Historiographical Analysis of Jefferson Davis Thesis

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1). While modern observers may relate the role played in the history of the United States only on his presidency of the Confederate states, in reality, a more balanced view of the man would also include the fact that Davis had a significant role in the development of the early nation and his contributions were responsible for increasing both the size and the character of the country. In this regard, Cooper emphasizes that, "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 19th century, he witnessed and participated in epochal transformation of the United States from a fledgling country to a strong nation spanning the continent" (2003, p. 1).

As noted above, as a graduate of West Point, Davis served as a junior officer in the U.S. Army in the southwestern United States and later, as a colonel, fought in the Mexican War in 1848 which resulted in the Mexican Cession, a massive addition to the United States of some 500,000 square miles including California and the modern southwest (Cooper, 2003). Cooper also notes that, "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" (p. 2).

Notwithstanding these accomplishments and contributions, Brick-Turin (2004) suggests that Davis was not exactly the best man for the job: "The ill-fated nation chose the wrong man to lead the cause. Although Davis was a respected political leader before the war, he was a weak administrator, ineffective in working with his compatriots, and more desirous of a military role than that of chief executive" (p. 586). In his foreword to Davis's book, the Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Miers (1971) paints Davis in a bit more favorable terms: "At the time of Davis's apprehension, the North still grieved for Abraham Lincoln struck down by an assassin's bullet a month before; but as time went on, that suffering could not excuse the North's shameful behavior toward its old foe" (p. 11).

While Davis's critics were of a virtual consensus that he should be executed for his role in the Civil War, Miers maintains that the punishment meted out to Davis was too severe but that the former president accepted his fate stoically: "Even the Confederate leader's confinement in a dank casemate of Fortress Monroe might have been justified as an act of military expediency; but when Davis manacled and made to endure the humiliations of a common felon of the Dark Ages, a wave of revulsion swept the civilized world" (1971, pp. 11-12). To his credit, Davis accepted his fate with dignity and maintained a stiff upper lip in the face of his degradation while lamenting the impact that the war had on the innocents involved. In this regard, Miers advises, "With splendid dignity, Jefferson Davis withstood the abuses heaped upon him and in the memoirs that follows he dismisses the months of degradation briefly, paying tribute to the 'bitter tears . . .
shed by the gentle" (1971, p. 12).

In June 1867, General Robert E. Lee, who came out of the war smelling like a rose compared to Davis (except for the loss of his home to Arlington National Cemetery), wrote to his former commander-in-chief to commensurate with his plight at remaining a prisoner and noted not everyone was of the same mind concerning the need to punish and even execute Davis, and he still had a good number of friends and supporters who regretted his imprisonment. In this regard, Lee wrote, "You can conceive better than I can express the misery which your friends have suffered from your long imprisonment and the other afflictions incident thereto. To no one has this been more painful than to me and the impossibility of affording relief has added to my distress" (quoted by Miers, 1971 at p. 13). In reality, this affection for Davis is understandable because Lee owed Davis a great deal since the former president had assisted Lee during his early career and stood by him throughout the war notwithstanding the mounting Confederate casualties that were involved, almost all of the blame for which would ultimately fall to the defeated commander-in-chief.


The research showed that Jefferson Davis graduated from the United States Military Academy and went on to contribute to the development of the early United States in a number of meaningful ways. By the time 1861 rolled around, though, Davis was thrust into a position of political leadership that he was ill-suited for, but which he believed he was obligated to fulfill to the best of his ability. The research also showed that Davis was easy enough to dislike based on the characterizations presented by several biographers who insist he was an arrogant and pretentious individual who believed he was better than others. In truth, though, Davis had a great deal of personal accomplishments and if the Civil War had never happened, he would likely have gone down in history as one of the great men of the 19th century. As things turned out though, hundreds of thousands of American lives were sacrificed at the altar of secession and someone had to be the scapegoat and Davis was the natural outlet for the hostility on both sides. This hostility was evident in the historical record even into modern times, but there is an increasing tendency on the part of those who write about Davis today to assume a more balanced view of the man than was found in earlier accounts.


Brick-Turin, a.S. (2004). Jefferson Davis, Confederate president. The Historian, 66(3), 585-

Cooper, W.J. (2003). Jefferson Davis: The essential writings. New York: The Modern Library.

Davis, J. (1881, 1971 reprint). The rise and fall of the Confederate government. New York: Da

Capo Press.

Dirck, B.R. (2002). Posterity's blush: Civil liberties, property rights, and property confiscation in the Confederacy. Civil War History, 48(3), 237-238.

Eckenrode, H.J. (1923). Jefferson Davis: President of the South. New York: Macmillan.

McElroy, R. (1937). Jefferson Davis: The.....

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