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Chief Johnny Reb

JEFFERSON DAVIS, AMERICAN A Biography By William J. Cooper Jr.; Alfred A. Knopf: 762 pp., $35

November 19, 2000|ERIC FONER | Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of "The Story of American Freedom."

Of the myriad explanations for the Northern victory in the Civil War, perhaps the most arresting was proposed 40 years ago by the historian David Potter. If the Union and the Confederacy had exchanged presidents, he wrote, the South might well have emerged victorious. Potter's aim was to direct attention from the battlefield to the political arena, where wars are often won and lost. If one considers success inevitable for the side with the greater population and material resources, as the North did (a position hardly tenable since Vietnam), then presidential leadership makes little difference. If, as many scholars believe, the South had a reasonable chance of winning, one must find explanations for its failure. Blame often falls on the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis.

Davis has been the subject of more than a dozen biographies, few of them laudatory. His historical reputation can never escape the burden of Confederate defeat or the shadow of his great antagonist, Abraham Lincoln. During the war, many Southerners denounced him as a tyrant or as a weakling. Afterward, he never achieved the saintly stature accorded to his general, Robert E. Lee. His most recent biographer, William C. Davis, described the Confederate president as "cold, aloof, obstinate, petty, enigmatic, vindictive, and bitter"--and this in a book whose author said he hoped to upgrade Jefferson Davis' reputation! As the adage goes, to be a real Southerner, one has to have a granddaddy who fought with Stonewall Jackson and to hate Jefferson Davis.

William J. Cooper, the author of several well-regarded works on 19th-century Southern history, has combined assiduous archival research with a command of the vast secondary literature on the Old South and Civil War to produce "Jefferson Davis, American," a generous although not uncritical study of the man. "Jefferson Davis, American" is biography on a grand scale, the most comprehensive treatment of Davis and his times yet to appear. Although scholars will find little that is strikingly new, readers interested in the Civil War era will surely enjoy Cooper's well-written and up-to-date treatment of the South's enigmatic president.

Born in 1808, within eight months and 100 miles of Abraham Lincoln, Davis grew up in a Kentucky farm family that owned a few slaves but never achieved more than modest wealth. After his father's death, Jefferson's brother Joseph, 24 years his senior and a cotton planter in Mississippi, became a surrogate paternal figure, arranging for him to attend West Point. Once Jefferson had served a stint in the army, Joseph settled him on Brierfield plantation at Davis Bend, a peninsula formed by the tortuous course of the Mississippi River.

Although Cooper says relatively little about Davis as a slaveholder, the information he does offer is indeed fascinating: By the 1850s, Davis owned more than 100 slaves and their labor in the rich cotton fields of the Mississippi Valley made him an exceptionally wealthy man. At a time when the annual per capita income of white Mississippians was $124, Davis took in about $35,000 per year. Davis seems to have been a humane owner who tried to keep black families intact. While holding office in Washington, he left his slave James Pemberton, who had accompanied him during his military career as a body servant, in charge of the labor force. But life for Davis' slaves was rather harsh, and very few of them lived past age 40. Cooper insists there is no evidence to support Davis' wife's later claim that slaves at Davis Bend administered justice themselves through a slave jury, which is often cited as an example of Davis' leniency toward his slaves. Contrary to legend, Cooper concludes, Brierfield was not a "plantation paradise."

Davis entered public life as a Democrat in the 1840s. His heroic conduct in the Mexican War, when his regiment helped turn the tide of battle at Buena Vista, made him a national figure. He soon came to dominate the public life of Mississippi, then served in Franklin Pierce's Cabinet and the Senate in Washington. Davis quickly emerged as a pro-slavery extremist, favoring the institution's unrestricted westward expansion, adamantly opposing the Compromise of 1850 and in general echoing the positions of his ideological mentor, John C. Calhoun.

Davis' speeches were devoted to states' rights, the legitimacy of slavery and the racial inferiority of blacks. He portrayed slavery as a benevolent system in which laborers fared better than in the capitalist economy of the North. Slavery, for him, was the foundation of Southern life and of true freedom (for whites). He criticized only one element of the institution, slave trading, even though he made purchases from slave dealers.

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