Today I am 22 years old, and when I was a boy and dreamed with my eyes open, as most do, I thought of ripening fame at this age, of wealth and power, but as I grew older I saw the folly of this but still thought, at the age of 22, I should be on the highway to all ambition desired, and lo! I am 22 and the same obscure poor being that I was at 15.
— Second Lieutenant Jefferson Davis
Fort Winnebago, Wisconsin Territory
June 3, 1829
Be careful what you wish for, Lieutenant Davis.
Jefferson Davis graduated from West Point in 1829 and received a commission as a second lieutenant in the frontier army from President Andrew Jackson, a childhood hero of Davis’s.
As James McPherson puts it in Battle Cry of Freedom (see sidebar), America was undergoing unparalleled growth at this time. The War of 1812 had given the new nation confidence, and Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase had greatly expanded the frontier. Settlers were moving westward and the US Army was there to protect them in this era of the “Indian Wars.”
Samuel Davis had died in 1824, leaving Jefferson only a slave, James Pemberton, who now accompanied Davis to the frontier. They ended up at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin Territory under the command of Colonel Zachary Taylor.
Davis missed most of the Black Hawk War (in which Abraham Lincoln, a year younger than Davis, served as a militia captain), but he was present at Black Hawk’s surrender and reportedly ordered the chieftain’s chains and shackles removed during a transfer.
Jefferson and Sarah Knox Taylor, Taylor’s 17-year-old daughter, fell in love. All was fine until the new lieutenant voted against his colonel during a court martial. Taylor, incensed, refused permission for Sarah to marry, although the public reason given for the refusal was that he didn’t want his daughters to marry military officers (all did).
In 1835, Davis resigned his commission and, a month later, married Sarah.
Jefferson’s older brother let him develop Brierfield Plantation on 1800 acres of land adjoining Josephs Hurricane Plantation on Davis Bend.
The newlyweds were there only three months before they both came down with malaria. Sarah died, and Jefferson almost died. He would suffer relapses of the disease ever after, and he was devastated emotionally.
The “frat boy” disappeared, never to reemerge.
For two years, Davis became a recluse. Joseph tried to reconnect him with the world. Davis and James Pemberton worked together on Brierfield building, and the plantation took off. In 1836 Davis purchased 16 slaves. Pemberton became the overseer, and Davis began studying law at Hurricane Plantation while Joseph taught him how to be a planter, a slave owner and a Southern gentleman.
I’m going to do at least one separate post on this eventually and so will now just pass along what the documentary had to say. However, it’s of note that Davis Bend also played a role in post-war African American history (more on that in its own time).
Southern planters weren’t really farmers, though they called themselves that sometimes. They were, in the words of one of the people interviewed in “An American President,” agrarian capitalists. They had a product to sell on the world market, and production depended on slave labor.
Joseph and Jefferson Davis were both unusually enlightened for those times. For example, most other plantation overseers were white and free. Slaves at Davis Bend were allowed to choose their own names, as well as set up their own courts and juries when a fellow slave was charged with a crime. There was no organized education, but individual efforts at literacy and reading were probably encouraged.
Like most whites of the day, however, the Davis’s were racists. They believed that blacks were inferior (Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney would later explain this “truism” in awful detail in Scott v. Sandford).
Joseph and Jefferson also believed that, when present in large numbers, black people needed to be controlled with slavery. They saw it also as their obligation to put them through a “form of apprenticeship” into civilization.
I know – it’s crazy and offensive nowadays, but it was a widely held belief back then. It probably still would be today, if the Civil War had turned out differently. Think about that.
In 1838, Jefferson went to Washington seeking a military commission, in vain.
The experience, however, opened his eyes to the possibility of a political career, and Joseph did everything he could to encourage this.
In 1840 Jefferson was chosen as a delegate to the Mississippi state Democrat Convention, and things progressed from there. By 1844, he had been elected as one of the state’s six presidential electors and campaigned effectively for James Polk.
Joseph also introduced Jefferson to Varina Banks Howell – the daughter of one of his friends. In 1845, Jefferson married her.
That same year, Jefferson also ran for the US House of Representatives and won. Not one to stay in the background and learn the ropes like a proper Congressional freshman, Davis gave his first speech 10 days after his arrival.
After hearing one of Davis’s early speeches, former president John Quincy Adams reportedly said of him, “That young man is no ordinary person. He will make his mark, mind me.”
The Mexican War
Jefferson Davis’s first stay in Congress was a brief one. When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, he left Congress to become Colonel of the 1st Mississippi Rifles, a move which Varina was not in favor of. Jefferson was the boss, though, and they left Washington on July 4th. She settled in at Brierfield while he headed to Mexico.
His baptism of fire came at Monterrey, where he and the 1st Mississippi Rifles acquitted themselves well under General Zachary Taylor. Taylor and Davis became friends again.
After a 2-week furlough back to Mississippi to settle disagreements between his older brother Joseph and his wife, Jefferson returned to Mexico just in time for the Battle of Buena Vista, the climactic battle of the war. Davis and the 1st Mississippi Rifles played a prominent role, holding the American left flank against a determined Mexican attack. Jefferson was wounded in the foot but otherwise came through unscathed, although the Rifles overall lost almost two-thirds of their men.
Return to Politics
Jefferson Davis was now a war hero.
In May 1847, President Polk offered him a commission as brigadier general, but he refused, saying that troops should be under state rather than federal control. Later in the year, Mississippi’s governor chose him to complete the term of a US senator who had died. In 1848, Davis was elected in his own right.
I recommend reading McPherson’s Battle Cry for detailed coverage of political firestorms of the 1840s and 1850s. It’s too complex to go into detail here.
Jefferson Davis resigned from the Senate in 1851 to run for the Mississippi governor’s office with the State’s Rights party after the Compromise of 1850.
He lost and went back to planter life and Mississippi politics until the presidential election of 1852, when he campaigned for Franklin Pierce, whom he had met in Mexico and knew as a senator.
President Pierce made Davis his Secretary of War. Five years later, with James Buchanan now president, Davis resigned to be sworn in as US senator from Mississippi.
In an 1858 speech, he referred to the Constitution as a “bundle of compromises” while decrying “[v]iolent speeches, denunciatory of people in any particular section of the Union, the arraignment of institutions which they inherited and intend to transmit, as leprous spots on the body-politic… .”
In the fall of 1859, John Brown led a raid on the US Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. As McPherson puts it in Battle Cry of Freedom, “John Brown’s ghost stalked the South as the [presidential] election year of 1860 opened.”
The Southern Democratic party fell apart and the new Republican party designed a winning strategy: Ignore the South, and get every single electoral vote in the free states.
To do this, Republicans ditched William Seward – who might not win the lower tier of free states – and went with the nationally unknown but politically savvy Abraham Lincoln. They carried every free state but New Jersey, and the South reacted accordingly.
With secession looming, Jefferson Davis tried to work out some sort of a compromise as a member of the Senate Committee of 13, although he voted against the resulting Crittenden Compromise.
It didn’t matter. Two days after the final compromise passed, South Carolina seceded from the Union.
A final adieu
Jefferson Davis lingered in Washington after other Mississippians had left. He gave two speeches. One, on January 10, 1861, was an extended explanation of his position.
On January 21, 1861, a fearful capital city awaited the farewell addresses of five senators. One observer sensed “blood in the air” as the chaplain delivered his prayer at high noon. With every senator at his place, Vice President John Breckinridge postponed a vote on admitting Kansas as a free state to recognize senators from Florida and Alabama.
When the four senators completed their farewell addresses, all eyes turned to Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis—the acknowledged leader of the South in Congress. Tall, slender, and gaunt at the age of 52, Davis had been confined to his bed for more than a week. Suffering the nearly incapacitating pain of facial neuralgia, he began his valedictory in a low voice. As he proceeded, his voice gained volume and force.
“I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that . . . the state of Mississippi . . . has declared her separation from the United States.” He explained that his state acted because “we are about to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us.” Davis implored his Senate colleagues to work for a continuation of peaceful relations between the United States and the departing states. Otherwise, he predicted, interference with his state’s decision would “bring disaster on every portion of the country.”
Absolute silence met the conclusion of his six-minute address. Then a burst of applause and the sounds of open weeping swept the chamber. The vice president immediately rose to his feet, followed by the 58 senators and the mass of spectators as Davis and his four colleagues solemnly walked up the center aisle and out the swinging doors.
Later, describing the “unutterable grief” of that occasion, Davis said that his words had been “not my utterances but rather leaves torn from the book of fate.”