Jefferson Davis

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Suppose that Pickett’s gallant charge at Gettysburg had succeeded, and Lee’s army had swarmed through the trenches and destroyed Meade. That major Confederate success in Pennsylvania, a northern state, could well have devastated the North’s will to win. The “Peace of Washington of 1863” would have brought acceptance, if not recognition, of the Confederate States of America, and Jefferson Davis’ life would today be viewed quite differently. In the C.S.A., historians would eulogize him as a great nationalist, war leader, Founding Father, and Savior of the Republic. Northerners might regard him balefully as a successful foreign despot. The aristocratic, conservative, and individualistic South that he epitomized would today be admired throughout half of North America.

Pickett failed, of course, and the Confederacy, its way of life, and Jefferson Davis were relegated to the dustbins of history. The man recently resurrected by Clement Eaton is a curious antique, a sire of lost causes, filed away in the American pantheon somewhere between the awful Benedict Arnold and the saintly Virginian, Robert E. Lee.

There is a lesson in all this: historians have contrasted Davis with his nemesis Lincoln for over a century, from which something can indeed be learned. But it is far more revealing to compare Davis and his Confederacy with George Washington and the Second Continental Congress. Essentially the historiography of the Revolution is based on the fact that it succeeded. We revere the seminal events of the years 1775-1781 with an enthusiasm that dwells heavily on great images of victory: the embattled farmers of New England, Saratoga, John Paul Jones and ship-to-ship duels, and the final surrender at Yorktown. Our filiopietism beclouds hard truths. Was there ever a feebler organization than the Second Continental Congress? Why did Washington’s army freeze, starve, and desert to the brink of dissolution at Valley Forge amid the fattest barns in the world? Yet studies of the Confederacy seem to emphasize such weaknesses, inabilities, and, of course, its ultimate failure, perhaps proclaiming a preordained destiny. Historians have frequently ratified results with the dictum of inevitability, but generals and politicians are more succinct: “There is no substitute for victory.”

What sort of man was Jefferson Davis? His biographer has wisely permitted his contemporaries to dissect him at length, and they broadly agree on his nature and ways. Physically he was, like Jackson, Lincoln, and Calhoun, a tall, spare man. Like Calhoun too, he was a fine pater familias who could always vent his spleen on a congressional colleague. He was an egotistical, monumentally self-assured, true prima donna who required careful handling, obsequious approaches, and frequent praise. Eaton suggests that Confederate Secretary of the Navy Mallory survived on competence alone, but Judah Benjamin lasted largely because he read his man carefully and preened him frequently.

Davis was a first generation aristocrat, like Calhoun, who fashioned his conduct on an eighteenth century model. But he equals his namesake and inspiration only in his dedication to patriotic duty. Davis developed an early and extremely Southern sense of honor, and, though he never fought, ardently defended the code duello. His nouveau “Cotton Snob” touchiness was revealed in the army when he ignored the direct command of a superior, and later successfully defended himself before a courtmartial with the observation that no gentleman could accept that officer’s haughty tone of voice. He was, concludes Eaton, high-minded, strong-willed, icy, proud, and dedicated to principle. Jefferson Davis was also a pivotal figure in the history of the South. Was there a warm human being lurking somewhere behind that official exterior? Probably not. He was not a likable person: Clement Eaton found no evidence of the existence of a single close friend. He was, in fact, what he seemed: an earnest Southern Victorian gentleman, whose personal and public lives were one.

Davis was a fine example of those addicted to the nineteenth century neo-Roman school of oratory. His speaking style, after years of evolution from the ornate, became direct and dignified, delivered ex tempore in a clear, penetrating voice. A little imagination from his audience could well conjure up a toga and a broken column on which to rest his noble arm.

He was born in 1808 (a year before Abraham Lincoln) to a relatively prosperous semifrontier Kentucky family, the last of ten children; his father, a Pennsylvania-born veteran of the Revolution, puckishly gave him the middle name Finis. Davis’ youth was spent on farms in Kentucky and Mississippi; Transylvania College later placed him in contact with the scions of the planter class and the academic lucidity of the New England mind. Mississippians were citizens of a new and raw state, but eager to absorb the ways of Virginia and Carolina, and by 1824 Davis had become quite the young aristocrat.

The death of his father and an appointment to West Point channeled his career away from the law, toward the military arts. His cadet career was mediocre, and Eaton records evidence of wildness in the young man. Skipping chapel was one of his minor sins; he also received numerous demerits, arrests, and even a courtmartial at “The Point.” Still, he managed to graduate with his class, though in the nether ranks. The presence of Cadets Robert E. Lee, Joseph E.Johnston, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Leonidus Polk possibly determined his class rank as much as his personal activities.

Davis’ subsequent service was unsatisfying. Like Grant, he served his military apprenticeship at distant Western forts, and he resigned his commission in 1835, having gotten a low opinion of Indians, a high opinion of himself, and the hand of Sarah, the daughter of Col. Zachary Taylor. Sadly, she died within the year of malaria. He also gained superb horsemanship, a proud military bearing that well suited his invisible toga, and a lifetime of poor health from a bout with pneumonia.

Davis quietly farmed and prospered in Mississippi for the next decade. In 1845 he married the bright, verbal, but stuffy Varina Howell. Later that year he won a Democratic seat in the House of Representatives, and so launched his national political career.

Biographer Eaton considers Davis’ first term in Congress revealing, but finds no overt indications of a great future in the bookish and earnest Southerner. Davis reflected his family’s political heritage as a dutiful expansionist Democrat in an era when his class spoke through Whiggism, but he was no rough-and-tumble politician. Eaton’s analysis of antebellum Mississippi elections reveals a predilection for demagoguery, humbug, and dirty tricks; the Redneck had arrived with statehood, not Reconstruction. Davis did precipitate a disagreement on the house floor with another young Congressman, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, by arguing without forethought that West Pointers would serve the army far better than tailors. Johnson, equally thin-skinned, took umbrage, and characterized Davis in turn as one of “the illegitimate, swaggering, bastard, scrub aristocracy.” They would cross swords again.

The war with Mexico provided a short but pivotal interlude in Congressman Davis’ life. Resigning his seat at the first whiff of gunpowder, he returned home and was soon elected Colonel of the elegant First Mississippi Rifles. Off to war they went, rather like the Rough Riders of another day, clad in hunting clothes, armed with new percussion rifles and Bowie knives. In the vanguard Colonel Davis stylishly rode a blooded Arabian, faithful servant at his side.

In Mexico he fought under his former father-in-law, now General Taylor, who unlike Davis affected old clothes and ran his battles perched sidesaddle on the broad quarterdeck of his reformed plowhorse, Old Whitey. At Buena Vista Davis demonstrated the Kiplingesque style that thrilled his times by leading a brilliant cavalry charge against the Mexicans. Brevetted Brigadier-General of Volunteers by Polk for his exploit, the prickly Davis declined the commission, claiming that only the state of Mississippi could make such an appointment. He returned home shortly thereafter,...

(The entire section is 3400 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Booklist. LXXIV, November 1, 1977, p. 455.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, September 1, 1977, p. 965.

Library Journal. CII, October 1, 1977, p. 2054.

Publisher’s Weekly. CXII, October 10, 1977, p. 62.