Jefferson Davis was born in Christian (now Todd) County, Kentucky. He received his education at Transylvania University in Lexington and at West Point. Davis saw brief service in the Black Hawk War, but later left the service to become a cotton planter in Mississippi. The plantation, complete with slaves, was a gift from his older brother Joseph, who was a major influence in his life.
Davis represented Mississippi in Congress in 1845-46, the only electoral victory in his pre-Confederate career. He left politics in 1846 to serve in the Mexican War, fighting with distinction at Monterey and Buena Vista. He was a U.S. Senator from 1847 to 1851 and later from 1857 to 1861. Davis ran unsuccessfully for governor of Mississippi in 1851.
Davis, a Democrat, established a strong record of supporting states’ rights and the extension of slavery into the territories. He was an opponent of the Compromise of 1850.
Were it not for his later association withe Confederacy, Jefferson Davis might today be best known for his term in the federal cabinet. He was the secretary of war under Franklin Pierce from 1853 to 1857. During this time, he succeeded in upgrading the equipment used by the army, expanding it by four regiments, enlarging West Point, raising pay, and improving coastal and frontier defenses. He failed, however, to replace seniority with merit in the determination of promotions.
Following his service in the cabinet, Davis was elected to the U.S. Senate to represent Mississippi, where he quickly became a foremost spokesman for the pro-slavery interests. Not content with defending its existence in the South, Davis advocated its extension as both an economic and moral benefit to the country. He argued that the U.S. Constitution was created with a good faith understanding that slavery was legitimate, and consequently it should be possible for an American citizen to travel anywhere within the country with his property, i.e. slaves.
While not an early supporter of secession, he resigned from the Senate when Mississippi left the Union in January 1861. In February, he was appointed the provisional president of the Confederacy and was elected to a full term in November.
Recognizing the relative weakness of the Confederacy, in terms of both population and industrial capacity, Davis advocated making military preparations while avoiding any overt act that would give the North an excuse for military action against the Confederacy. He was forced by events, however, to consent to the bombardment of Fort Sumter (April 12-13, 1861), which gave Lincoln the chance to portray the South as the aggressor.
While no one ever doubted Davis’ commitment to the Confederate cause, many were critical of his leadership. His refusal to listen to opposing points of view, his dabbling in military matters and questionable personnel decisions, particularly the dismissal of Joseph E. Johnston, contrasted sharply with his rival, Abraham Lincoln.
In early 1865, Davis, still hoping for Southern independence, sought peace terms, but was not successful. As the prospects for victory dimmed, Davis left Richmond and headed south. He was apprehended by federal soldiers in Georgia in May 1865 and imprisoned at Fort Monroe. He was thought, wrongly, to be a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination and was charged with treason. His harsh confinement, which included leg shackles for a time, restored his popularity in the South. The charges were eventually dropped, and Davis was released on a $100,000 bond raised by Horace Greeley and other Northerners.
Davis’s final years were not happy ones. He had become ill in prison and never fully recovered. He worked in the insurance business a number of years, but the company failed financially. He authored a two-volume history of the Confederacy, but the work sold poorly. Davis became increasingly dependent upon the resources of friends and family.
Davis had refused to take an oath of allegiance to the United States and never regained citizenship during his lifetime; that was corrected by an act of Congress in 1978.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Jefferson Davis.
Regarding Mexican-American War
Unfortunately, the opinion has gone forth that no politician dares to be the advocate of peace when the question of war is mooted. That will be an evil hour — the sand of our republic will be nearly run — when it shall be in the power of any demagogue, or fanatic, to raise a war-clamor, and control the legislation of the country. The evils of war must fall upon the people, and with them the war-feeling should originate. We, their representatives, are but a mirror to reflect the light, and never should become a torch to fire the pile.
Speech in Congress, 1846
Regarding Slavery in America
There is a relation belonging to this species of property, unlike that of the apprentice or the hired man, which awakens whatever there is of kindness or of nobility of soul in the heart of him who owns it; this can only be alienated, obscured, or destroyed, by collecting this species of property into such masses that the owner is not personally acquainted with the individuals who compose it.
Senate speech, 1860
Do they find in the history of St. Domingo, and in the present condition of Jamaica, under the recent experiments which have been made upon the institution of slavery in the liberation of the blacks, before God, in his wisdom, designed it should be done — do they there find anything to stimulate them to future exertion in the cause of abolition ? Or should they not find there satisfactory evidence that their past course was founded in error?
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