Biography of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy

Jefferson Davis portrait

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Jefferson Davis (born Jefferson Finis Davis; June 3, 1808–December 6, 1889) was a prominent American soldier, secretary of war, and political figure who became the president of the Confederate States of America, a nation formed in rebellion to the United States. Before becoming a leader of the slave states in rebellion, he was viewed by some as a plausible future president of the United States.

Fast Facts: Jefferson Davis

  • Known For: Davis was the president of the Confederate States of America.
  • Also Known As: Jefferson Finis Davis
  • Born: June 3, 1808 in Todd County, Kentucky
  • Parents: Samuel Emory Davis and Jane Davis
  • Died: December 6, 1889 in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Education: Transylvania University, U.S. Military Academy at West Point
  • Published WorksThe Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government
  • Spouses: Sarah Knox Taylor, Varina Howell
  • Children: 6
  • Notable Quote: "Are we, in this age of civilization and political progress…to roll back the whole current of human thought, and again return to the mere brute force which prevails between beasts of prey, as the only method of settling questions between men?"

Early Life and Education

Jefferson Davis grew up in Mississippi and was educated at Transylvania University in Kentucky for three years. He then entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduated in 1828, and received a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army.

Early Career and Family Life

Davis served as an infantry officer for seven years. After resigning his military commission in 1835, Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Zachary Taylor, the future president and Army colonel. Taylor strongly disapproved of the marriage.

The newlyweds moved to Mississippi, where Sarah contracted malaria and died within three months. Davis himself contracted malaria and recovered, but he often suffered lingering effects from the disease. Over time, Davis repaired his relationship with Zachary Taylor and he became one of Taylor's most trusted advisers during his presidency.

Davis married Varina Howell in 1845. They remained married for the rest of his life and had six children, three of whom lived to adulthood.

Cotton Plantation and Start in Politics

From 1835 to 1845, Davis became a successful cotton planter, farming on a plantation called Brierfield, which had been given to him by his brother. He also began buying slaves in the mid-1830s. According to the federal census of 1840, he owned 39 slaves.

In the late 1830s, Davis took a trip to Washington, D.C. and apparently met President Martin Van Buren. His interest in politics developed, and in 1845 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat.

The Mexican War and Political Rise

With the beginning of the Mexican War in 1846, Davis resigned from Congress and formed a volunteer company of infantrymen. His unit fought in Mexico, under General Zachary Taylor, and Davis was wounded. He returned to Mississippi and received a hero's welcome.

Davis was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1847 and obtained a powerful position on the Military Affairs Committee. In 1853, Davis was appointed secretary of war in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce. It was probably his favorite job, and Davis took to it energetically, helping to bring important reforms to the military. His interest in science inspired him to import camels for use by the U.S. Cavalry.

Secession

In the late 1850s, as the nation was splitting over the issue of slavery, Davis returned to the U.S. Senate. He cautioned other southerners about secession, but when slave states started leaving the Union, he resigned from the Senate.

On January 21, 1861, in the waning days of the administration of James Buchanan, Davis gave a dramatic farewell speech in the Senate and pleaded for peace.

President of the Confederate States of America

Jefferson Davis was the only president of the Confederate States of America. He held the office from 1861 until the collapse of the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War, in the spring of 1865.

Davis never campaigned for the presidency of the Confederacy in the sense that politicians in the United States campaign. He was essentially selected to serve and he claimed not to be seeking the position. He began his term with widespread support within the states in rebellion.

Opposition

As the Civil War continued, Davis' critics within the Confederacy increased. Before secession, Davis had consistently been a forceful and eloquent advocate for states' rights. Ironically, he became inclined to impose the rule of a strong central government as he tried to manage the Confederate government. Strong states' rights advocates within the Confederacy came to oppose him.

Besides his choice of Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Davis is mostly deemed a weak leader by historians. Davis was seen as prickly, a poor delegator, overly involved in details, wrongly attached to defending Richmond, Virginia, and guilty of cronyism. Most historians agree that he was far less effective as a leader during wartime than his counterpart, President Abraham Lincoln.

After the War

Following the Civil War, many in the federal government and the public believed Davis to be a traitor responsible for years of bloodshed and the deaths of many thousands. There was a strong suspicion that Davis had been involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Some accused him of having ordered Lincoln's murder.

After Davis was apprehended by Union cavalry while trying to escape and perhaps keep the rebellion going, he was locked up in a military prison for two years. For a time he was kept in chains, and his health suffered from his rough treatment.

The federal government eventually decided not to prosecute Davis and he returned to Mississippi. He was financially ruined, since he had lost his plantation (and, like many other large landholders in the south, his slaves).

Later Years and Death

Thanks to a wealthy benefactor, David was able to live comfortably on an estate, where he wrote a book about the Confederacy, "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government." In his final years, in the 1880s, he was often visited by admirers.

Davis died on December 6, 1889. A large funeral was held for him in New Orleans and he was buried in the city. His body was eventually moved to a large tomb in Richmond, Virginia.

Legacy

Davis, in the decades before the Civil War, served admirably in a number of positions within the federal government. Before becoming a leader of the slave states in rebellion, he was viewed by some as a possible future president of the United States.

But his accomplishments are judged differently from other American politicians. While he held the Confederate government together in nearly impossible circumstances, he was considered a traitor by those loyal to the United States. There were many Americans who believed he should have been tried for treason and hanged after the Civil War.

Some advocates for Davis point to his intellect and relative skill in governing the rebel states. But his detractors note the obvious: Davis strongly believed in the perpetuation of slavery.

The veneration of Jefferson Davis remains a controversial subject. Statues of him appeared throughout the south following his death, and, because of his defense of slavery, many now believe those statues should be taken down. There are also periodic calls to remove his name from public buildings and roads which had been named in his honor. His birthday continues to be celebrated in several southern states, and his presidential library opened in Mississippi in 1998.

Sources

  • Cooper, William C., Jr. "Jefferson Davis, American." Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. 
  • McPherson, James M. "Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief." Penguin Press, 2014. 
  • Strode, Hudson. "Jefferson Davis: Confederate President." Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1959.