tried but failed to destroy the United States.

Yet the truth is more nuanced.  Having long served in Congress and having served in a presidential cabinet, Davis knew Washington well and was highly respected on both sides of the political aisle for his emphasis on bipartisanship.  He was also a student of history.  He revered the Founders and the Constitution they created, which—as he pointed out—protected the institution of slavery.  He also was a frequent visitor to northern states, where he saw first-hand the economic and industrial power that the North was acquiring—a power that, far from fearing, he hoped the South could one day emulate.

What’s more, he was never a fanatical secessionist.  He deplored the very idea of disunion and gave many speeches criticizing the southern radicals who called for a separate nation.   It was only after Mississippi, his home state, left the Union that Davis reluctantly resigned from the Senate, but he neither sought nor wanted the presidency of the Confederate States of America that was formed in February of 1861.  When overwhelmingly elected to that office, he accepted with grave misgivings.

Granted, once chosen to lead the Confederacy he did so with missionary zeal, and his refusal to concede defeat, even after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, was one reason he was indicted for treason and imprisoned for two years before being released in 1867.  It is also true that he never publicly repudiated the institution of slavery.

It might be said that Davis was a principled man, whose principles in the end were misguided.