Article abstract: Davis served his country ably as senator and secretary of war; his commitment to the South led him to accept the presidency of the Confederacy and attempt to preserve Southern independence against bitter opposition and overwhelming odds. Reviled or idealized as a symbol of the Confederacy, Davis’ consistency of principle and unflagging efforts balance out the fact that he was not well fitted for the demands of the times and the position.
In the turbulent decades of the early 1700’s, a son of Welsh immigrants moved his family from Philadelphia to the Georgia area; Evan Davis’ son Samuel, as reward for his services as a Revolutionary guerrilla captain, was granted land near Augusta. He was chosen county clerk and in 1783 married Jane Cook. Continuing the family pattern, Samuel migrated often; in 1792 he moved to Kentucky, where his tenth and last child, Jefferson (Finis) Davis, was born at Fairview in Christian (later Todd) County, on June 3, 1808. By 1811, the family was living in Louisiana but later moved to Wilkinson County, Mississippi Territory. In these frontier areas, owners worked in the fields with their slaves; Samuel Davis was able to give only a single slave to each of his children when they married. His eldest son, however, Joseph Emory Davis, demonstrated in his life the “flush times” and upward mobility of the Lower South: He became a lawyer, the wealthy owner of a great plantation, and a “father” to his youngest brother.
In his youth, Jefferson Davis spent two years at the Roman Catholic St. Thomas’ College in Kentucky and then attended local schools near home; in 1821, he studied classics at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Just after his father’s death, late in 1824, he entered West Point Military Academy. He was over six feet tall, slender, an active, high-spirited young man, with brown hair and deep-set gray-blue eyes, a high forehead and cheekbones, and an aquiline nose and square jaw. In 1828, twenty-third out of a class of thirty-three, he was graduated as a second lieutenant. For the next seven years he was on frontier duty at the dangerous and lonely posts in Wisconsin and Illinois, acquitting himself well and with initiative; in 1832, he briefly guarded the captive chief Black Hawk. In 1833, at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin, he met Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of the commandant, Colonel Zachary Taylor; despite the latter’s objections, they were married June 17, 1835, at her aunt’s home in Kentucky.
Despite Davis’ conviction of his aptitude for the military, he resigned his commission; Joseph gave the young couple an adjoining new plantation, Brierfield, and fourteen slaves on credit. As neither was acclimatized, they left for the Louisiana plantation of a Davis sister, but they both contracted malaria, and Knox Davis died on September 15, 1835. A grieving Davis, convalescing in Havana and New York, spent some time also in a senatorial boardinghouse in Washington, D.C., but soon returned to Brierfield. For the next eight years he led a solitary and reclusive life, reading extensively in literature, history, and the classics and associating primarily with his brother. During this period he developed the basic system of Brierfield, which was almost an ideal plantation: benevolent master, slaves trained and working according to their abilities and making many decisions concerning their labor and earnings, and Davis’ personal slave James Pemberton as overseer with a practically free hand. During these years Davis developed his attachments, both theoretical and personal, to the soil, the South, and the new aristocratic society of the Lower South. His identification was completed and symbolized by his marriage on February 26, 1845, to Varina Anne Banks Howell; she was half his age, a black-haired beauty of Natchez high society, with a classical education and a vivacious temperament. Throughout her life, “Winnie” Davis was high-strung, demonstrative, and emotionally turbulent, a determined woman who fought fiercely for those she loved and who was not always either tactful or forgiving.
By this stage of his life, Davis’ personality had been formed. Despite his military experience and life as a planter, he had never really had to fight for place and position; he was more of a theoretician than a realist. He was affectionate with family and friends, essentially humorless, coldly logical, with a deep-rooted egotism and a sense of his own merit; he was never able to believe that others’ criticism or disagreement could be sincere or impersonal. Committed firmly to aristocracy and slavery, state sovereignty and states’ rights (under the Constitution and within the American nation), always a Democrat, Davis moved into politics. In 1843, he lost an election for the state legislature to a well-known Whig; in 1844 he was a Polk elector. In 1845, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives.
Davis entered into marriage in February, 1845, and entered Congress in December; in June, 1846, on the outbreak of the Mexican War, he resigned from the House to become colonel of the volunteer mounted First Mississippi Rifles. He trained his regiment and equipped his men with the new percussion rifles, and under Major General Zachary Taylor it participated creditably in the victory at Monterrey. When, in the following February, General António Lopez de Santa Anna led fifteen thousand men across two hundred miles of desert to confront Taylor’s five thousand at Buena Vista, Davis’ Mississippi Rifles fought off a Mexican division in an action (the famous V-formation) that may have been decisive for the American victory. Davis led the regiment despite a wound in the foot that kept him on crutches for two years and in intermittent pain for the next decade. This episode gained for Davis a popular reputation as a military hero and reinforced his already ineradicable conviction of his own military capability.
After Buena Vista, with Taylor’s influence waning and the regiment’s enlistment expiring, Davis again resigned a military commission, and in December, 1847, was appointed to a vacancy in the Senate. An expansionist, he supported President Polk on the Mexican Cession, even suggesting American acquisition of Yucatan; although he acquiesced in extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, he asserted that there was no constitutional power to prohibit slave property in any territory. The complex politics associated with the Compromise of 1850 included several Southern groupings: Unionists, radical states’ righters (in favor of immediate secession), Southern “nationalists” (or “cooperationists,” anticipating possible later secession by the South as a whole). When his fellow Mississippi senator Henry S. Foote ran for governor on a Union ticket (a coalition of Whigs and some Democrats), Davis was persuaded to resign from the Senate (in September, 1851) and oppose him on the Democratic ticket; Davis lost by a thousand votes. Political defeat was offset by the birth of the Davis’ first child, Samuel Emerson, on July 30, 1852.
Having aided in the campaign to elect Franklin Pierce, Davis was appointed secretary of war in March of 1853. Ironically, these four years were to be the most congenial and productive of his life. He was in good health and spirits; “Winnie” Davis was a charming and vivacious hostess and the Davis house was the social center of official Washington circles. There was a growing family: Although Samuel died on June 30, 1854, Margaret Howell (Maggie or Pollie) was born on February 25, 1855, and Jefferson, Jr., on January 16, 1857. As secretary of war, Davis supported the concept (developed by John C. Calhoun during his tenure of the office) of an expansible army; infantry units were issued the new percussion-cap muzzle-loading rifles and Minié balls; infantry tactics were made somewhat more flexible; West Point officers were encouraged to study in Europe and to develop military theory; and the regrettable system of army departments was strengthened. Davis urged the use of camels in the Southwest, but the experiment failed. Davis was unable to influence the Administration on the issues of the Black Warrior seizure and the Ostend Manifesto, but as a Southern expansionist he enthusiastically organized a research expedition to the Southwest to provide data which led to the Gadsden Purchase.
The end of Davis’ term in the cabinet was soon followed by his election to the Senate; he took his seat in March, 1857. Another son, Joseph Evan, was born on April 18, 1859. Davis’ time as senator would have been the peak and epilogue of his political career, had it not been prologue to suffering and defeat. Nearly fifty, he was gaunt and neurotic; he suffered from dyspepsia and neuralgia and lost the sight of his left eye. He was an effective orator, aided by the obvious intensity of his convictions, and he strongly supported the South’s interests in the increasingly bitter sectional confrontations of the 1850’s. Within the Democratic Party, he fought the popular sovereignty position of Stephen A. Douglas and worked to prevent the latter’s nomination as Democratic candidate in 1860.
Abraham Lincoln’s election and nonnegotiable stand against expansion of slavery into the territories convinced Davis of the necessity and inevitability of secession; on January 21, 1861, upon learning of Mississippi’s secession, he resigned from the...
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