Jefferson Davis Biography

PRESIDENT OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA

Jefferson Davis, American statesman and President of the Confederate States of America, was born near Fairview, Kentucky, June 3, 1808, the youngest of ten children. His father, who had fought in the Revolutionary War, named his last son for his political idol, Thomas Jefferson. When the boy was two, his family moved to Woodville, Mississippi where his father became a cotton planter. From the age of seven to nine, he attended St. Thomas’s Boys School in Kentucky. At thirteen he entered Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky. After three years he became a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. On graduation in 1828 Lieutenant Davis served for seven years on the Western frontier. He was noted for his bravery and his daring horsemanship. Contemporary testimony exists that at twenty-three he was “witty, sportful, and captivating.”

While in Wisconsin he fell in love with Sarah Knox, daughter of his commander, Colonel Zachary Taylor (later U.S. President). In June, 1835, he resigned his commission in the Army to marry her. He took his bride to Mississippi to start a new life as a Delta cotton planter. Within three months she died of malarial fever. The shock and grief so affected him that for eight years he remained a recluse, fashioning a model plantation and reading constitutional law and the classics in his eldest brother’s library.

Davis was a Jeffersonian Democrat dedicated to the principle of State Rights under the Constitution. He had inherited his ideas on politics and slavery from his father and George Washington. They felt that in giving Christianity to the Africans and submitting them to Anglo-Saxon culture, the Americans were preparing them for eventual citizenship. Jefferson Davis believed “the peculiar institution” a temporary necessity in developing the cotton economy of the South on which New England textile industry depended, and that gradual emancipation would come as the Africans were prepared to meet the responsibilities of freedom. The more intelligent of “his people” were educated and served as his plantation overseers and secretaries. Jefferson Davis was held by his Africans in genuine affection as well as highest esteem.

In 1845 Davis married the eighteen year-old Varina Howell of Natchez; that same year he was elected Representative to Congress. In Washington, he made an immediate impression. But he resigned his seat in 1846 to become Colonel of the First Mississippi Volunteers in the war with Mexico. He served brilliantly under his father-in-law, General Zachary Taylor. Severely wounded, he returned home on crutches to a hero’s welcome in 1847. That year he returned to Congress as U.S. Senator. When Franklin Pierce was elected President (1852), Davis became his Secretary of War. In this position he earned an unsurpassed reputation.

In 1857 Jefferson Davis reentered the Senate. As the leading Southerner in Congress, he struggled to save the Union and its federal principles as much as he tried to save the South. Both North and South regarded him a “virtuous and resolute man.” Horace Greeley declared (1858), “Mr. Davis is unquestionably the foremost man in the South today.” Perhaps no one in his own time had greater influence on U.S. legislation than did Jefferson Davis.

Though a most reluctant secessionist himself, when the Southern States seceded in 1861, Jefferson Davis was the unanimous choice of the Confederate Convention for President. On February 18, 1861, he was inaugurated at the Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. No one in the land held so gloriously that combined record of outstanding statesmanship and distinguished service on the battlefield. No historian yet has come up with any candidate who might have succeeded better in the difficult role than Jefferson Davis. Robert E. Lee, who was on most intimate and harmonious terms with the President, declared that he knew of “no one who could have done so well.”

Jefferson Davis was a President without precedent. He formed a brand-new nation in the cauldron of a terrible war. George Washington assumed Presidential duties after the Revolutionary War was won, when the hopeful new nation was at peace. Abraham Lincoln inherited a government which had enjoyed established order for fourscore years, and which possessed four times the white population of the South; an army, a navy, a mighty merchant fleet, arsenals, and manufactories for every human need—an estimated one hundred times the industrial power of the South. It was far, far easier to be chief executive of a powerful, established country than to create a nation with few resources but cotton and courage.

After four years of heroic resistance, the South was crushed by the overwhelming might of the North. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned in a casemate in Fortress Monroe. He was submitted to gross indignities and temporarily chained. During the two years imprisonment, he bore his sufferings with great dignity and fortitude, hoping for a trial to vindicate the Southern cause. But the Federal Government never brought him to trial for treason, as feared it would be proved by the Constitution that the Southern States had a right to secede. Finally, Mr. Davis was released. His health shattered, he took his family abroad. But personal tragedies continued. In October, 1878, the last of his four sons died of yellow fever. Mr. Davis spent the remaining dozen years of his life in retirement at Beauvoir, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When he died in New Orleans, December, 1889, he was given the greatest funeral the South has ever known. During his final three years he was often spoken of as the uncrowned King of the South.

Senator John Daniel of Virginia declared: “If any less strong or less noble man had been in Jefferson Davis’s place, the Confederacy would not only have gone down in material ruin—it would have been buried in disgrace.” The gallant General Fitzhugh Lee, in 1890, declared “Jefferson Davis was one of the greatest men this republic has ever produced…..He stood steady in his firm belief in the construction and doctrines of the Government though the very ‘lightning scorched the ground beneath his feet’. . . . The Southern people loved him. They are prepared to protect and guard his memory from the fierce future winds of prejudice.” Seventy years later, Robert C. Tyson, Chairman of Finance, United States Steel Corporation, writes: “Only a small band of Americans, perhaps not more than a score since 1789, have coalesced into a single lifetime the diverse and large-scale contributions found in Jefferson Davis’s public career. And Mr. Davis’s private life, filled with family sorrows, personal distress, and disappointment at every turn, offers a stellar example of the finest national qualities for future generations of Americans to emulate.”

After Hudson Strode’s understanding biography of Jefferson Davis appeared, Bruce Catton wrote: “Davis finally becomes a possession of the whole country and not just a section.” The place of Jefferson Davis in American history as the first and only President of the Confederate States of America is unique.

HUDSON STRODE          

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