Remembering President Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

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]


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Boyd Cathey
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.
  • markdouglas

    Let me help Mr Cathey with a bit of history. Apparently Cathey had no clue, whatsoever, that actions matter in history, and self serving deceptive words by men who sell children and have slave women whipped, are not always accurate,

    This will surprise Cathey, I know, but men say self serving things to cover up their vile actions. It’s happened a few times..

    ALmost as hilarious as Cathey not grasping this fact, the web page he writes this for says “telling the full story” 24 hours a day.

    So — lets see, full story, I guess you mean just repeat Davis self serving deception is the full story? Have some integrity, either TELL the full story, or get that off the logo.

    Spouting Davis words to establish facts? Really? Why boher writing anything, just put in the appropriate quote from Davis book, or letters, and get out of the way.

    But lets see how accurate Davis words are, when you CHECK the words against the actions.

    For example, Davis claimed he was heroic upon his capture, and resisted his urge to kill the first soldier than came into his camp, though he was willing to die rather than be captured, only his tender concern for the children nearby, made him not go down fighting. He would accept the humiliation of being taken prisoner, rather than risk their safety.

    Kinda makes you wanna tear up, doesn’t it

    ANd largely, thats how Davis loving “historians” have spun in.

    Let’s check that against Varina Davis letter exposing Jefferson Davis cowardice and false claims of heroism, in her 20 page letter to the Blairs, written a few days later.

    She describes Davis running away, in three layers of female clothing (she would not candidly admit one was her dress, but a “dressing gown”.. And then there is the nephews journal indicating Davis ran away dressed as a woman.

    The dress is the least important aspect –yeah, he wore a dress, but forget that, he ran away and left his wife and children to their fate, while bullets flew.

    Yeah, I know what the Davis biographies say –like Cathey, they just repeat Davis goofy false words.

    The letter by his wife show drastically different set of facts — and she is trying to spare him embarrassment by taking the blame for the garments, suggesting it was her idea, or that she put them on him. One sentence in her letter is most amazing — “I said it was my mother”.

    When the soldiers stopped Davis, she ran to him — this is all in her letter — and told the soldiers that “It’s my mother”,.

    She shows quite a different set of facts, and her account matches the Union soldiers account in all basic facts. Davis ran. Davis was dressed enough like a woman to look like a woman. Davis did not save or try to protect anyone.

    In other words, Davis claims of heroism, were not true.

    That’s in her letter.

    Davis nephew (Tyler Wood) journal confirms, and apologized for, his role in dressing Davis in female clothing and indicated Davis was running from.

    Is this something I found and no one else knows about? Hello no, its well known, part of this is in Varina’s book — as you will see –but the capture part is in her letter to the Blairs, donated to the library of Congress by the Blair children 50 years later. Varina’s biographers refer to it candidly.

    Davis biographers and admirers – no. They can’t, And they never will be able to, because of something else.

    What makes Davis’ actions more stunning cowardly —and shows the nature of the man — is in Varina’s book (and elsewhere).

    Davis told Varina — in public apparently, because many people reported it, too — to “force your assailants” to kill you, if you are about to be captured. Thats IN HER BOOK. Just like her account of him running in three layers of female garments is in her letter.

    See how this works Cathey?. If you reported on Davis capture, you’d just give Davis the microphone so to speak, quote him, as heroic, as selfless, and defending his children as stunningly brave. Un — not so much.

    Remember, Davis even tries to GET points for heroism, in his version of the capture! Typical for Davis by they way,.

    And if all THAT were not enough, Davis also told his wife to NOT let the children be captured. We know that he told her the same thing about herself – the remedy Davis specifically stated was to get yourself killed!

    . But he ALSO said do not let the children be captured. What he meant by that, we do not know – Im sticking to facts here, but in the same conversation (directive more than conversation) he told his wife to get herself killed. You figure it out.

    It takes a while to get your head around a man who tells his wife -to force yourself to be killed rather than captured, but then he runs away leaving his wife and children in danger, yet claims heroism. nd

    But let me help Mr Cathey with more substantive issues than Davis’ cowardice and false claims of heroism. Like his role in the 1855-1857 killings in Kansas to stop folks there from even speaking and writing against slavery.

    Davis, just like for his capture, has self serving and lofty BS explanation. And Cathey would just give Davis the microphone, ignore the facts, and state thats factually what happened, and Davis was right — because, after all, he said so. That is how shallow Cathey’s understanding of history is. Why not just have someone read Davis own book as valid history?

    Cathey had no clue what Davis role was in the killing in Kansas, because Cathey thinks Davis is some kind of truth God. Im sure Cathey never read Varina’s letter, Im sure Cathey never read the nephews journal, just like IM sure Cathey never read a speech by David Atchison, just before he led his men on a violent raid against Lawrence Kansas to kill and terrorize that city so they would stop speaking out against slavery, which he had made a crime, and stop publishing a newspapers against slavery, which was illegal in the bizzaro world of Jeff Davis and David Atchison.

    Cathey would have to actually READ the speech, he would have to actually pull his head out of “history” books and learn what primary sources even are.

    Atchison and Stephen A Douglas had opened up the Kansas territory to a supposed vote for or against slavery — before the territory was off limits to slavery at all. Thats the famous Kansas Nebraska Bill Does Cathey even know that much? Kinda wonder.

    But Im sure Cathey had no clue Atchison left DC quickly, after passage of Kansas Bill. Im sure Cathey has no clue Jefferson Davis named him “General of Law and Order” in Kansas.

    ANd Im sure Cathey is in blissful ignorance of what Atchison bragged about in that speech before the raid.

    Atchinson bragged– let me repeat — BRAGGED –his mission was to kill and terrorize the people in Lawrence so they would never again have speech against slavery — which was a crime, as you will see. I mean speaking and writing against slavery was a CRIME.

    To hear Jefferson Davis tell it, he and Atchison had nothing but “profound respect” for the rights of people in Kansas. As Davis would later say, he was just doing what was “Constitutionally required” to keep the peace in Kansas.

    The speech by Atchison should be read by anyone stupid enough to believe Davis about anything. While Davis was not in Kansas doing the killing, he had his boy Atchison there doing it, and bragging of it. Atchison even says, in his speech, notjust what his goal is — killing and terrorizing –but who is paying the men . Jeff Davis is, though Atchison does not use the name, he claimed “present [federal] authorities” want the war , yes war, taken to the center of the country., Atchison also reminds the men — all gathered from the South as the speech indicates — that they will be “amply paid” He also tells them they can have all the loot they get from houses.

    Atchison also mentions the flag he is riding under — a red flag for the blood that will be spilled! And a Texas flag. He brags about not having a US flag. Here a man is, under orders from Davis, to use mercenaries to invade a state and terrorize and kill — to stop the resistance, the speaking and writing, against slavery.,

    In fact, when Kansas men tried to get a convention to pass their own Constitution, Davis then DID use US troops, as opposed to mercenaries from Texas, to arrest and disperse the men., Franklin Pierce would also call those who tried to get their own Constitution passed — not the violently orchestrated Lecompton BS kinda thing.

    In the speech Atchison refers to the men he already arrested. You can get his speech from Kansas Memory, run by Kansas Historical Society. It’s not hard. Its not quite as easy as how you do things — just quote Davis. But it’s actual history.

    So take away the fancy talk — learn the truth, learn what real history is, instead of just repeating nonsense. Shame on your teachers who let you be unaware of what history even is.