Useful Notes: Jefferson Davis

Of course we can defeat the North! We can't lose!

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America.

Prior to this, Davis actually lived a very interesting life. He went to West Point, and he fought in the Black Hawk War between Midwest settlers and the Native American tribes there (ironically, Abraham Lincoln also fought in this war). Davis served under future President Zachary Taylor, and, against Taylorís wishes, married the manís daughter, Sarah, in 1835. She died three months later, and Davis was never really the same after that, even after he married again in 1845.

Davis was elected to the House of Representatives in 1845 (representing Mississippi), but resigned less than a year later to fight in the Mexican-American War. He fought very bravely in the war, reached the rank of Colonel, and met with President James K. Polk a few times. He then completed the term of a Mississippi Senator who died while in office. After a failed attempt at becoming Governor of Mississippi, Davis served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. He was then elected to the Senate again, and spent most of his term making speeches against secession. Although he did believe that each state had to right to secede, his service as Secretary of War led him to (correctly) believe that the North was stronger than the South. When Mississippi seceded in 1861, he resigned from the Senate and would later call it the saddest day of his life.

Less than a month later, Davis was chosen as the President of the Confederacy for his political and military experience. He actually wanted to serve as the leader of the Confederate forces, though. Davis initially sought a peaceful way to maintain the independence of the Confederacy, but he gave up when Abraham Lincoln refused his proposals and the Union-controlled Fort Sumter in South Carolina was attacked. Thus, The American Civil War began.

Unfortunately for Davis, running the South during this very difficult time proved to be too much for him. It didnít help that the relationship between the state and federal governments of the Confederacy were looser than in the North, where the federal government has clear authority over state governments. Or that his Cabinet members often fought with both Davis and each other. Or that no foreign nation would come to the Confederacyís aid despite his pleas. Or that the Southern economy collapsed during the war, and that Davisí decision to fix it by printing loads and loads of bills only made things so much worse. From start to finish, the Southern economy's currency inflated by over 9000%. Still, Davis knew that the Confederacy had fewer forces and fewer resources than the Union, so he decided to fight a largely defensive war. He appointed Robert E. Lee to defend Virginia, which saved the Confederate capital of Richmond for a few years. After Lee inevitably surrendered in 1865, Davis realized that the war was officially lost and tried to flee. He tried to sail to Europe with his wife, but he was captured before they reached the coast of Georgia. Urban Legend states that he dressed as a woman to avoid capture, but in reality he only put on his wifeís overcoat because it was cold that morning. Davis was captured, charged with treason, and imprisoned for two years.

Since Davis, being a traitor, could not hold public office again, he struggled for much of his post-war life. His business ventures typically ended with failure. In fact, he probably would have lived in poverty if it wasnít for the generosity of wealthy Southern author Sarah Dorsey, who let him live with her and left her plantation and wealth to him in her will. He wrote two popular books about the Confederacy during his last few years, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government and A Short History of the Confederate States of America. He also went on tours asking Southerners to accept that the North won and pledge loyalty and goodwill to the Union, which redeemed him in the eyes of many bitter Lost Cause-supporters. Privately, though, Davis hated the Reconstruction policies of the North and was also against giving African Americans the right to vote. After he died, the South held a very, very large funeral in his honor in New Orleans. Nearly a century later, Jimmy Carter restored the citizenship of the deceased Davis.

Needless to say, youíll get different opinions on Davis depending on whom (and where) you ask. In the Southern states that seceded, he is largely remembered, more-or-less, as a hero who tried his best to defend the Confederacy from the Union forces. There are monuments, streets, and schools honoring him in these states. In the North, heís basically remembered as the guy who lost to Abraham Lincoln and praise to him is typically laughed off. Due to his support of slavery and his beliefs that whites were racially superior, the African American community isnít very fond of him. Historians usually donít think very highly of his leadership abilities, although there is a growing opinion that he himself was a potentially competent leader stuck in a position that called for far more than mere competence. Remember the Rule of Cautious Editing Judgment.

Fun fact: Barack Obama, through his white mother, is related to Jefferson Davis. The first African American in Congress, Hiram Rhodes Revels, was elected to the Senate from Davis' state of Mississippi, but to the other Senate seat.