Jefferson Davis – Episode Two of “An American President”

Jefferson Davis was born in June, and this month, with the help of a three-part documentary, I have been taking a closer look at his life.

The second episode in this series deals mainly with the war years, and since that is being covered separately here, I won’t discuss that in detail.

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis - 1861 newsmakers.  Library of Congress.

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis – 1861 newsmakers. Library of Congress.

Fathers and sons

Both Lincoln and Davis were born in Kentucky early in the frontier days, but there’s a striking difference in how they viewed their fathers.

Since June is also the month for Father’s Day, it’s worth taking a closer look at that.

According to the A&E biography I watched before writing last year’s Lincoln’s Birthday post, young Abraham didn’t get along with his father and was in every sense of the word a self-made man.

Indeed, he severed relations with his father and didn’t attend the man’s funeral!

Thomas Lincoln may have been anti-intellectual, but Samuel Davis prized education and saw to it that Jefferson had the best schooling possible.

Jefferson's older brother Joseph was his mentor and father figure after Sam died in 1824.  Image source:  Wikipedia (German)

Jefferson’s older brother Joseph was his mentor and father figure after Sam died in 1824. Image source: Wikipedia (German)

We can’t know any details of the father-son relationship, since most of their correspondence was destroyed in 1863, but Jefferson did name his first son after Samuel. He also mentioned “our fathers” three times in his farewell speech to the US Senate in January 1861.

Perhaps this difference in background helps to explain the different goals of the two presidents.

There was a strong sense of continuity and heritage in Jefferson Davis’s world, and his views were very intellectual.

Peace, for Davis, meant independence, much like the outcome of the Revolutionary War his father had served in.

Lincoln, on the other hand, while equally well educated, was a practical man. He wanted reunification at all costs and knew that an immediate crunch was the way to get it, as the South would only get stronger as time went by.

Difficult people

Jefferson Davis faced a tougher job than George Washington had, for he had to be his country’s founding father, president, commander in chief and executive all at once, but he felt it was worth it and expected the same total devotion from all around him. Some, like General Lee, could do that. Others, like General Joseph Johnston, could not, leaving Davis frustrated, puzzled and angry. The disagreements became personal and so were much harder to resolve.

For all his years in the military and Washington, Jefferson Davis was not a skilled handler of difficult people and it made his army less effective.

Abraham Lincoln was more familiar with the human condition, and understood the foibles of human nature. He tried to work with just about anybody.

For example, Lincoln once said he was willing to hold General McClellan’s horse’s reins, if by doing so he could get the general to fight.

A Confederate bond based on the Erlanger loan.  Library of Congress

A Confederate bond based on the Erlanger loan. Library of Congress


In the winter of 1862-63, the Confederacy approached French banking firm Emile Erlanger & Company about a loan backed by cotton. Emile Erlanger wanted to loan them $500 million worth of Confederate bonds, but President Davis would only accept $15 million out of concern for burdening future generations with debt.

Per the documentary, the discussion went something like this:

Emile Erlanger: I can loan you $500 million with which you will win the war, but $15 million I am just throwing away.

Davis: How can we burden future generations?

Emile Erlanger: Suppose there isn’t any future?

The end of the war

I was surprised to learn that in 1865 General Lee contacted General Grant about a surrender on his own initiative.

President Davis was all for fighting a guerrilla war in the South and based his hopes on General Kirby Smith’s forces west of the Mississippi. It was not realistic, and the Davis’s were forced to flee Richmond.

However, Jefferson Davis was not caught wearing a woman’s dress, as popular legend has it. They ended up in the Georgia woods, and as Union troops approached, Davis put on a rain coat.

The Union officer saw his boots and knew who the man under the bulky raincoat was and demanded he surrender. I guess Jefferson then was going to attack the officer and go out fighting, but his wife Varina threw her arms around him and begged the officer to spare her husband’s life.

And so that stage of Jefferson’s life came to a bitter end. What would happen now?

Categories: American Civil War, American history

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