Book Review: “Jefferson Davis, American” by William J. Cooper, Jr.

It took me just about the entire summer, but this past week I finally finished William J. Cooper, Jr’s extensive biography of former congressman, senator, cabinet secretary, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis.  Jefferson Davis, American did not take me twelve weeks to read simply because it was 700 pages, or because it wasn’t written well (though the chronology sometimes jumped forward and back, and as a result there were some repetitive passages that a more ruthless editor would have excised).  No, Cooper’s tome on this titan of the South took me an entire season to get through because it was incredibly difficult to read so much about a person who was so wrong about so many things.

Cooper makes no apologies for Mr. Davis’ perspective on things.  In fact, his introduction explicitly states that his book is meant neither to vilify nor qualify his beliefs.  They were simply the prevailing wisdom of the age.  Yet it’s one thing to say that the majority of white men believed in the superiority of their race; it’s quite another when you engage in a case study of a white man who shared that belief and who wielded enormous influence in the nation for nearly half a century.  The evidence Cooper assembles shows that, despite his editorial attempts at rehabilitation in closing passages, Jefferson Davis never changed his opinion that black people were inherently less than white people–even after the war he waged to ostensibly defend that view failed miserably.

Davis always contended that the Civil War was not about whether black people should be free or slave.  His view was that the growing northern sentiment towards emancipation was being forced upon the southern economy, of which slave labor was the bedrock.  He saw it as a power play to subjugate the south, politically and economically, and thus viewed secession as not only a constitutional right but as a necessity.  War, he contended, was never his design.  Cooper’s evidence supports this; but the storm that had been brewing since Davis’s days as a senator was too strong for him to stop by 1861.

Most Americans today know Davis as the president of the Confederacy (that is, if they know him at all), but I found those years of his life to actually be the least interesting.  Here is a collection of some amusing facts about Mr. Davis:

  • He traveled in influential circles at a very young age.  His parents sent him from their home in Mississippi to receive an education at the famed Transylvania University in Kentucky, where Henry Clay was on the Board of Trustees.  On his journey north, he stopped at the home of former president Andrew Jackson, a personal hero of his.
  • He attended West Point.  A number of contemporaries would later fight for and against him in the Civil War.  He was a bit of a rowdy cadet, but graduated and earned a good assignment at the edge of the American frontier, commanded by future president Zachary Taylor.
  • Davis won the hand of Taylor’s daughter, Sarah, despite her parents’ initial objections.  They were married briefly before she died.
  • Davis was on the front lines of the Mexican War, fighting to expand America’s borders deeper into the southwest.  Despite running the Civil War from Richmond many years later, he would never again be at the forefront of battle.
  • He suffered numerous lifelong maladies, including bronchial diseases, eye infections that almost blinded him, and the recurrent effects of malaria.
  • He was incredibly well-traveled, seeing most of America and Western Europe in his 81 years.
I think the most interesting thing about Jefferson Davis is simply the fact that he survived the Civil War.  I don’t recall ever learning what became of him.  As it turns out, Davis was held in a military prison for eighteen months while President Andrew Johnson, a bitter Congress, and a wary Supreme Court all argued over how to handle a case the likes of which the nation had never seen and its founders had never anticipated.  In the end, he was released with little fanfare and no official pardon.  For the rest of his days, he would struggle to make ends meet, as his Mississippi plantation was now in disrepair and he was not allowed to re-enter public life; but he had no shortage of encouragement from his many ardent supporters.
Joseph Davis
Central to the story of Jefferson Davis are two influential and conflicting presences in his life: his eldest brother, Joseph, and his second wife, Varina.  Joseph was more of a father figure to Jefferson than a big brother, and he took their relationship quite seriously on those terms.  He was generous and sincere; it was he who gave Jefferson the land to start his successful plantation, Brierfield.  But he could also be domineering and intrusive, something the independent and ambitious Varina did not appreciate.  Varina thrived in Washington, with its vibrant social scene at the center of such important work.  Conversely, when consigned to Brierfield, she was bored and lonesome, and chafed terribly under the presumptive chaperoning of the nearby Joseph.

Varina Howell Davis

The two were practically of different generations, and while Jefferson strived to please both simultaneously, he rarely succeeded.  It was only as the war approached and Jefferson’s responsibilities became so consuming away that he and Varina were finally out of Joseph’s shadow.  Even after the war, when their futures were all uncertain, Varina and Joseph never reconciled.  In an epic sign-off on the eve of secession, Varina told a deeply touched Joseph that it was solely her husband’s idea to name one of their sons after him.  “I owe you nothing, and perfectly appreciate your hostility to me,” she declared.

Cooper’s book is an interesting portrait of a man who is, in his convictions and his actions, decidedly of a different time.  While it is almost completely objective, some apologia nevertheless presents itself in the uneventful final pages.  I understand that the Civil War is 150 years behind us, but I still see something inexcusable about that.  Cooper kneecaps himself just before the finish line of making a perfectly valid argument: Jefferson Davis was a capable, intelligent man who built his life on some really bad ideas.
~ T

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