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Chief Johnny Reb

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of "The Story of American Freedom."

Of the myriad explanations for the Northern victory in the Civil War, perhaps the most arresting was proposed 40 years ago by the historian David Potter. If the Union and the Confederacy had exchanged presidents, he wrote, the South might well have emerged victorious. Potter’s aim was to direct attention from the battlefield to the political arena, where wars are often won and lost. If one considers success inevitable for the side with the greater population and material resources, as the North did (a position hardly tenable since Vietnam), then presidential leadership makes little difference. If, as many scholars believe, the South had a reasonable chance of winning, one must find explanations for its failure. Blame often falls on the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis.

Davis has been the subject of more than a dozen biographies, few of them laudatory. His historical reputation can never escape the burden of Confederate defeat or the shadow of his great antagonist, Abraham Lincoln. During the war, many Southerners denounced him as a tyrant or as a weakling. Afterward, he never achieved the saintly stature accorded to his general, Robert E. Lee. His most recent biographer, William C. Davis, described the Confederate president as “cold, aloof, obstinate, petty, enigmatic, vindictive, and bitter"--and this in a book whose author said he hoped to upgrade Jefferson Davis’ reputation! As the adage goes, to be a real Southerner, one has to have a granddaddy who fought with Stonewall Jackson and to hate Jefferson Davis.

William J. Cooper, the author of several well-regarded works on 19th-century Southern history, has combined assiduous archival research with a command of the vast secondary literature on the Old South and Civil War to produce “Jefferson Davis, American,” a generous although not uncritical study of the man. “Jefferson Davis, American” is biography on a grand scale, the most comprehensive treatment of Davis and his times yet to appear. Although scholars will find little that is strikingly new, readers interested in the Civil War era will surely enjoy Cooper’s well-written and up-to-date treatment of the South’s enigmatic president.

Born in 1808, within eight months and 100 miles of Abraham Lincoln, Davis grew up in a Kentucky farm family that owned a few slaves but never achieved more than modest wealth. After his father’s death, Jefferson’s brother Joseph, 24 years his senior and a cotton planter in Mississippi, became a surrogate paternal figure, arranging for him to attend West Point. Once Jefferson had served a stint in the army, Joseph settled him on Brierfield plantation at Davis Bend, a peninsula formed by the tortuous course of the Mississippi River.

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Although Cooper says relatively little about Davis as a slaveholder, the information he does offer is indeed fascinating: By the 1850s, Davis owned more than 100 slaves and their labor in the rich cotton fields of the Mississippi Valley made him an exceptionally wealthy man. At a time when the annual per capita income of white Mississippians was $124, Davis took in about $35,000 per year. Davis seems to have been a humane owner who tried to keep black families intact. While holding office in Washington, he left his slave James Pemberton, who had accompanied him during his military career as a body servant, in charge of the labor force. But life for Davis’ slaves was rather harsh, and very few of them lived past age 40. Cooper insists there is no evidence to support Davis’ wife’s later claim that slaves at Davis Bend administered justice themselves through a slave jury, which is often cited as an example of Davis’ leniency toward his slaves. Contrary to legend, Cooper concludes, Brierfield was not a “plantation paradise.”

Davis entered public life as a Democrat in the 1840s. His heroic conduct in the Mexican War, when his regiment helped turn the tide of battle at Buena Vista, made him a national figure. He soon came to dominate the public life of Mississippi, then served in Franklin Pierce’s Cabinet and the Senate in Washington. Davis quickly emerged as a pro-slavery extremist, favoring the institution’s unrestricted westward expansion, adamantly opposing the Compromise of 1850 and in general echoing the positions of his ideological mentor, John C. Calhoun.

Davis’ speeches were devoted to states’ rights, the legitimacy of slavery and the racial inferiority of blacks. He portrayed slavery as a benevolent system in which laborers fared better than in the capitalist economy of the North. Slavery, for him, was the foundation of Southern life and of true freedom (for whites). He criticized only one element of the institution, slave trading, even though he made purchases from slave dealers.

Cooper makes clear that, as Davis’ vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, proclaimed, slavery was the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy. Those who today maintain that the Confederate flag stands for something else--states’ rights, local heritage--will find little support in this book or in Davis’ own words of the time. “The Confederacy,” Cooper writes, “had come into existence over slavery, and with slavery as its fundamental institution.” Years later, to be sure, in his “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” (1881), Davis tried to rewrite history, portraying the war as a battle over local autonomy, with slavery “in no wise the cause of the conflict.”

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Unlike most previous biographers, Cooper devotes more space to Davis’ prewar career than to the Civil War. The surprising result is that readers may find the treatment of Davis’ life before 1860 fuller and more satisfying than Cooper’s account of his presidency.

The problem, however, is not really one of space. In his chapters on the war years, Cooper offers a clear narrative but not clear judgments. He relates how Davis was chosen early in 1861 as president by the Confederate Congress in part because of his political and military experience and how he strove to forge a nation out of a fractious group of states that often seemed unwilling to surrender their traditional powers for the common war effort. He presents some familiar criticisms of Davis’ presidency. Cooper notes, for example, that Davis was unable to delegate authority, immersing himself in the minutiae of military administration while failing to develop a strategic overview of the war. He had little understanding of public finance. And although known before the war as the “Cicero of the Senate,” he lacked Lincoln’s ability to communicate the war’s meaning effectively to ordinary men and women. But these scattered observations are never brought together in an overall assessment of Davis as president.

Nor does Cooper engage the broad issues that concern current historians of the Civil War. Did slavery doom the Confederacy? Was internal division among whites responsible for Southern defeat? Was the Confederacy, which forged a powerful central state in a region devoted to local autonomy, a “revolutionary experience,” as historian Emory Thomas has claimed? The war chapters end with a dramatic account of Davis’ flight from Richmond and capture by federal soldiers. But nowhere does Cooper address these issues directly or offer his own explanation for the war’s outcome.

Confederate defeat, Cooper makes clear, did not change Davis’ views of slavery, secession, race or the justness of the Southern cause. Although not involved in Reconstruction politics, he strongly opposed extending civil and political rights to the freed men. Struggling to make ends meet, he fought to regain possession of Davis Bend. Before his death, Joseph Davis had sold the estate to his former slave, Benjamin Montgomery. Knowing Montgomery would have difficulty meeting the mortgage payments, Joseph directed his heirs in his will to offer him every leniency. But Jefferson Davis, even though he had never in fact acquired legal title to Brierfield from his brother, sued to evict Montgomery. After white supremacist Democrats regained control of the Mississippi government in 1875, Davis won his lawsuit. Joseph’s grandchildren fought him every step of the way: Evidently, they had a greater sense of honor, that quintessential Southern attribute, than Jefferson Davis.

Cooper warns against judging Davis by the standards of our time rather than his own. Davis’ belief that slavery was the foundation of white freedom and that blacks were innately inferior, he points out, were hardly “unique” in 19th century America. The book’s title, “Jefferson Davis, American,” drives home Cooper’s point. Davis, he insists, was a “patriotic American” who shared his society’s basic values and aspirations. He participated fully in the key developments of his era: westward expansion, economic growth, democratic politics. He revered the legacy of the American Revolution and insisted that Confederates were its inheritors because they attempted to implement the principle that government rests on the consent of the governed.

Cooper’s point is that there was no contradiction between American traditions and a defense of slavery. For white Americans, liberty included the right to dominate and even own blacks. This is a powerful corrective to patriotic grandiloquence about our past. But Cooper’s zeal to avoid retrospective finger-pointing ends up producing a curiously agnostic narrative. It is misleading to describe Davis as an “American” and leave it at that. Racism was indeed widespread, but even in the 19th century it was not universal. Not every American believed that slavery was ordained by God or that blacks must forever be slaves. Jefferson Davis represented one America, but there were others, more worthy of our respect. Davis made his choice, and the country has been living with the consequences ever since.


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