Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis; drawing by David Levine

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. He had the talent and intelligence to make the most of it, and in fact to move well beyond it. He was sent at the age of eight to a Roman Catholic school in central Kentucky which gave him a good grounding in Greek, Latin, and humane letters while imposing no sectarian pressures on its students. (Meanwhile a glimpse of what honor and character already meant to the boy appears in connection with an after-dark prank involving him and several of his cronies, after which young Davis under questioning concealed the names of the others and took the blame himself.) He attended two other schools during the years that followed, each of which placed a strong emphasis on the ancient classics, and at which his own academic performance was outstanding. His preparation for admission to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, was thus very solid. He was admitted to the junior class there, and quickly became the school’s best student and the one most popular with his peers. (It seems that, as a rule, few in comparable situations succeed in being both.)

Brother Joseph had meanwhile become a prosperous attorney in Natchez as well as a substantial landholder, and it was thus as a man of some influence that he successfully applied to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun for seeing to the appointment of Jeff as a cadet at West Point. Fully convinced of Joseph’s superior wisdom about what was best for him, the sixteen-year-old younger brother accepted the appointment, but with many private misgivings. He really did not want to go in the first place, having never pictured himself as following a military career at all. But he went, full of tensions, and achieved a dreary record over the next four years. His academic performance was passable, though little more; his military conduct—drills and related work—seems to have been somewhat better. But the demerits he received because of extracurricular alcoholic sprees and many lesser infractions brought him at one point within a hair of expulsion. Consequently his ranking at graduation was twenty-third in a class of thirty-three. He had not liked any of his instructors, and was always breaking the rules, so it is somewhat surprising that he should evaluate his experience at the academy in the glowing terms that he did.


Yet there were elements in that experience which he could in fact deeply relish. He was himself well liked by his fellow cadets; he formed enduring friendships—with Albert Sidney Johnston, Leonidas Polk, and Joseph E. Johnston among others—and even his misdoings were never committed but in a numerous company of fellow mischief-makers. He always respected the objectives and ideals of the academy, believing they served as a salutary counterpoise to sectional hostilities between North and South. The military bearing he exhibited throughout his subsequent life was first acquired there. Indeed, it appears that Davis thought better of the academy than the academy—at least the head of it—did of him. Sylvanus Thayer, the superintendent during Davis’s cadet years, never had any use for him, and even thirty years later, by which time Jefferson Davis had become secretary of war and was praising West Point as a most excellent institution, Thayer had still not changed his mind.

Davis spent the seven years after graduation in the United States Army, initially as a second lieutenant and then as a first lieutenant. His military capacities, which had not impressed the superintendent at West Point—evidently for good reasons—now began to reveal themselves with both energy and a good measure of common sense. Assigned to the frontier post of Fort Crawford in what is now Wisconsin, he was put in charge of collecting the necessary timber and constructing blockhouses and barracks for a new fort nearby; he did occasional recruiting and searching for deserters; and he exercised diplomacy to good effect in preventing outbreaks between Indian tribes and white pioneers pushing westward. His physical movements were graceful and easy; he was a superior horseman; and he was both skillful and aggressive in thrashing strangers who drew him into scuffles. Taking account of such qualities, in addition to the competence he showed for administrative work when called upon to do it, the commanding general at Fort Gibson in present-day Oklahoma, to which Davis had been newly assigned, expressed a strong hope that the promising young officer would reconsider his decision in 1835 to resign from the army. Davis did not reconsider, having at length determined to reenter civilian life and begin a new career as a planter.

Two years before leaving the army Davis had met Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Colonel Zachary Taylor, commander of the First Infantry Regiment at Fort Crawford, and the two had fallen blissfully in love. Colonel Taylor opposed their marrying, convinced from experience that the life of an army wife was a hard one. But the two persisted, and the parents of Knox (as she was familiarly called) relented to the extent of making no further difficulties. The wedding took place at the beginning of the summer of 1835. Jefferson was twenty-seven, Knox twenty-one. He took his bride to brother Joseph’s mansion in Warren County, Mississippi, which was to be their temporary home while Jefferson’s own plantation was being set up nearby. It was in the unhealthy season; shortly after their arrival they were both struck down by malaria, which Jefferson barely survived but Knox did not. She had been a wife a scant three months when she died. Jefferson Davis, prostrated with grief, took a very long time to recover.

Getting himself forcibly back in hand by slow stages, Davis proceeded to make his new plantation, Brierfield, a success. The acres to be cleared, situated on a bend of the great Mississippi, had been a gift from Joseph, and Joseph’s financial assistance had been critical in ensuring that the steps whereby the property was built up would eventuate in sizable and remunerative crops of cotton. By 1860, and indeed well before, Jefferson Davis, by dint of prudent financial practices and energetic management, had become a rich man. And central to all his efforts was the steady and purposeful acquisition of slaves. It probably never occurred to him, and he would have been to all intents and purposes right, that prosperity and the style of life to go with it in the antebellum South could have been realized in any way other than the perpetuation of slavery into and beyond any imaginable future. Of this particular aspect of Jefferson Davis’s life and world view, more later.

Meanwhile his cultural and spiritual growth had been richly extended, well beyond the grounding he had acquired in the early years of his formal education. He spent considerable time in reading, which included not only Locke, Adam Smith, Blackstone, and the American jurist James Kent but also the Latin classics, along with Byron, Goldsmith, Burns, and Scott. He committed extended passages of Scripture to memory, which became a touchstone in his attitudes and in his relations with those closest to him. And there was probably no man in the antebellum South more broadly cultured than Jefferson Davis.


He also, in long and intimate talks with Joseph, developed a growing interest in politics. He visited Washington, where he formed a friendly acquaintance with President Van Buren. Active participation came slowly, but after attending a Democratic gathering in Vicksburg in 1840 he was chosen as a delegate to the state convention, and was similarly chosen to the one held two years later. He then became the Democratic candidate to the state house of representatives from Warren County, and although he lost, the way he handled himself on the platform during the campaign made a suffi-cient impression that he was picked as one of Mississippi’s electors for the presidential election of 1844. He was elected to Congress in 1845 and would remain, from then on, an undisputed insider.

He was also prepared at last, just short of ten years since Knox’s death, to remarry. By then, meeting Varina Howell of Natchez with Joseph as intermediary was a great deal more than simply a consolation. The courtship was genuinely ardent on both sides, and the two would prove admirably suited to each other to the end of Jefferson’s life. The daughter of a prominent though somewhat impecunious family, Varina was nevertheless unusually well educated, and was more than qualified to take part with unfeigned zest in her future husband’s literary and intellectual pursuits. She was, in addition, very sociable and very affectionate, and she had a strong mind of her own: the only kind of wife, one suspects, for such as Jefferson Davis. They were married on February 26, 1845.


In the 1844 presidential election the great Henry Clay—Prince Hal, Harry of the West—was beaten by a nobody. Except that this nobody, James K. Polk of Tennessee, was a protégé of Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory had been idolized by Jefferson Davis ever since as a boy he had met the general at the Hermitage, shortly after the latter’s great victory at New Orleans in 1815. Thirty years later, when the short-lived republic of Texas was annexed by a joint resolution of Congress in the expiring days of the Tyler administration, the boundary with Mexico remained in bitter dispute, and Polk, as incoming president, was determined to have it settled to the fullest advantage of the United States. This was certain to eventuate in war, as in fact it did.

Jefferson Davis, while still grieving for Knox, and some years before his remarriage, had toyed off and on, though probably not very seriously, with thoughts of going back to military service. He now assured Varina that he had put all such notions aside. But with the outbreak of war he was convinced anew that duty required him to join up, and he was given command of the First Mississippi Regiment of Infantry. He was now once more under the command of Zachary Taylor, his former father-in-law recently promoted to major general, while he himself had taken a very long jump from first lieutenant to full colonel. At Buena Vista he performed what was perhaps the most daring and innovative maneuver of the war, the V-formation which allowed his greatly outnumbered troops to trap Santa Ana’s cavalry as it converged toward them, and then to force their retreat by means of murderous volleys from both arms of the V, very possibly saving Taylor’s sorely pressed army in that sector. This, and his similarly courageous leadership in the thick of bloody house-to-house fighting at Monterrey, had brought Davis home a universally acclaimed war hero.

He was immediately offered a brigadier general’s commission, which he declined, having his heart set on a seat in the US Senate. He received it, by the governor’s appointment to an unexpired term and then with a full term by regular election. It was during his Senate service, until he was selected to be secretary of war by President Franklin Pierce, whom he had vigorously helped to elect, that his political positions were fully developed and expressed. He was a thorough strict-constructionist, strongly insisting that Congress had no constitutional sanction for enacting legislation for the improvement of waterways and land transportation. He was adamantly opposed to any limits on the expansion of slavery into the new territories acquired from Mexico, most specifically to the Wilmot Proviso, expressly devised for that purpose, and he opposed any measure that would give the Northern states a majority in the Senate.

Jefferson Davis meanwhile pictured himself and his fellow Southerners as faithful followers in the footsteps and in the ideals of the founding generation—most especially the Virginia patriarchs Jefferson, Madison, and Washington—whereas his own generation had in fact moved a very long way from the outlook of the Founding Fathers. For one thing, the founders’ attitudes regarding slavery were at the very least profoundly ambivalent (Washington, for example, in his repugnance toward the system, had in his will freed all his slaves3), whereas Davis’s own defense of slavery as a positive good for both races was total and without qualification. Moreover, the political practices of mid-nineteenth-century America constituted an emphatic break from those of the first generation, which viewed political parties as an abomination and hoped never to see them permanently rooted in the republic’s civic life. That had all changed, and Jefferson Davis, for one, was as good a party man as any around.

Davis was bitterly opposed to the Compromise of 1850, which, among other provisions, admitted California as a free state and prohibited the slave trade in the District of Columbia. He insisted that the compromise—except for its Fugitive Slave Law, which he did not believe the Northern states would conscientiously enforce anyway—had gained the South nothing. He was still, however, an earnest unionist and a genuine moderate in the face of conspicuous numbers of fire-eating Southerners. When the governor of Mississippi proposed a convention to consider secession as the state’s answer to the Compromise, Davis would have none of it.

His career assumed yet a new phase with his appointment as Pierce’s secretary of war. As an administrator he was purposeful, imaginative, and energetic. He helped reorganize the army, and enthusiastically encouraged such new technology as the rifled musket to replace the smooth-bore pieces still in use. He supported the construction of a transcontinental railway—and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which would open the way for it—despite his strict-construction opposition to congressional action on other forms of internal transportation, on the grounds that a railroad was indispensable to national defense. The claim has sometimes been made that Davis’s micromanagement of his department’s business, his reluctance to delegate minor matters to subordinates, undermined his full effectiveness as secretary of war. Yet it could also be said that he found the department in a state of drift and thought himself obliged to take an active hand in getting it back into motion. It would in any case be a fair assessment that his tenure there was on balance a well-deserved success.

After it ended, he was once more elected to the Senate in 1856, where he remained until 1861. During that period he consistently strove to prevent the separation that loomed with ever-growing menace over North and South. Varina delighted as much as ever in the social life of Washington. She would not speak to Republicans, whose new party had done so alarmingly well in the election of 1856, but she would not speak to Southern secessionists either. She was on the friendliest terms, however, with such radicals as Charles Sumner, and with William H. Seward, who had declared in his speech of March 1850 that there was a “Higher Law” than the Constitution forbidding slavery. Davis himself continued to play the part of moderate. He would aggressively defend Southern interests and states’ rights; at the same time he would do what he could to avoid actions that would threaten the Union. He made a visit to Maine in the late summer of 1859, in the course of which he made a major effort to reassure the New Englanders of his own and the South’s loyalty to the Union. He continued to urge caution even after the election of Lincoln in 1860. He served on the Crittenden committee to work out a compromise between North and South, but when the Republican members refused to accept any compromise he reluctantly concluded that secession was inevitable. He hoped it could be managed peaceably, but was prepared to defend Southern rights by force if necessary. On January 19, 1861, when word reached him of Mississippi’s vote to secede, he bade a sad farewell to the Senate, producing emotion and tears on both sides, and departed for home with his family.


William Cooper’s biography is a model of scrupulous scholarship, and when his sources don’t fully confirm that a given thing did or didn’t occur, he says so, without resorting to the favorite “might have” and “in all likelihood” tactics in which historians writing in comparable straits excessively indulge. He is both evenhanded and detached regarding his subject’s successes and mistakes, in prose that benignly allows the reader to make his or her own judgments. Professor Cooper has accordingly produced a highly excellent and exceedingly useful book.

Felicity Allen, on the other hand, has written a very different book, but one which in its way is equally good, in some ways even more enlightening, and done with a technique I can’t imagine many other authors getting away with. Professor Cooper abides by all the rules; Ms. Allen does not. True, her scholarship isn’t to be faulted. But she has so identified herself with Jefferson Davis, so internalized all the feelings, convictions, hopes, fears, illusions, and despairs of the man, that we have placed before our eyes what is virtually a living embodiment of what he was.

Take the question of slavery and race. Professor Cooper acknowledges, as most of us in his place would, that this question still vexes our own times, attitudes now being so at odds with what they were back then. “But my goal,” he adds, “is to understand Jefferson Davis as a man of his time, not condemn him for not being a man of my time.” Ms. Allen simply bypasses all such apologies as superfluous, and presents Davis as totally a man of his time and beholden to no other:

Davis insisted that slavery as they practiced it was the best “form of government” for “those who are morally and intellectually unable to take care of themselves.” If it were “evil,” as even some “Southern apologists” said, then “every honest man among us” would have to work for “its abatement.” Doubtless it was “subject to abuse …but so, too, were even the tender relations of parent and child.” By any “practicable and real” standard, it was a blessing, for “it had transferred the slave from a barbarian to a civilized master… and shed upon him the divine light of Christianity.”

Both books confirm that Davis was a kind and conscientious master. His slaves were well housed, fed, and cared for, and the lash had no place at Brierfield. Indeed, Davis so esteemed the capacities of one of his slaves, James Pemberton, that he made him his overseer, a step seldom taken on plantations anywhere in the South. Davis’s relations with Pemberton were easy and friendly, and at the end of any of their consultations he would casually hand his overseer a cigar. But encircling all this, for Davis, was the implicit taking for granted that the system would last forever.

Ms. Allen’s references to Southern honor read as though a century and a half had never passed, and we get it untempered, full in the face. Charles Sumner, in his notorious “Crime against Kansas” speech of 1856,

had excoriated the South with vile epithets and ridiculed Southern chivalry by calling the South Carolina senator A.P. Butler (in his absence) a Don Quixote whose mistress was “the harlot, Slavery.” …When he implied that Butler was a liar, the Southerner’s young cousin, Preston Smith Brooks, knowing Sumner would not accept a challenge, watched two days for the right moment, then thrashed him severely with his gutta percha cane. This was a specified recourse in the code of honor….

We are intended to be left in little doubt that Sumner, though it took him a very long time to recover from his injuries—which even involved a trip to Europe to consult a specialist there—nevertheless had it coming.

Jefferson Davis’s performance as president of the Confederacy has been rehashed, for and against, many times. But as one scans it once again from the perspective of these two books, it becomes powerfully evident that he gave it everything, to the last ounce of spirit and will, that was in him. There were weeks at a time when he might rightly have been immobilized in bed, suffering from damage to one of his eyes, or from the brass splinters remaining from the foot wound he had received at Buena Vista, or from the long after-effects of malaria, yet he remained at his desk throughout nearly all of it, compelled and driven by the cause. There was his and Varina’s grief for the death of their boy Joe (they would eventually lose all three of their sons), which he forced himself to endure while overseeing his armies in the field and the business that surrounded him in Richmond.

He may have done a fair amount of micromanaging there, too, but that was surely preferable to the jaunty attitude of his first secretary of state, Robert Toombs, who contemptuously boasted that he “carried the State department in his hat.” Unlike Lincoln, he had no party system which might have kept his support better united and his opposition within some kind of bounds.4 He certainly had his enemies—Governors Brown and Vance of Georgia and North Carolina, and the “Georgia Triumvirate” of Toombs, Howell Cobb, and his own vice-president, Alexander Stephens. On the whole, however, he retained the loyalty of the Southern people and the Confederate Congress, along with a widely diffused sentiment that he alone was indispensable to the fortunes of the Confederacy.

Given Davis’s own military experience, it was predictable that he would take a large hand in the decisions regarding his armies’ movements. Most of them appear to have been sensible, especially his decision to give Lee full command of all the Confederate forces. But not all of them were. The three generals in the Kentucky-Tennessee sector in 1862, Braxton Bragg, Leonidas Polk, and Edmund Kirby Smith, were absolutely unable to cooperate, and Davis would have been well advised to remove Bragg, the senior commander, and reorganize the command structure accordingly. He failed to do it, being convinced that all three were as totally devoted to the cause as he was, and that this was the paramount consideration. The result was unquestionably damaging to operations in that sector. Lee’s own decisions, all of which Davis supported, were not all of them sound either.

On the domestic side, Confederate policy for raising revenue was likewise questionable. No adequate tax base was provided to support its currency; loans from Europe and its own citizens, on which the Confederates relied, were never sufficient; the bonds of the Confederate government were to be repaid in produce; and the primary source of income was paper money to be redeemed in specie after the war. Had the Confederacy prevailed, as Davis declared with all his soul that it would, the outcome would no doubt have been different. As it was, the result was a runaway inflation.

There were certainly enough military successes up to mid-1863 to make plausible all of Jefferson Davis’s hopes, convictions, and prayers. But from Gettysburg and Vicksburg on, through the bloody punishment of the Wilderness, the terrible single-mindedness of Grant and Sherman, and Lee’s hopeless stand at Petersburg, the cause was ground to pieces.5

Jefferson Davis’s life and conduct following the war’s end would have to be judged by any standard as wholly honorable. He was captured and imprisoned for two years at Fortress Monroe, and his treatment by Nelson Miles, the commanding general there, was seen by many as unnecessarily severe. Upon his release, he and his now-impoverished family, their property destroyed by Federal troops, had to make do as best they could. His business ventures were not successful, being dependent on a goodwill in Northern financial centers that could not be counted on for some time to come. He steadfastly refused, despite his poverty, to accept money collected for him after the war. A bill was passed in 1879 for the payment of pensions to ex-Confederate Mexican War veterans, but Davis never applied for his. His uprightness in this and many other such matters is quite striking. Throughout it all, the affection in which he was held throughout the South did not diminish, but grew.

Davis and his family were at last granted a blessed haven at the estate of the widowed Sarah Dorsey, who venerated him as the great man of the age. They found peace and serenity there, while Davis was given the leisure to write his lengthy Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, the principal theme of which was that the cause was no less right and just at the end than it had been at the beginning. Upon his death in 1889, public observances of mourning took place all across the former Confederacy.

It is now possible, I would say, prompted in fair measure by the two exceptionally useful books discussed here, to conclude that no other man could have managed the affairs of the Confederacy nearly as well as Jefferson Davis.

This Issue

November 29, 2001