Jefferson Davis, American, by William C. Cooper, Jr., Alfred A. Knopf, 672 pages, $35.
Among historians Jefferson Davis has an image problem. He is seen as aloof and prickly, a man who could sometimes be an intellectual tyrant, always trying to prove others wrong at the expense of the Confederate cause. Davis’s personality has been a veritable quicksand for his biographers, who get lost in the complex layers of his inner self without paying sufficient attention to the surrounding landscape. William C. Cooper, Jr., avoids this quagmire by exploring the life and times of the Mississippian. That approach enabled Cooper to understand the unique choices and constraints that confronted Davis as president of an infant nation. Unlike previous biographers, Cooper finds the historical bedrock of Jefferson Davis and from there he rebuilds the image of the Confederate president without covering up faults. The result is a masterful biography, beautifully written, thoroughly researched, and filled with challenging analyses and new insights.
Jefferson Davis’s commitment to slavery and its attendant ideology of social inequality defined his sense of Southernness. From the beginning of his political career, Davis aggressively pursued Southern interests, particularly the right to carry slaves into Western territories. Davis justified this position through a strict interpretation of the Constitution based on states’ rights. This political philosophy, Cooper insists, is the key to understanding how Davis could see himself as a devoted American while championing a Southern agenda.
Cooper is correct that Davis sincerely believed in states’ rights and that he loved the Union, but the thrust of his argument obscures Davis’s true identity. At the most fundamental level, Davis was a Southern slaveholder who flew the banner of states’ rights when it suited the advancement of Southern interests. He even jettisoned states’ rights during the 1850s to promote pro-Southern policies. He wanted the Federal government to construct a transcontinental railroad that would pass through the South. He thought the national government should acquire Cuba for slavery expansion. He also favored the pro-slavery LeCompton Constitution in Kansas even though he knew it was a mockery of popular sovereignty, an egregious violation of states’ rights.
Davis can be better understood as a Southern radical who followed in the footsteps of the great South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. Both men preferred Union but feared that the South, as a minority region with an unpopular institution, might lose political equality in the united nation. They both aggressively prepared Southerners for the necessity of secession if an anti-slavery party like the Republicans gained national control. Davis, although quick to denounce the fire-eaters, told a Democratic convention that a Republican victory would result in a tyrannical majority. Recognizing Lincoln’s “Black Republicans,” he warned, was shameful and dishonorable. Cooper is right that Davis was not part of the secessionist vanguard in 1860, but the Mississippian, despite his pleas of loyalty to Union, was responsible for nourishing the dream of Southern nationhood that ultimately made secession a political reality. Instead of Jefferson Davis, American, a better title for Cooper’s book would have been Jefferson Davis, Southerner.
Cooper shatters the one-dimensional portrait of Davis as a narrow-minded bureaucratic, rigid and uncaring, who micromanaged the Confederacy to death. This is the most important contribution of Cooper’s book. While he acknowledges Davis’s inflexibility, his unyielding devotion to friends in high places, and his insatiable appetite for needless paperwork, Cooper also shows that there were many other layers to Davis’s being. In deciding policy, the president consistently sought the views of others, encouraging trusted advisors to express their opinions even if they countered his own. In fact, Cooper points out that Davis should have been more assertive in managing the western theater. The loss of Vicksburg, he concludes, occurred because Davis gave the petulant Joseph Johnston too much latitude.
Like any good biographer, Cooper reveals the convergence of Davis’s private and public lives. The president was a deeply passionate man, a devoted father, and a committed husband who forged an amazing partnership with his wife Varina. The love and loyalty he expressed for his family were felt just as intensely for the Confederacy. He stayed close to the Southern people, making a number of speeches exhorting them to fight for their unique version of white liberty, a freedom he claimed was dependent upon black servitude. In contrast to previous scholarship, such as Paul D. Escott’s After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism, which portrays Davis as insensitive to civilian pleas for assistance, Cooper convincingly shows how Davis responded to substitution, hunger, desertion, and the crisis of the Twenty Negro Law, which exempted owners of 20 or more slaves from military service. Despite his best efforts, Davis could not fill empty stomachs with a message. As much as he wanted to direct the South’s scarce resources to the home front, he knew that keeping armies in the field was his first priority.
As a military strategist, Davis gets good marks from Cooper for preferring the offensive over a static defense. Robert E. Lee shared Davis’s faith in the offensive, and they made an impressive partnership in Virginia. When Lee suffered defeats at Antietam and Gettysburg, Davis weathered the political storm and stood by his man. For taking these political risks, Davis deserves credit. Cooper succeeds in overturning Steven E. Woodworth’s argument in Davis & Lee at War that the Confederate president favored the defensive by 1863, clashing with the aggressive Lee who remained committed to the offensive. No such break occurred between the two men, because Davis considered aggressiveness essential to Confederate success.
Davis also understood that battlefield victories sustained Confederate morale. But when military failures steadily increased after the fall of 1864, he blamed sagging Confederate morale on malcontents, never realizing that not all Southerners were as committed as himself. War had intensified the deep loyalties that Davis had long felt for his native South. In the end, he was so fervently devoted to the Confederacy that his consuming desire for success blinded him to the collapse of the Southern nation that he so cherished.
Peter S. Carmichael
University of North Carolina at Greensboro