Jefferson Davis (6/3/1808-12/6/1889): An introduction on his 205th birthday

Having been born and raised in the Northeast, for the longest time all I knew of Jefferson Davis was the usual:  Nothing much.  It wasn’t very important outside of the classroom until later on, when I been an adult for a while and had traveled briefly in the South and fallen in love with it.

Then a deeper introduction began, as it usually does, by way of the taste buds.    I thought I’d tasted delicious vegetables out in California, but in the South I first discovered the many delicious ways vegetables can be prepared to nourish the soul as well as the body.  And meat, and fruit, and grains, and all the rest of it.

Southern cooking is world renowned, of course, but it was up north, again, where I first encountered Jefferson Davis pie, in a 1950s-era Joy of Cooking.  I don’t have that cookbook any more, but it was something like this.

What richness!  What a delightful blend of flavors!  How comforting!

Don’t know why that popped into my mind today, after watching the first 87-minute disc of Jefferson Davis: An American President.

Perhaps it is the delight of discovery.

We are experiencing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, but note that this is Jeff Davis’s 205th birthday.  The man lived over 50 years before war broke out, and it was a remarkable life.   These things, of course, are well known to most Southerners, but I’ve come lately and much of it is new to me.

Today there isn’t time for a long essay after researching other sources, including his writings, but what struck me most while watching Episode 1 is that he always recognized that he had been educated by the Union, served the Union militarily, and then served it in Washington before the war came. The sight of the Union flag always affected him deeply during the war.

Something in the documentary, although not mentioned in it, confirms an impression I have had since doing the anniversary timeline: the South was so strong, so important to America, before the war. Davis’s pre-war biography and career shows that well.

A light went out in all America when the Union broke apart, and it has not been fully relit since. But we have more durable reminders of that time than pie – again, thanks to Jefferson Davis.

US Capitol in 1851, Library of Congress.  US Capitol in 2012, Prayitno. (Click to enlarge)

US Capitol in 1851, Library of Congress. US Capitol in 2012, Prayitno. (Click to enlarge)

This is not to even mention all the schools, counties, highways, etc., that are named after Davis. There is a living legacy as well!

I will try to write more on this later in the week, after I have watched the other two discs.  I’m not associated with the makers of this film, but it’s pretty good – done in the “Ken Burns” historical style.  Outside of Wikipedia, there aren’t many compact and complete sources of information on Jeff Davis available.

As an introduction, here is the National Portrait Gallery’s “Portrait in a Minute” of the man who wasn’t just born in 1861 and died in 1865, but who, among other things, played an important role in the founding of the Gallery’s parent institution, the Smithsonian:



Categories: American Civil War

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