Most literate Americans know who Jefferson Davis was. But what they know is mostly an abstraction: the presidency of a defeated Confederacy in the Civil War. Some of the more historically learned have, to be sure, given an inordinate amount of attention to this abstraction through end-less debates among themselves over Davis’s administrative capacities, his grasp of military requirements, and relations with his subordinates and his Congress, all largely in comparison with his Union counterpart Abraham Lincoln.1 The closest they come to any assessment of Davis’s actual character—the kind of man he was, what he was really like—are impressions of chilly aloofness, a certain snappishness, and a single-minded insistence on his own opinions, mostly based on what his enemies thought of him, and on the assumption that such enemies were much more numerous than in fact they were. All other aspects of a long life—eighty years—have been a closed book to just about everyone, including myself, who has engaged with the others in controversies restricted to within a mere four years out of the eighty.2
Happily, William Cooper and Felicity Allen have changed all this for the better. The books they have written, though very different in method, complement each other in providing between them a generously layered portrait of a man whose superior talents, variety of experience and achievement, breadth of culture, and abundantly faceted traits of character have at last made of him an object of broad general interest for the first time in the 112 years since his death in 1889.
Jefferson Davis, his parents’ tenth and last child, was born on June 3, 1808, in Christian County, Kentucky, and was named after the then-sitting president, Thomas Jefferson. His upwardly mobile father had scratched his way from marginal if not downright impoverished beginnings to the point where, having moved about from one place to another, he settled down finally in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, in the southwestern corner of the state. By 1820 he had acquired some four hundred acres of good land there, and owned eleven slaves. Samuel Davis, though never wealthy, brought his family a fair degree of prosperity and comfort; he worked in the fields alongside his sons and his slaves, and despite his own lack of more than a minimal education he determined that his youngest son should receive the best academic training available anywhere within reach. Samuel was a good father and a good family man; the Davises were held together in bonds of affection, and their dealings with their neighbors and each other were those of uprightness, good humor, and trust. When Samuel died in 1824 his place was assumed by his oldest son, Joseph, who thenceforth acted as surrogate father to Jefferson, twenty-four years his junior. It was an exceptionally fruitful relationship, lasting in some form until the end of Joseph’s life.
Jefferson Davis did indeed receive an excellent education.…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.