(Jul. 20, 2021) — Two individuals come to mind at the mention of the Confederate States of America, General Robert E. Lee and Former-President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis. Both General Lee and Davis were men of principle and conviction as they stood up for what they believed; however, for a variety of historically complicated reasons, General Lee became a far bigger symbol of the Confederacy after its demise than Davis. Although Davis remains a sort of avatar for the end of states’ rights, some have come to view him as a Southern patriot.
Who Was Jefferson Davis?
Named after then-President Thomas Jefferson, Davis was born in 1808 less than 100 miles from where President Lincoln was born eight months later. Of Welsh stock, Davis was unsurprisingly born to a patrician planter family of Kentucky. His family moved to Louisiana and then to Mississippi, the state that Davis would represent in Congress for several years.
The youngest of ten children, Davis’s eldest sibling was a brother 23 years his senior. His father passed away when he was 16 years old. As a child, he attended the prestigious Saint Thomas at St. Rose Priory school where he was the lone Protestant student. He later attended West Point, where he was largely undistinguished. Considering the caliber of young men who attend West Point, this is no sleight against him, and he graduated 23 out of 33 in his class.
Davis was a participant in the somewhat famous Eggnog Riot, also known as the Grog Mutiny, where a massive amount of whiskey was smuggled on campus with predictable results. Alcohol was technically banned, but West Point generally looked the other way about the consumption of eggnog around Christmas time. In 1826, illicit alcohol use had gotten out of hand, so the school decided to enforce the rule over Christmas. This lead to the smuggling and the subsequent riot resulting in twenty cadets being court-martialed; fortunately, Davis was not one of them.
Upon graduation, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, where he served under future President Zachary Taylor in the Michigan Territory. He married Taylor’s daughter against the General’s wishes. Taylor did not personally object to Davis, he merely objected to his daughter marrying a military man. Tragically, both became extremely ill with either yellow fever or malaria and she passed away three months into their marriage.
He went to Cuba to recover from his illness with James Pemberton, his lone slave at the time in 1835. In 1840 he was called to politics and had expanded his holdings to 40 slaves, which was impressive wealth for a young man by the standards of the time.
Congressman Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis attended a meeting of the local Democratic Party and was selected as a delegate for the state convention. In 1843, he was selected as a candidate for Congress but lost his first election. He was noted as an effective campaigner for the 1844 candidate and later President James K. Polk – he even served as an elector from the state of Mississippi.
Davis married his second wife, Varina Banks Howell in 1845, once again over the objections of parents. The Howells were a Whig family and Davis was some 17 years older than she was. That same year, Davis was elected to the 29th Congress. The couple eventually had six children, three survived into adulthood and two survived Davis. Only one, Margaret Howell, married and had children.
Davis in the Mexican-American War
Despite having left military life, Davis answered his country’s call during the Mexican-American War and raised a volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles. Davis served as colonel underneath General Zachary Taylor, the father of his late wife. The unit was so-called because it was the first regiment to be armed with rifled firearms. General Winfield Scott tried to prevent the regiment from receiving the rifles, but Davis called in a favor to President James K. Polk, starting a life-long feud between the future Confederate President and the Whig Army hero.
By all accounts, Davis was a soliders’ soldier during the war, taking a bullet in the foot during the Battle of Buena Vista. His service during the War prompted his erstwhile father-in-law General Taylor to comment “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.” In a foreshadowing of things to come, Taylor offered to commission Davis as a general of a militia brigade. Davis declined because he did not believe that the federal government had the power to commission officers of a militia.
Senator Jefferson Davis
When Davis returned from the Mexican-American War he was a hero to the State of Mississippi. Governor Albert G. Brown appointed Davis as a temporary Senator to replace the recently departed Jesse Speight, with the state legislature formally electing him later that year. He was a strong voice for annexing a larger part of Mexico and Cuba, that was ultimately incorporated into the Union. These causes were advanced by the slaveholding states, but some wished to grab Cuba from Spain simply to deny a European power an outpost that close to the American mainland.
Davis was elected to a full term in the Senate but resigned less than a year into this term to run for Governor of Mississippi against fellow Senator Henry Stuart Foote, to whom he lost by a scant 999 votes. He continued his service to the Democratic Party by campaigning for Democratic candidates in Mississippi and other Southern states.
In January 1852, Davis attended a convention in Mississippi regarding the topic of states’ rights. This was a pressing issue in the years leading up to the Civil War, one which the Southern states were keenly interested in. President Franklin Pierce tapped Davis as Secretary of War where he served for the entire term. Pierce was denied renomination by the Democratic Party and so Davis once again campaigned for Senate. Davis re-entered the Senate in 1857.
These were some of the most crucial years in the history of the Republic. The contradictions of having half of a country based on slave labor and the other half on free labor were coming to a head.
States’ Rights and the Lead Up to the Civil War
Much of the tension between the North and South took the form of states’ rights around whether or not the federal government was going to be able to ban slavery in the territories. While it is often said that the Republican Party was founded to end slavery, this is wholly untrue. The primary motivation behind the founding of the Republican Party was simply to ensure that the territories, and the massive amounts of land they contained, would not be given away to large plantation owners, but would instead be kept for free – and, it must be said, white – labor.
The first of these challenges was the Wilmot Proviso, introduced by David Wilmot. At that time, Wilmot was a Northern Democrat, but one known as a party man and a loyalist of President Polk. He defected from the Democratic Party in 1848 to the newly formed Free Soil Party , a largely single-issue party dedicated to preventing the spread of slavery into the territories. The Wilmot Proviso, which would have undone the Compromise of 1820 by banning slavery in all land acquired from Mexico, failed to pass three times in 1846, 1847, and 1848.
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