James M. McPherson recently appeared on The Colbert Report to promote his latest book, Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. Together, McPherson and Colbert more or less made a mockery of Davis – “great Confederate president or greatest Confederate president?” As the Good Book says, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”
Truth be told, McPherson is actually a good scholar who has written unique and valuable works of history. Indeed, the late, great M.E. Bradford appreciated McPherson for understanding that the so-called “Civil War” was truly a revolution of the modern nation-state against traditional American federalism. Bradford completely differed with McPherson’s opinions about the revolution, but he credited him for at least understanding the principles. On that note, Embattled Rebel is one of McPherson’s finer contributions. Although McPherson makes it clear that he prefers the Union to the Confederacy and Lincoln to Davis, he admits that he “became less inimical toward Davis than I expected” and is evenhanded in his portrayal. “I have sought to transcend my convictions and to understand Jefferson Davis as a product of his time and circumstances.” Unfortunately, historians tend to get a bit bedazzled when they are thrust from the library into the limelight. For instance, when asked, “Why did Davis feel they had to secede?” McPherson answered, “The Civil War was all about slavery”(all?) and quoted Davis as saying that the Republican Party represented a threat to “three billion dollars’ worth” of slaves. True, yet in that same speech – and many more – Davis also stated other political, economic, and cultural causes of conflict between the North and the South. Somehow, McPherson left out those inconvenient truths. As the interview continued, the crowd snickered at the mention of States’ rights and Southerners getting “teary-eyed” about Robert E. Lee, and guffawed when, as a final stunt, Colbert defaced Davis’ photograph to resemble Abraham Lincoln.
Not that the Pajama Boys and Gruber Voters who get their news from The Colbert Report and its parent, The Daily Show particularly care, but a full portrait of Davis is much more impressive than McPherson and Colbert’s caricature.
Prior to secession, no man was more committed to the Union – the real Union – than Davis. To Davis, however, the Union was the Founding Fathers’ compact between separate and equal sovereigns for mutual benefit, not the superficial, self-justifying Union which grasping politicians like Lincoln exploited to enrich themselves and their interests at the public expense. Davis, who served on a prominent committee tasked with finding a suitable compromise to the sectional crisis, went to great lengths to preserve the Union, but to no avail: Republicans consistently chose Party over Union. When Davis signed a statement declaring that “the argument is exhausted,” “all hope of relief in the Union…is extinguished,” “the Republicans are resolute in their purpose to grant nothing that will or ought to satisfy the South,” and “the honor, the safety, and the independence of the Southern people are to be found only in a Southern Confederacy,” it was true. Davis’ heartfelt valedictory address in the U.S. Senate, which doubled as a eulogy for the old Union, left the chamber in stunned silence. “I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well, and such, I am sure, is the feeling of the people whom I represent towards those whom you represent,” drawled a dejected Davis. “I therefore feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they hope, for peaceful relations with you, though we must part.” After bidding his colleagues adieu, Davis hoped to be arrested for treason so that he could prove the legality of secession once and for all in court.
Davis knew that secession was not treason and that he was not a traitor. The Constitution defined treason as levying war against the United States or aiding her enemies, yet secession was a peaceful declaration of independence. “Actuated by the desire to preserve our own rights and promote our own welfare,” proclaimed Davis in his First Inaugural Address, “the separation of the Confederate States has been marked by no aggression upon others.” Moreover, secession – the right of the States to freely rescind a compact which they had freely ratified– was reserved through the sovereignty of the States, reaffirmed under the Tenth Amendment, and recognized by most of the Founders. “Our present condition,” continued Davis at his Inaugural, “achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations, illustrates the American idea that governments rest upon the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish governments whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established.”
Unlike Lincoln, who vied for power his whole life, Davis viewed public office as a duty, and retired from politics after his State seceded; he was heartbroken that the Union had dissolved and felt that he had nothing left to give. Davis was tending to his rose garden with his wife, Varina, when a messenger appeared with a telegram informing him that without his knowledge or consent, he had been elected President of the Confederate States of America. Varina recalled her husband’s ashen face upon reading the telegram, the “painful silence” which followed, and him finally sharing the news “as a man might speak of a sentence of death.” Davis later admitted that he was “surprised” and “disappointed” that he had been chosen. “Upon my weary heart was showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers; but beyond them I saw troubles and thorns innumerable,” Davis confessed to Varina after his inauguration in the provisional capital of Montgomery. “We are without machinery, without means, and threatened by a powerful opposition; but I do not despond, and will not shrink from the task imposed upon me.”
While Lincoln stressed that the North was fighting to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery, Davis avowed that the South was not fighting to preserve slavery, but for the proud American right of self-government. “If war should come – if we must again baptize in blood the principles for which our fathers bled in the Revolution, we shall show that we are not degenerate sons, but will redeem the pledges they gave to preserve the sacred rights transmitted to us, and show that Southern valor still shines as brightly as in the days of ’76.” Davis’ speeches are replete with such statements.
As proof of his sincerity, Davis spearheaded the freeing and arming of the slaves – a controversial social revolution which supportive Southerners like General Lee rightly recognized as the beginning of the end of their so-called cornerstone institution. Davis had staunchly defended slavery against outside agitation, but personally believed that if Southerners were simply left alone, then they would abolish it in their own way. Accordingly, Davis treated his own slaves as a part of his family and prepared them for freedom by instructing them in the duties of citizenship. Despite his progressive views, Davis was initially resistant to the radical idea of making soldiers of slaves, but eventually accepted its necessity. “Should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation or employment of the slave as a soldier,” Davis argued before Congress, “there seems no reason to doubt what should then be our decision.” When Congress legalized the recruitment of slave soldiers, Davis ordered the War Department to require that any enlisted slave receive “the rights of a freedman.” Around the same time that Lincoln was offering to swap emancipation for national reunification, Davis was reaching out to Britain and France, offering to abolish slavery in exchange for diplomatic recognition. “We are not fighting for slavery,” avowed Davis. “We are fighting for independence, and that, or extermination, we will have.”
Unlike Lincoln, who visited battlefields after the fighting was finished, Davis made a point to be present during the bloodshed. The image of the President personally leading his people to victory was truly awe-inspiring, evoking the memory of George Washington. At First Manassas, Davis rallied straggling Confederates back to the battle, though the day was won by the time they reached the front. During the Peninsula Campaign, Seven Days Campaign, and Overland Campaign, Davis roamed the lines on horseback. “There was no individual who was more familiar with the topography of Richmond and its vicinity than Mr. Davis,” claimed General Robert Ransom. “He made himself acquainted with every road and bypath and with the streams and farms for twenty miles around.” Sometimes Davis even came under enemy fire. According to Davis’ secretary, Davis “always led the staff as close to the ragged edge of danger as was humanly possible.” On one occasion, when it was reported that Yankee cavalry was coming to raid the capital of Richmond, Davis grabbed his two pistols and rode out to fight – though the raid never came. Indeed, Davis, as a West Point graduate, veteran of the Mexican-American War, and former Secretary of War, had originally expected to be appointed general-in-chief, not commander-in-chief. Despite feeling that he was best-suited to the military, Davis was devoted to his presidential duties and worked himself to exhaustion. Although he clashed with many generals and was prone to micromanagement, his collaboration with the legendary Lee made history.
Davis insisted on upholding the laws of war, even while Federals terrorized the Southern civil population and sacked and razed Southern cities – “a savage ferocity unknown to modern civilization,” as Davis put it. According to Cabinet member and confidante Judah P. Benjamin, “When it was urged upon Jefferson Davis, not only by friends in public letters, but by members of his Cabinet in council, that it was his duty to the people and to the army to endeavor to repress outrages by retaliation, he was immovable in his resistance…insisting that it was repugnant to every sentiment of justice and humanity that the innocent should be made victims for the crimes of such monsters.” Furthermore, despite the fact that the South was ravaged by war, Davis upheld the rule of law, waiting until Congress granted him the proper legal authority before abridging habeas corpus. By contrast, although the North never felt the hard hand of war, Lincoln suspected treason behind every bush and unilaterally suspended habeas corpus so that he could dissolve bothersome legislatures and lock up dissidents.
Davis spoke the firm, honest language of the Founders and the classical statesmen they admired. Davis knew what he was talking about and meant what he said. Lincoln, by contrast, pioneered the language of the modern politician, talking out of both sides of his mouth, using red herrings to distract from the issues, and raising straw-man arguments to discredit his opponents. While Davis believed that it was his duty to speak the truth, Lincoln tried to be all things to all people. To this day, scholars are still trying to figure out what Lincoln really believed; no one has any doubts about where Davis stood. Moreover, unlike “Honest Abe” – a sarcastic nickname from his logrolling days in the Illinois political machine – not a single scandal stained Davis’ career.
With far fewer resources than Lincoln, Davis accomplished more, creating a functional, legal government and fielding a renowned military, all while blockaded and invaded. Under far greater pressure than Lincoln – indeed, his own life and liberty were at stake – Davis held the moral high ground, rejecting the temptation of total warfare, refusing the powers of a military dictator, and remaining faithful to his country’s cause even when he was captured and tortured. For four bloody years, Davis led an outmanned, out supplied South in a mortal struggle against an unstoppable Northern war machine – and nearly won! Davis was an honourable and heroic American and deserves better than potshots from a professor and gibes from Washington, D.C.’s court jester.