Monday, May 10, 2010

Jefferson Davis

An American President 
By: Jonathan Harris

Around midnight this morning I finished watching an almost four hour biography on the life of Jefferson Davis, the first and last president of the Confederacy. The documentary Jefferson Davis: An American President stands apart from the usual snide insults and cheap falsities that are attributed to the man behind the Southern nation. Drawing on the knowledge of top Davis scholars, the embodiment of the Confederacy is presented in a fair-minded way highlighting the facts and not the myths. Davis was of course borne in Kentucky but spent most of his life growing up in Mississippi. A statue of Davis in the state capitol of Kentucky stands in the background giving prominence to the central figure of the room Abraham Lincoln, another son of Kentucky. There are demands today to strip the less significant statue of Davis from the capitol grounds on the idea that the man was a traitor and racist. The documentary dispels much of these unfair claims by exposing the times in which Davis lived, and the principles on which he stood.

Davis on Slavery

Yes, Davis did own slaves, and yes he fought in Congress for the right of slave-owners to take their slaves with them to the territories of the United States- however his reasons for participating in both activities is rarely given a look, and all other actions made by him are rarely given any time at all in modern classrooms. Davis is the one pinned with slavery and sedition while folks like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson generally get more respectable treatment, however all three had similar if not identical principles when it came to government and even the question of slavery. Davis's slaves were treated extremely well as the documentary shows. One story which stands out in my mind is the account of his top slave James Pemberton, who was in charge of managing the others in their work capacities. Davis offered Pemberton freedom at one point which Pemberton quickly turned down claiming he'd rather be the slave of Davis indefinitely. Pemberton was a loyal friend to both Davis and his wives. Another interesting story that gives a glimpse into the life of Davis's slaves is an incident that occurred after Davis was released from prison after the war. Having nothing and nowhere to go, one of his former slaves who was living in the North a freeman gave Davis a sizable amount of money simply in return for his kind treatment. One of the photos of Davis presented in the documentary shows him sitting in a Baptist church surrounded by blacks with a black man preaching at the pulpit. The personal view of the president of the Confederacy was that slavery had many evils associated with it but overall it was good for the Africans to come to the new world out of their paganism and be exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He valued learning so much he educated his slaves and made it his personal goal to see them function in an adult capacity. Like most men at the time Davis believed that blacks were inferior, mostly due to cultural inadequacies, and he treated them as a loving father would treat his children. To him slavery was the stepping stone for the negro to become civilized. His views must be viewed in the historical context- in which he would have personally been seen as an extremely sympathetic man to the plight of slaves. There is no indication he ever sold a slave, and it was his constitution that allowed more possibilities for the peaceful freeing of all slaves (The Confederate Constitution protected slavery as an institution but allowed for the states to dissolve of it in their own ways and totally made illegal the slave trade. In contrast the U.S. constitution protected slavery and made it federally legal). His objection to disallowing slave-masters from going to the territories with their slaves stemmed from his strict-constructional view of the Constitution entirely. The 5th amendment could not be regarded as unimportant in his mind, and according to the logic of him and his fellow Southerners, if one section of the Constitution was ignored what was to keep the whole thing from being ignored? We've reaped the consequences of his loose-constructionist political rivals today.

Jefferson Davis: An American PresidentOn Secession

The tariff was another constitutional issue negatively impacting the South that Jefferson fought over, and while he did believe state's had the right to secede, as many both North and South did at the time, he did not want secession to take place. He tried everything to keep the Union together helping engineering the Crittenden Compromise which Lincoln refused to hear, writing a personal letter to Lincoln which was never replied to, and sending delegations to make treaties with the United States which were never heard. He had a hard time even seeing the U.S. flag knowing it was the flag he was still loyal to (the "Old Union" as he would always call it), the flag he got wounded under in Mexico, the flag he had fought for. It was the deaf ears of Lincoln and the Republican party that eventually caused him to rise to his nation's calling leaving the union. I would recommend for everyone to read his farewell address which outlines the peaceful relationship he cherished and would have liked to see continue as two separate peoples.

His Contributions and Imprisonment

Many folks don't realize Jefferson Davis was the man mostly responsible for many things that affect our government today apart from the Confederacy. The Smithsonian Institution was sponsored by Davis as he valued learning very much, and the renovations that occurred at the Capitol building (i.e. the statue on the top, the gold leaf interior, the extensions) were his doing as Secretary of War. While serving in this position he also brought the United States armed forces into the modern age- a contribution he would later regret in a way, since he was the engineer in his own defeat. His book The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government is a call to constitutional government in the way our Founder's wanted it and would have served as the reasoning for his defense in court if he had been allowed to be tried. After he was caught by Federal troops in Georgia, Davis spent time in prison waiting to go to court. Of course, if he would have been acquitted the Confederacy would have been seen to be constitutionally in the right, and if he had been sentenced he would have become a martyr. Many Northeastern prominent abolitionists (who knew the ramifications) offered to pay his bail, which he refused to do. Living in a prison in which a guard stood by him at all times watching his every move, Davis had little privacy, but he strongly believed he was right to continue this arrangement indefinitely (despite many health illnesses from reoccurring malaria and war wounds as well) as long as there was still hope for the South. Davis wanted to continue fighting even after Lee had surrendered. He was a man of principle unlike his competitor up North who was a man of practicality. The trial started and Davis was quickly becoming the martyr for freedom in the world. European newspapers denounced the injustice being done to him, and the Pope even sent him a crown of thorns. Andrew Johnston and Radical Republicans decided it was better to just let Davis go without a trial which is what they did.

After the War

Having already lost one wife (which according to friends made him a more serious man. When he was a cadet at West Point he was known for partying, but that changed with tragedy.) and three children Davis was a man at his wit's end, and any other man would have gone crazy no doubt. Of his six children only two survived to adulthood, one dying in her early thirties. Davis tried living in Europe, starting a life-insurance company in Tennessee which went under, and eventually went back to planting, living near poverty the entire time. His planting prospects likewise failed with flooding problems. The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government gave him some success but not nearly what he had hoped for. Instead of writing a memoir he wrote what looked like a Constitutional justification for secession and the war. Always a Southerner, always a devout member of the old Union, Davis died in 1889. His death was grieved by all the South, and in New Orleans, where he died, the biggest public funeral ever was held as a parade marched in his honor. There lied a man with an idea of preserving self-government, state's rights, and constitutional authority in the tradition of the first Jefferson- Thomas. He will be forever revered in my mind and in the minds of those who know the truth about him. These are the reasons I highly recommend Jefferson Davis: An American President.

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