Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM American National Biography Online. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in American National Biography Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Davis, Jeffersonfree

(03 June 1808?–06 December 1889)
  • Paul D. Escott

Jefferson Davis.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92005).

Davis, Jefferson (03 June 1808?–06 December 1889), president of the Confederate States of America and U.S. senator, was born in Christian (later Todd) County, Kentucky, the tenth and last child of Samuel Emory Davis and Jane Cook, farmers. The year of his birth is uncertain; for many years Davis regarded 1807 as correct, but he later settled upon 1808.

Samuel Davis, a frontier farmer, owned a few slaves but was not wealthy. Seeking better lands in the Southwest, he moved his family to the Louisiana Territory when Jefferson was two or three and then to Woodville, Mississippi. Apparently Samuel Davis valued education, because he sent his youngest son at age eight to St. Thomas College, a Dominican school in Springfield, Kentucky. After two years there Jefferson returned to Mississippi and attended local academies. In 1823 he went to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he studied for a year.

Samuel Davis, an emotionally undemonstrative man, died in 1824. At this point, Jefferson’s eldest brother, Joseph Emory Davis, became a major influence on his life. After practicing law in Natchez, Mississippi, Joseph had established a flourishing plantation on bottomland next to the Mississippi River in Warren County, Mississippi. He arranged an appointment to West Point for his youngest brother, who studied there from 1824 to 1828.

At West Point Davis’s academic record was respectable but undistinguished; he graduated twenty-third in a class of thirty-three. More notable was his high-spirited behavior. He broke many regulations, accumulated numerous demerits, and faced a court-martial in the summer following his plebe year for visiting an off-limits tavern. Proud and unwilling to admit error, Davis based his defense at the court-martial on hair-splitting and technicalities and barely avoided dismissal. Strong-willed, he was as yet undisciplined, except in a ramrod-straight bearing that he adopted and maintained for the rest of his life.

After graduation, Davis served six and a half years as a lieutenant in the infantry, stationed in the West. He saw little or no action. He even missed most of the Black Hawk War in 1832, since he was on furlough when this brief conflict with the Sauk Indians broke out. Promotion came slowly in the small peacetime army, and soon Davis was looking for an alternate occupation. In 1833 he fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor—the commandant at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin, where Davis was then stationed—who forbade a marriage for at least two years because he did not want his daughter to marry a military man. In 1835 the quick-tempered and contentious Davis faced a court-martial for insubordination after he failed to turn out on a rainy morning and adopted a haughty manner with a superior officer. The military court found Davis guilty of the specified behavior but refused to deem it a military offense. Dissatisfied with this verdict and with the army, Davis decided to resign. Convincing “Knoxie” Taylor that a summer in Mississippi would not be unhealthy, he married her on 17 June 1835.

Within three months his bride was dead, a victim of either malaria or yellow fever. Davis himself fell gravely ill also. Although he recovered physically, he had to face simultaneously a deep personal loss, the end of his military career, and probably feelings of guilt about Sarah’s death that his proud and self-conscious nature would not allow him to admit. For several years he devoted himself to farming on his brother’s plantations in Mississippi. Although both men regarded “Brierfield” as Jefferson Davis’s plantation, Joseph Davis retained legal title to the land and continued to act in a fatherly role. He gave his younger brother a loan to buy slaves and advice on slave management. The brothers permitted their slaves a degree of responsibility and self-regulation that was unusual for the time. Reading widely and discussing public affairs with Joseph, Jefferson Davis formed strong states’ rights, Democratic principles and developed ambitions for public office. He also cultivated a new public demeanor. Formal, serious, and cold in manner, he used formidable self-control to restrain outbursts of anger and self-righteousness.

In 1843 he ran, unsuccessfully, for the state legislature. The next year he campaigned extensively for the Democratic party while he courted Varina Howell (Varina Howell Davis), an intelligent woman from Natchez who was half his age. Initially she was not pleased with Davis’s manner of “taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion,” but he won her over. They were married in 1845, and in the same year Davis won election to Congress. The campaign was an exhausting one, during which he suffered the first of many viral infections of his left eye. These eventually caused blindness and recurrent facial pain, which by the mid-1850s occasionally incapacitated him. But now his political star was rising. Enamored of John C. Calhoun, Davis fought for strict states’ rights positions but also aggressively favored territorial expansion.

After the war with Mexico began, he accepted an appointment, over Varina’s objections, as colonel of the First Regiment of Mississippi Volunteers and hurried to Mexico. Davis’s unit played a prominent role in the capture of Monterrey and then, in February 1847, took the lead in repelling an attack by Santa Anna at the battle of Buena Vista. Davis was wounded in the right foot during the latter engagement, but his exploits made him a military hero in Mississippi. For years to come he answered inquiries about the “V” formation in which his men met the Mexican cavalry charge, and he devoted much time and ink to countering any slight directed toward the valor of Mississippi’s troops. His vigorous defense of his fellow Mississippians pleased the state’s leaders, and in August 1847 he accepted appointment to the U.S. Senate.

Temporarily hobbled by crutches, but aggressive and combative, in Washington Davis was soon involved in the first of a half-dozen near duels that marked his political career, this one with Mississippi’s other senator, Henry S. Foote. On the Senate floor Davis was outspoken and strongly expansionist. He favored annexing large amounts of Mexican territory and declared that the Gulf of Mexico belonged to the United States. He also began to speak in defense of slavery and southern interests in the territories. His harsh criticism of abolitionists and his insistent, energetic defense of what he viewed as southern rights soon made him a rising spokesman for his native region.

Throughout the 1850s Davis was determined and consistent in his stand on the territories. Following Calhoun’s compact theory, Davis asserted that the territories belonged to all the states and that no decision to exclude slavery could be made before a territory became a state and assumed sovereign power. The South must be allowed “an experiment,” an opportunity to see if slavery was suited to new territories. Although Davis granted that some territories might evolve into free states, he condemned any interference with southerners’ right to take slavery into new lands and try to establish it there. On 18 July 1850 he further declared, “We claim that the Federal Government shall provide the means of enforcing our constitutional rights … within those Territories.” His position did not change during the decade, although his expectation that slavery would be useful in mining or irrigated agriculture in the Southwest rapidly faded.

Davis’s fierce opposition to the Compromise of 1850 earned him a reputation as a leading southern radical. He objected to the admission of California as a free state, declaring that southern rights had been denied since California never went through a territorial stage. Putting no trust in popular sovereignty, Davis argued that a real compromise would extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean, “with the specific recognition of the right to hold slaves in the territory below that line.” Mississippi’s leaders favored southern protest through the Nashville Convention and called a state convention to consider resistance. By the time this convention met in 1850, however, it was clear that the South as a whole was ready to accept the compromise. To aid the Democratic party in an uphill contest in Mississippi in 1851, Davis resigned his Senate seat and ran for governor. His personal popularity made the contest close, but he lost and considered leaving politics.

In little more than a year, however, Davis returned to public life as secretary of war in the administration of Franklin Pierce. He proved a hardworking and competent secretary who stressed promotions on merit, better training, and expansions of the army’s arsenals, fortifications, and size. Although he permitted a protracted and unseemly quarrel with General Winfield Scott to mar his record, he strengthened the army technologically by converting flintlock muskets to rifles and supporting experiments with breech-loading rifles and improved cannons. On grounds of national security he advocated a transcontinental railroad and was delighted when surveys suggested that a southern route was most feasible. In the administration generally Davis was an influential prosouthern voice. He shared the rest of the cabinet’s interest in acquiring Cuba and arranged the meeting at which Stephen Douglas secured Pierce’s support for the Kansas-Nebraska bill.

When Davis reentered the Senate in 1857, he resumed his advocacy of southern rights but showed a growing tendency to defend the South within the nation and through the Democratic party. He feared that abolitionists were trying to encircle the South and cut off slavery’s expansion in order to begin its destruction. But as other southerners became more radical in their views, Davis sought solutions within the Union. His genuine feeling for the Union emerged most clearly in the summer of 1858 when he visited New England for reasons of health. His reception on this tour convinced him that there were many “true State Rights Democrats” in the North.

He did not, however, number Stephen Douglas among them. Although Davis hoped that a triumphant Democratic party would protect the South in the Union, he and other southerners were ready, after the Dred Scott decision, to insist upon their territorial rights. Douglas’s views on popular sovereignty were unacceptable. In order to block Douglas from the Democratic presidential nomination, Davis in 1860 offered his resolutions on the “relations of states,” which asserted that the federal government should protect southern rights in the territories. He did not expect Congress to pass a slave code, but his action focused attention on the issue and on Douglas.

That fall Davis hoped that the Democratic party might unite behind a candidate even if it could not agree on a platform. When these hopes failed, he supported John C. Breckinridge, but when election returns showed that Abraham Lincoln had won, Davis was not among those who favored immediate secession. Long after most of Mississippi’s leaders were ready to secede, Davis supported cooperation by southern states. As a member of the Senate’s Committee of Thirteen he offered to support the Crittenden Compromise if Republicans would do likewise. This moderation in the secession crisis helped make Davis an attractive choice for president of the Confederate States once the dissolution of the Union became a reality. His stands for southern rights were well known, but he did not alarm the Upper South. Davis accepted his election by the Montgomery convention with reluctance, for he would have preferred to serve the South as a general in command of Mississippi’s troops.

To his formidable tasks as Confederate president Davis brought total dedication and a clear focus on the goal of independence. As chief executive Davis proved to be intelligent, adaptable, not bound by inappropriate tradition, determined, and persistent. In the pursuit of independence he helped bring remarkable changes to the South and marshaled its limited resources rather effectively against a more powerful opponent. Despite continuing health problems and the accidental death of his son Joseph, he worked exceedingly long hours. Keeping his contentious nature largely in check, he endured criticism that would have enraged almost anyone. Davis lacked some important skills, such as the ability to communicate with and inspire ordinary citizens, and his loyalty to some appointees was misplaced. But his performance during the war seems superior to that of any other prominent southern politician.

Davis built a powerful central government. He saw himself as a strict constructionist but never doubted that the Confederate Constitution gave him war powers that were necessary in the crisis. From the first he insisted that state troops come under the central government’s control, and when four state governors sought the return of state-owned arms he declared in disgust that “if such was to be the course of the States … we had better make terms as soon as we could.” Despite enormous local pressures, Davis insisted that “the idea of retaining in each State its own troops for its own defense” was a “fatal error… . Our safety—our very existence—depends on the complete blending of the military strength of all the States into one united body, to be used anywhere and everywhere as the exigencies of the contest may require.”

After only one year of war he sought and obtained a power unprecedented in American history: conscription. The idea of compelling men to fight in the armies was anathema to some southerners and generated fierce protests from political leaders such as Governor Joseph Emerson Brown of Georgia. But Davis was convinced that the Confederacy could not survive without conscription, for, as Secretary of War James Seddon later admitted, “the spirit of volunteering had died out.” Davis answered Brown’s protests unflinchingly and argued for a Hamiltonian interpretation of the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause. In another restriction of personal liberties Davis requested and obtained the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus on repeated occasions to deal with disloyalty in threatened areas. Although he scrupulously refrained from acting without congressional authority, he urged what he believed necessary even in the face of criticism.

Seeing that it was essential to control not only the South’s manpower, but also its economy, Davis obtained through legislation extensive power over railroads and shipping. By these means he tried to ensure that foreign trade and the transportation system would serve the country’s needs. Arguing that the Confederacy must become independent economically, Davis encouraged industries and used the government’s power over exemptions and details to keep factories running. Thousands of government agents reached deep into local communities to collect food as tax-in-kind or procure a variety of valuable materials through impressment. The government set up salt works and salt mines and even seized the metal coils from distilleries to obtain copper. Eventually Davis’s administration employed over 70,000 civilians and was larger, in proportion to population, than the U.S. government.

Davis’s military training and his desire to command revealed themselves in hours of labor over the details of military planning and support. Davis did not, however, meddle with commanders in the field any more than Abraham Lincoln, who has seldom received the criticism leveled at Davis. His overall strategy of an “offensive defensive” was sound, given the South’s resources and the political and social reality that the Confederacy had to defend its territory. He fully understood the importance of concentrating the South’s forces at the points of greatest threat, rather than spreading them out in a perimeter defense, and he incessantly badgered reluctant generals and state leaders to transfer troops. His appointments, particularly in the western theater, were unwise and his confidence in some commanders a mistake in judgment. In retrospect it is clear that too little attention was given early in the war to the enormous western theater, but Davis’s overall approach to departments was sensible.

Given its meager resources, the Confederacy bore up surprisingly well on the battlefield. Internal political and social problems, however, damaged morale and weakened the armies long before military defeat appeared inevitable. Davis faced serious discontent from both extremes of the white class system. To many planters the Confederacy represented a means of sheltering their lives from the changes threatened by the “Black Republicans.” When the war brought great change, and the Confederate government itself impressed slaves, taxed crops, and destroyed cotton near enemy lines, planters reacted with surprise and outrage. They and their political allies who fulminated about states’ rights may have been sincere, but they also were shortsighted and self-serving. Davis patiently answered criticisms and allowed legal challenges to his policies to be settled in state courts, which supported the Confederacy, but there was nothing he could do to remove planter discontent.

The common people of the Confederacy grew disaffected not for ideological reasons, but because their conditions of life became intolerable. Often they favored stronger government action if it would alleviate suffering. Impoverished soldiers’ families also resented the privileges enjoyed by planters, particularly those related to the draft, such as the exemption of overseers and the ability of those with means to hire a substitute. The combination of poverty and resentment over a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” nourished a growing stream of desertions from the Confederate ranks. To these problems Davis was largely insensitive. He allowed inequitable policies to become law, and later, when more perceptive officials such as Commissioner of Taxes Thompson Allen or Secretary of War James Seddon urged measures to alleviate distress, he concluded that resources were too limited to allow action. His neglect of the common people’s suffering led directly to military weakness.

Davis’s style of leadership also hampered his ability to counter problems of morale. Immersing himself in details of administration in Richmond, he chose to endure criticism rather than attempt to lead and inspire public opinion. He lacked Lincoln’s ability to speak to the fears and hopes of ordinary people, and his occasional, hurried tours into the southern heartland accomplished little. Formidable though internal problems were, Davis’s handling of them did not match his management of military affairs.

The Confederate president’s flexibility on slavery and commitment to independence emerged clearly late in the war, when he proposed arming and freeing the South’s slaves. It is likely that Davis considered this possibility earlier, but he had hoped to influence the 1864 northern elections and could not afford a well-publicized, divisive debate within the South. After Lincoln’s reelection, however, he straightforwardly argued that slavery was less important than independence and that slaves would fight and deserved freedom as a reward. These proposals aroused enormous opposition, but as was usually the case, Davis won Congress’s approval for most of his plan.

After the Civil War Davis was imprisoned for two years at Fortress Monroe in Hampton Roads. Despite damage to his health, he survived and carried himself through the postwar years as a defeated but unrepentant Confederate. He published two turgid volumes, collectively entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which repeated the obsolete compact theory of government and defended the South’s right to secede. He headed a short-lived insurance company and a similarly unsuccessful British trading venture. With Varina he found some moments of rest and peace, but in 1872 and 1878 the last two of their four sons died. Only Varina and two daughters survived when Davis succumbed to pneumonia in New Orleans.


An old but still useful edition of Davis’s papers is Dunbar Rowland, ed., Jefferson Davis: Constitutionalist; His Letters, Papers, and Speeches (10 vols., 1923). A superior edition, The Papers of Jefferson Davis (1971– ), is being published under the successive editorship of Haskell M. Monroe, Jr., James T. McIntosh, and Lynda L. Crist. Additional useful documents may be found in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (128 vols., 1880–1901). The best biographical study is William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (1991). Other biographies are Hudson Strode, Jefferson Davis (3 vols., 1955–1964), and Clement Eaton, Jefferson Davis (1977). See also Emory M. Thomas, The Confederate Nation, 1861–1865 (1979), and Paul D. Escott, After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism (1978).