WASHINGTON, June 16, 2014 — Back in early June of this year an anniversary came and passed, almost unnoticed by most pundits and the media. June 3 was the two-hundred and sixth anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis. Born in Kentucky in 1808, actually not far from the birthplace of his future nemesis, Abraham Lincoln, Davis in another time might have risen to become in his own right a celebrated president of the United States. As it was, it was his thankless duty to captain the forlorn Confederacy through four years of tragic and bloody war which saw the end not only of the society and culture he loved, but, in effect, the practical end of the old constitutional republic originally set up by the Founders.
From a good family and with advantages that augured well for future prominence, Davis at an early age demonstrated both leadership potential and intelligence.
Like many other well-bred Southern boys of the period, he received a superb classical education. In 1815 Davis entered the Catholic school of Saint Thomas at St. Rose Priory, a school operated by the Dominican Order in Washington County, Kentucky. At the time, he was the only Protestant student (he was an Episcopalian) at the school. He would carry a strong affection for the Catholic Church throughout his life. His famous correspondence with Pope Pius IX, an inveterate foe of liberalism in any form and who was pro-Confederate, is famous. After the war, while Davis was a prisoner in Fortress Monroe, Virginia, the Blessed Pius IX wove a cross of real thorns with his own hands and sent it to Davis (the Crown is now in the Confederate Museum in New Orleans). In their exchanges the pope always addressed Davis formally as a head of state, implicitly recognizing him and the Confederacy de jure.
A West Point graduate, Davis distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War as a colonel of the Mississippi Rifles volunteer regiment, and as United States Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Both before and after his time in the Pierce administration, he served as a US Senator from Mississippi. As Senator, he argued against secession but believed each state had an unquestionable and constitutional right to secede from the voluntary Union of the Founders, just as they had seceded from England seeking political liberty. Davis resigned from the Senate in January 1861 after receiving word that his State of Mississippi had voted to leave the Union. Davis explained his actions saying:
“[T]o me the sovereignty of the State was paramount to the sovereignty of the Union. And I held my seat in the Senate until Mississippi seceded and called upon me to follow and defend her. Then I sorrowfully resigned the position in which my State had placed me and in which I could no longer represent her, and accepted the new work. I was on my way to Montgomery when I received, much to my regret, the message that I had been elected provisional President of the Confederate States of America.”
Davis was a patriotic American who tried to save the Founders’ republic from Northern revolutionaries, and who reluctantly departed the Union with the old constitution intact to form a “more perfect Union.” He contended that he would rather be out of the Union with the Constitution than to be in the Union without the Constitution. The Southern States, he stated, seceded in order to save the Constitution of the Founders. Davis remarked in July 1864:
“I tried in all my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for 12 years, I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind; it would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came, and now it must go on till the last man of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize the musket and fight our battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self-government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence, and that, or extermination, we will have . . . Slavery never was an essential element. It was the only means of bringing other conflicting elements to an earlier culmination. It fired the musket which was already capped and loaded. There are essential differences between the North and the South that will, however this war may end, make them two nations.”
Reminded during the war of the destruction of his Mississippi plantations by occupying Northern troops, he dismissed it as the cost of war, yet confessed that he pitied his poor Negroes who had been driven off by those troops and abandoned to misery or ruin. He resisted arming the slaves as they were not trained as soldiers, were needed to raise food for the armies in the field, and he would not use them as mercenaries and cannon-fodder as Lincoln had done to avoid conscripting unwilling white Northerners.
At the end of the War, when a fellow traveler remarked that the cause of the Confederates was lost, Davis replied: “It appears so. But the principle for which we contended is bound to reassert itself, though it may be at another time and in another form.”
In 1881, Davis was critical of the Gilded Age corruption and political ignorance of the United States Constitution and remarked: “Of what value then are paper constitutions and oaths binding officers to their preservation, if there is not intelligence enough in the people to discern the violations; and virtue enough to resist the violators?”
President Davis was never indicted for treason. He demanded a fair trial in order to argue the constitutionality of the South’s actions in 1860-1861. This was denied by his Jacobin tormenters, and the reason was revealed by Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, in 1867. Chase admitted that:
“If you bring these leaders to trial, it will condemn the North, for by the Constitution, secession is not a rebellion. His [Jefferson Davis] capture was a mistake. His trial will be a greater one. We cannot convict him of treason.” [as quoted by Herman S. Frey, in Jefferson Davis, Frey Enterprises, 1977, pp. 69-72]
President Davis died on December 6, 1889. In 1893 his body was transported by funeral train to Richmond where he was interred at Hollywood Cemetery. At each stop thousands of mourners, white and black, paid respects. In Raleigh historic photographs show a mammoth procession down Fayetteville Street. My grandfather (on my mother’s side), then a sixteen year old apprentice, stood along the street paying respects to Davis, and he would, sixty-five years later, recount that moving and indelible experience to me, his young grandson. Our history–our traditions—do not really die. Sometimes they just remain dormant, to be re-awakened by new generations that re-discover them and the supreme importance that they have played, and can continue to play, in our lives, if we let them.
Was it not the great poet, Robert Lee Frost, born of a pro-Confederate family, who stated in his poem, “The Black Cottage”:
For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favor.
Let us listen to the poet—and recall the life and service of the noble Jefferson Davis.
[With thanks to my friend, Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute of Wilmington, NC, for his contribution to this essay]