Jefferson Davis is one of the most complex and controversial figures in American political history (and the man whom Oscar Wilde wanted to meet more than anyone when he made his tour of the United States). Elected president of the Confederacy and later accused of participating in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he is a source of ongoing dissension between northerners and southerners. This volume, the first of its kind, is a selected collection of his writings culled in large part from the authoritative Papers of Jefferson Davis, a multivolume edition of his letters and speeches published by the Louisiana State University Press, and includes thirteen documents from manuscript collections and one privately held document that have never before appeared in a modern scholarly edition. From letters as a college student to his sister, to major speeches on the Constitution, slavery, and sectional issues, to his farewell to the U.S. Senate, to his inaugural address as Confederate president, to letters from prison to his wife, these selected pieces present the many faces of the enigmatic Jefferson Davis.
As William J. Cooper, Jr., writes in his Introduction, “Davis’s notability does not come solely from his crucial role in the Civil War. Born on the Kentucky frontier in the first decade of the nineteenth century, he witnessed and participated in the epochal transformation of the United States from a fledgling country to a strong nation spanning the continent. In his earliest years his father moved farther south and west to Mississippi. As a young army officer just out of West Point, he served on the northwestern and southwestern frontiers in an army whose chief mission was to protect settlers surging westward. Then, in 1846 and 1847, as colonel of the First Mississippi Regiment, he fought in the Mexican War, which resulted in 1848 in the Mexican Cession, a massive addition to the United States of some 500,000 square miles, including California and the modern Southwest. As secretary of war and U.S. senator in the 1850s, he advocated government support for the building of a transcontinental railroad that he believed essential to bind the nation from ocean to ocean.”
The Confederacy may have lost the Civil War, but its self-justifications remained influential for generations afterward, and this useful collection of writings by its leader and spokesman sums up its worldview. Cooper (Jefferson Davis, American) gathers over 200 pieces from Davis's long career as a planter, soldier, politician and Confederate President, including letters to family and friends, addresses to the U. S. and Confederate Congresses, military communications from the Mexican and Civil Wars and Davis's unrepentant post-war elegies for the Lost Cause of states' rights. The prolix, rambling Davis is not a great rhetorician, but the well-chosen assortment of writings illuminates consistent themes in pro-slavery apologetics. Davis paints slavery as a benevolent paternalism that spreads Christianity, stimulates the economy and lowers the price of cotton goods; most importantly, it ensures the dignity and equality of whites by reserving menial positions to blacks. His Civil War communiques harp on Yankee barbarism and the South's desperate shortages of manpower and supplies; towards the end, with Southern armies melting away, he calls for Southern women to urge men to fight and shun those who didn't. Davis even made plans to recruit slaves to the army by offering them freedom, thus broaching the very social revolution he had spent his life trying to forestall. Unfortunately, Cooper provides no explanatory notes except for those that identify people mentioned in the text, so some documents, especially those about family matters, remain opaque. But patient readers will be rewarded with an eye-opening look at the debacle and reconstruction of Confederate ideology.