I’d really like to do a documentary on Jefferson Davis. Some of my readers complain when I mention him as a President, but he WAS an American President True, he was not a President of the United States, but as President of the Confederate States, he led the other half of the country during the Civil War, actually served as Commander-in -Chief for a few weeks longer than Abraham Lincoln, and played a very important role in American history that I feel is often overlooked outside of the former Confederacy.
Plus, Davis’s impact goes beyond his Presidency. He was a hero of the Mexican-American War and an influential member of Congress. Under President Pierce, Davis was arguably the greatest Secretary of War in American history — he was innovative, a top-notch organizer, and modernized the U.S. military. In fact, Davis was largely responsible for turning the U.S. military into a powerful, efficient force that overpowered Davis’s Confederate military a decade later. During his time in Pierce’s Cabinet, Davis played a major role in early planning of the Transcontinental Railroad, and oversaw the expansion and construction of the United States Capitol building. In fact, the Capitol as we see it today was mainly due to the work and support of Jefferson Davis.
On top of all that, Davis had a fascinating and tumultuous personal life. He barely made it through West Point without being kicked out. He eloped with the daughter of the military commander he served under on the frontier after West Point — a commander who just so happened to be future President Zachary Taylor. That marriage ended tragically just a few weeks after the wedding when the newlyweds contracted malaria. Taylor’s daughter (Davis’s new wife) died and Davis barely survived himself.
After several years of depression, Davis eventually remarried — to a granddaughter of a former New Jersey Governor — and their relationship lasted the rest of their lives, despite ups and downs. Davis’s second wife was not only First Lady of the Confederacy, but often filled in as White House hostess during the Pierce Administration because of the problems that President Pierce’s wife had.
At one point, Davis and his former father-in-law, Zachary Taylor, stumbled upon each other by chance on a riverboat and buried any hard feelings they might have had. Davis served bravely under Taylor in Mexico and advised Taylor once the General was elected President, despite being from different parties. Davis was at Taylor’s side when the President died in office in 1850. Davis’s friendship with Franklin Pierce was even more remarkable and even continued during (and after) the Civil War, leading many to consider Pierce a traitor to the Union.
There’s even more drama that could be covered. Like his Union counterpart, Lincoln, President Davis had a young son tragically die during the Civil War. When the war ended, Davis was captured and imprisoned under harsh conditions while Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, decided what to do with the former Confederate President. Eventually, prominent Northerners petitioned for Davis to be released, as did Pope Pius IX.
Davis ended up outliving most of the principals of the Civil War. He wrote a lengthy, two-volume history of the Confederacy and became a Southern icon — the symbol of the “Lost Cause”, and far more popular and respected in retirement among Southerners than he had been as President when his prickly personality and micromanaging style caused problems between him and his fellow Confederates.
When Davis died at the age of 81 in 1889, a massive funeral was held — the largest funeral in Southern history and one of the biggest in American history. Even today, Davis’s birthday is celebrated as a state holiday in several former states of the Confederacy.
Anything having to do with the former President of the Confederate States of America will be controversial, but Jefferson Davis is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in American history and, as I’ve tried to illustrate in this quick run-through of his life, he was also a fascinating personality. I think we’re way overdue for a PBS “American Experience” documentary on his life.
(So, if you’re listening, PBS and “American Experience”, consider this my pitch, okay? I should also note that “American Experience” is my favorite long-running television series by far! Also, I’m ready, willing, and able to write the Jefferson Davis episode for scale. Hell, I’ll do it for some chicken wings, a Pepsi, a few DVDs, and my name in the credits! Let’s make it happen.)
I had been so near the office (the Presidency) for four years, while in the Cabinet of (Franklin) Pierce, that I saw it from behind the scenes, and it was to me an office in no way desirable. The responsibilities were great; the labor, the vexations, the disappointments, were greater. Those who have intimately known the official and personal life of our Presidents cannot fail to remember how few have left the office as happy men as when they entered it, how darkly the shadows gathered around the setting sun, and how eagerly the multitude would turn to gaze upon another orb just rising to take its place in the political firmament.
Worn by incessant fatigue, broken in fortune, debarred by public opinion, prejudice, or tradition, from future employment, the wisest and best who have filled that office have retired to private life, to remember rather the failure of their hopes than the success of their efforts. He must, indeed, be a self-confident man who could hope to fill the chair of Washington with satisfaction to himself, with the assurance of receiving on his retirement the meed awarded by the people to that great man, that he had ‘lived enough for life and for glory,’ or even of feeling that the sacrifice of self has been compensated by the service rendered to his country.
I sure have been getting a lot of questions lately that could easily be answered via Google or Wikipedia. Since I am a kind, helpful gentleman, I’ll answer it, though.
Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War — elected as provisional President for the first year by the provisional Confederate Congress. In November 1861, the people of the Confederacy elected Davis as their President. He ran unopposed and carried the electoral votes of all 11 Confederate states. The Confederate Presidency, like the Confederate Constitution, was largely modeled after the U.S. version. In the Confederacy, however, the President was limited to one, six-year term, so if the Confederacy had survived, Davis’s Presidency would have ended in February 1868.
As the war came to a close in April 1865, Davis and his family joined other top rebels and fled south, hoping to get out of the country instead of facing arrest and possible treason charges, which could have resulted in his execution. President Lincoln and General Grant actually hoped that Davis would make it out of the country so that the nation could work on healing rather than punishing Southern leaders. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson had no sympathy for Davis or top Confederate officials.
Some Confederate leaders did escape to Cuba, Mexico, Canada, and Europe, but Davis was captured by federal troops in May 1865 and imprisoned in harsh conditions in Virginia for two years as federal authorities decided what to do with him. He was charged with treason, but many were calling for his release, including Northern leaders and even abolitionists who had violently opposed Davis and the Southern slave states. Many of them helped contribute to a $100,000 bond which secured Davis’s release. Charges were eventually dropped and Davis lived until 1889.