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Legacy of Jefferson Davis


Jefferson Davis was a man of unquestioned courage and commitment. He served with great distinction and bravery in the Mexican War and followed that with a political career that took him to the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate and a major cabinet position.Jefferson Davis was chosen for the presidency of the Confederacy because of his comparatively moderate positions — he was not one of the “fire-eaters,” (strident and unyielding advocates of secession). Davis had counseled patience following the Election of 1860, desiring to give Lincoln a chance to succeed.As president, Jefferson Davis devoted his full energies to achieving Southern independence. He remained deeply involved the military planning, often at the expense of domestic matters.Jefferson Davis is often compared unfavorably with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, on the other hand, complained bitterly about his political opponents, but was willing to suffer their barbs if it would help to advance his cause.Jefferson Davis, often dismissive of the states' political concerns, was frequently and savagely attacked by some Southern politicians who felt he was violating the very states’ rights they were fighting for.His tendency to micromanage military matters created intense friction with many of his generals. Like other defeated leaders, his historical legacy would no doubt have been enhanced by aligning with the winning side.


Thomas Jefferson: Impact and Legacy

Thomas Jefferson's presidency initiated the quarter-century rule of the "Virginia Dynasty" (1801-1825), including the presidencies of loyal Jeffersonians James Madison (1809-1817) and James Monroe (1817-1825). As the center of political gravity shifted southward with the Republican ascendancy, the party gained new strength to the north, progressively marginalizing Federalists as an effective national opposition party. But the founders' fantasy of faction-free politics was not to be fulfilled. Emerging splits among Republicans themselves pitted orthodox, strict constructionist "Old Republicans" against "National Republicans" who favored a more positive and activist (according to critics, Hamiltonian) conception of federal power. Quarrels among Jeffersonian-Republicans foreshadowed the division between Jacksonian Democrats, self-proclaimed legatees of Jeffersonian orthodoxy, and Whigs who promoted a neo-Federalist, National Republican policy agenda while warning against "King Andrew's" dangerous consolidation of authority.

Executive Power

Jefferson's performance as President justified divergent conceptions of executive power. Known for his hostility to strong central government and the judicial overreach of the Supreme Court under John Marshall, Jefferson nonetheless jettisoned strict construction when the nation's vital interests were threatened. Self-preservation—the first law of nature and nations—took precedence over the constitutional limitations that he scrupulously observed in peacetime. Andrew Jackson embraced this robust conception of his presidential power, even as Whig opponents drew inspiration from Jefferson's anti-monarchical precepts.

The Private and Public

Jefferson has been a great democratic icon precisely because he so eloquently articulated fundamental tensions in Americans' understanding of the people's power. The United States had "the strongest Government on earth," Jefferson told his fellow Americans in his first Inaugural Address on March 4, 1801. Yet the people's great and irresistible power was a function of their devotion to a free government that guaranteed their rights: this was the only government "where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern." Where an enlightened people determined their own destiny, Jefferson promised, there was no necessary or inevitable conflict between private rights and public good.

Rights, Rhetoric, and Reality

Jefferson will always be celebrated for articulating the American national creed, the fundamental and universal principles of self-government that he set forth in the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, those very principles—most notably, that "all men are created equal"—have been turned against him, as successive generations of critics have condemned him as a hypocritical slave owner. Jefferson cannot escape criticism: he failed to emancipate his own slaves and he presided over the "peculiar institution's" rapid expansion to the South and West. Yet the conflicts that shaped the new nation's history—and Jefferson's career—defied easy solutions. Jefferson and his contemporaries struggled, often unsuccessfully, to reconcile the conflicting claims of nation-building and natural rights, of power and liberty, and of slavery and freedom. Their legacy to us is the history of the conflicts that engaged them—and should engage us—in fulfilling the American Revolution's promise, to the nation and the world.


10 Things You May Not Know About Jefferson Davis

1. Davis was not a secessionist leader.
Less than two months before his inauguration as Confederate president, U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis opposed secession for his home state of Mississippi. While Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus and other state leaders advocated immediate secession in the weeks following the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the slaveholding Davis urged caution. While he firmly believed states had the constitutional right to secede from the Union, he was among a committee of 13 U.S. senators who attempted to find a suitable compromise after South Carolina left the Union in December 1860. After Mississippi seceded in January 1861, Davis declared that his allegiance to his state required him to abide by its decision and leave the U.S. Senate.

2. As a West Point cadet, Davis was arrested for participating in the 𠇎ggnog Riot.”
Although alcohol had been banned at the U.S. Military Academy after a rowdy Fourth of July party the year before, the teenaged Davis was among the cadets who smuggled liquor into the barracks for a yuletide drinking party before reveille on Christmas morning in 1826. Officers who discovered the illegal party placed Davis under arrest in his room. Nearly 100 other inebriated cadets, however, disobeyed officers’ orders and began to break windows, smash furniture and even draw swords against their superiors. Davis was confined to his quarters for more than six weeks, but his compliance when arrested likely spared him the fate of a dozen of his fellow cadets, who were expelled for their participation in the 𠇎ggnog Riot.”

3. He was named after a Founding Father.
The Confederate president was named after his father’s political hero and the sitting American president at the time of his birth—Thomas Jefferson.

4. A future U.S. president was his father-in-law.
After graduating from West Point, Davis was stationed in the Wisconsin Territory under Colonel Zachary Taylor. In August 1832, near the conclusion of the Black Hawk War, Davis met the colonel’s daughter, 18-year-old Sarah Knox Taylor. The pair fell in love, but for two years Taylor denied Davis permission to marry his daughter until finally relenting. Less than three months after they wed on June 17, 1835, Sarah died of malaria. During the Mexican-American War, Davis once again served under Taylor, and his heroics at the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847 reportedly caused the American general to say apologetically to his one-time son-in-law, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.” Taylor’s wartime exploits propelled him to win the presidential election of 1848.

5. Davis served as U.S. Secretary of War.
Just eight years before assuming the presidency of the Confederacy, Davis led the U.S. military as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, a fellow Democrat whom he had supported in the election of 1852. In his post, Davis attempted to innovate the military, advocated for the federal government to build a transcontinental railroad, supported the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico and supervised the expansion of the U.S. Capitol.

6. He established the U.S. Camel Corps.
Since horses and mules had difficulty traversing the arid territories of the West newly acquired by the United States in the 1840s and 1850s, Secretary of War Davis received congressional approval to purchase camels from the Middle East to use as military pack animals. The Camel Corps experiment showed some promise but ultimately fizzled when the outbreak of the Civil War took priority and the development of the railroad ultimately proved the idea obsolete.

7. Contrary to reports, Davis was not dressed as a woman when captured.
When Davis was seized on the drizzly predawn morning of May 10, 1865, he was wearing a loose-fitting, water-repellent overcoat, similar to a poncho, and his wife’s black shawl over his head and shoulders. Northern newspapers twisted the story and gleefully reported that Davis had been captured while disguised in women’s clothing, while popular lithographs portrayed caricatures of Davis in hoop skirts and bonnets. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton kept the overcoat and shawl from public view rather than puncture the myth.

8. Abolitionist Horace Greeley and other notable Northerners posted his bail.
Davis was imprisoned in Virginia’s Fort Monroe for two years after his capture during which time he was indicted for treason. In May 1867, he was released on $100,000 bail, most of which was posted by a surprising group—prominent Northerners including Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and Gerrit Smith, who was among the “Secret Six” who funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The Northerners advocated for a speedy trial or release of Davis in order to heal the country.


Legacy Stories from the Americans All Heritage Honor Roll

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Civil War: Beauvoir--The Jefferson Davis Home & Presidential Library Mississippi (February 19, 1879 - ?) American History, Civil War, Confederate, Presidential Library,

Throughout the years, Beauvoir has boasted a long and grand literary tradition. From the accomplished writing skills of those who lived there to the extensive library collections that have been housed on the grounds, Beauvoir has a great history of libraries. Of course, Sarah Dorsey, Jefferson Davis, his daughter Winnie, his wife Varina, and even some veterans like Prentiss Ingraham were all successful in their writing ventures.


The Mexican War and Political Rise

With the beginning of the Mexican War in 1846, Davis resigned from Congress and formed a volunteer company of infantrymen. His unit fought in Mexico, under General Zachary Taylor, and Davis was wounded. He returned to Mississippi and received a hero's welcome.

Davis was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1847 and obtained a powerful position on the Military Affairs Committee. In 1853, Davis was appointed secretary of war in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce. It was probably his favorite job, and Davis took to it energetically, helping to bring important reforms to the military. His interest in science inspired him to import camels for use by the U.S. Cavalry.


The Confederate legacy in Washington state

Local commemorations disprove the myth that the Pacific Northwest was untouched by the Civil War.

From left, Jefferson Davis served as the first and only president of the Confederate States, from 1861 to 1865 George Edward Pickett was a major general in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War William Lewis Maury served as a captain in the Confederate States Navy. (Mathew Brady/National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution National Archives, National Archives)

In the wake of historic Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd, there is renewed interest in rolling back Confederate monuments and commemorations around the country, including in Washington state.

This is not the first time these issues have been raised here. Calls to remove Confederate monuments and memorial sites proliferated after Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and again following the white supremacist torchlight demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

An even earlier debate over commemorating the Civil War era foreshadowed these controversies. In 2002, a Democratic legislator in Snohomish County — unsettled by a long stretch of Highway 99 honoring Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president — attempted to remove the designation. Those efforts drew national attention and fury from the right. Markers honoring Davis, placed at either end of the highway in the 1930s by the Daughters of the Confederacy, were eventually removed (one to private land along Interstate 5). It turned out the designation was never officially made, despite the markers. The Davis commemoration was part of a larger national project to honor Davis and the Confederacy with similar roadway designations, mostly in the Deep South and the Far West.

In honor of Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee

After the events in Charleston and Charlottesville, more local controversies surfaced. In the Tri-Cities, concerned citizens questioned a boulevard in Richland named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Same with Robert E. Lee Elementary School in East Wenatchee in Central Washington.

In the school’s case, officials decided in 2018 to remove the “Robert E.” from the school’s name, which is now simply Lee Elementary. A 2017 article in the Pacific Northwest Inlander pointed out that there was resistance to the change in East Wenatchee, a separate community across the Columbia River from Wenatchee because “during the Dust Bowl era, farmers, many of them Southern migrants, flocked to the region.” When it was built in the 1950s, the school was named for the Confederate general in an act of historical bothsidesism. It served, in the eyes of some, as a historical counterpoint to a nearby elementary school named after former President Ulysses S. Grant. Today, there is renewed interest in removing the Lee name entirely.

A 2015 analysis of records from the National Center for Education Statistics by Mother Jones found more than 60 schools named in honor of confederate leaders — mostly in the South, with one notable exception in Washington state. Since then, some schools have been renamed or had their names adjusted, such as Robert E. Lee Elementary in East Wenatchee which dropped "Robert E." from its name. (AJ Vicens/Mother Jones via Carto)

In Richland, there’s also newfound energy to change the name of Robert E. Lee Boulevard, which first became a subject of local debate in 2017, after Charlottesville. Defenders of the name argued that Lee had served in the military engineers, and the street was named in his honor at a time when the Army Corps of Engineers had done much to reshape Richland in the 1940s. This echoed a similar justification for Jefferson Davis Highway Davis, defenders asserted, led the War Department at a time when military roads in territories like Washington were being built. Despite a remote involvement in military infrastructure, Lee and Davis had little or no connection to the Northwest, unlike Grant, Gen. George B. McClellan or Gen. Philip Sheridan, who served in the region before the Civil War. A new online petition started in June, demanding that Robert E. Lee Boulevard be changed. “Racism has no place in our community and it is time to take a stand,” it says. The city of Richland has agreed to consider a name change.

Confederate legacies in Puget Sound

Washington’s map features other places with names connected to the Confederacy. Maury Island, attached to Vashon Island near Seattle, was named after a member of the U.S. Exploring Expedition led by Charles Wilkes, which mapped and named many features in Puget Sound in 1841. Wilkes named a number of places for his crew, including the expedition's astronomer Lt. William Lewis Maury.

When the Civil War came along, Maury resigned his officer’s commission in the U.S. Navy and joined the Confederate States Navy. His duties included the command of the CSS Georgia, a commerce raider that captured or destroyed civilian Union vessels in order to disrupt the North’s economy. His family members also played key roles in the Confederacy. His cousin, a famous oceanographer named Matthew Fontaine Maury, served in the Confederate Navy, too. He was responsible for obtaining the vessel Georgia in Britain, which William took on his raids.

Another state feature named for a prominent Confederate is Mount Pickett on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands. It’s named for George Pickett, a former officer in the U.S. Army who became a Confederate general, most noted for “Pickett’s Charge,” a famed and futile advance during the Battle of Gettysburg. That event has been called the “high watermark of the Confederacy” and has been romanticized as an example of sacrifice for the South’s “Lost Cause.” Others have argued it was an extraordinarily reckless waste of human life in a terrible cause.

In addition to the Gettysburg disaster, Pickett was responsible for a lesser known case of butchery: the execution, by hanging, of more than 20 prisoners of war in North Carolina in 1864. The soldiers were North Carolinians who had joined the Union army. Some had deserted from Confederate ranks and, after capture, were court martialed for treason. Roughly half the men, however, weren’t Confederate army deserters, yet Pickett's command still executed them, including at least one prisoner whose crime was being a Black Union soldier. After the war, Pickett was investigated by the government and found to have committed war crimes. He fled the U.S. for Canada and was later spared prosecution through the intervention of President Grant, a former West Point classmate.

During his Army tour in the Northwest, Pickett famously led troops that occupied San Juan Island during the Pig War dispute with Great Britain over possession of the islands in 1859, just years before the outbreak of the Civil War. (A bridge in Bellingham was named for Pickett, but the city council voted to strip the designation in 2019.)

Mount Pickett lies just southeast of Mount Constitution and was previously named Doe Bay Mountain. A 1925 article about its renaming in The Seattle Times says it was named “for famous Confederate General George E. Pickett, who led a historic charge at Gettysburg,” and refers to his service in the boundary dispute. The 1920s were a period when many Confederate statues and monuments were erected.

Dixie designations in Washington state

Dixie, population 200, is near Walla Walla in southeastern Washington. According to William Denison Lyman’s 1918 history of early Walla Walla County, which once included modern Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin counties, a key group of settlers came to the area by wagon train in 1859. The party included the three Kershaw brothers, William, John and James. They were musicians — fiddlers — and brought with them a new song, “Dixie,” which they played together frequently, earning them the name the “Dixie Boys.” The name was given to their settlement.

Many settlers from states that allowed slavery, including Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, moved to the area at that time. “[D]emocratic views preponderated,” historian Lyman wrote of people who were “bitterly opposed to ‘abolitionists’ and ‘black Republicans.’ When the war broke out there was a considerable element that carried so far by their hatred of abolitionists that they even became rank ‘Secesh,’ ” meaning pro-Southern secessionists. The term “black Republicans” referred to whites who favored movement toward racial equality. As the war went on, Lyman wrote, pro-Union sentiments seemed to gain favor.

The song "Dixie" is said to have been composed by a white, blackface minstrel performer named Daniel Decatur Emmett, who first performed it in New York in 1859. It became a huge hit. But the song’s origins have long been contested. Recent scholarship has made a case that Emmett learned the song from a performing Black family in Ohio known as the Snowden Family Band. Emmett knew the family, lived nearby and performed with them. A pair of historians have advanced the theory that the original song was likely composed by a Black woman, Ellen Cooper Snowden, whose sons taught it to Emmett.

Emmett himself was said to be appalled that Dixie had become a symbol of the Confederacy. During the Civil War he supported the North and provided musical arrangements for the Union army. The song was popular in the North and South. President Abraham Lincoln loved the tune. The song has been called a “… popular minstrel hit, proud anthem of the South, [and a] hated symbol of racism …” by a historian who has studied the song’s origins.

There is a myth that the Pacific Northwest was untouched by the Civil War. It is true no battles were fought here, but the politics of the war and the years preceding it played an outsized role in shaping the region. There were supporters of both the North and South in positions of power and influence in the Northwest generally, including Washington. Attitudes before the war distinctly leaned to the South and in favor of racial exclusion in the region. Those fault lines are embedded in our landscape, often attached to the land decades, or in some cases nearly a century, after the conflict itself. Today, the stories behind those names can help us more clearly understand ourselves, our history and our collective values.


The Other Jefferson Davis

The U.S. Capitol as we know it today would never have existed without Jefferson Davis. In many ways, it is his building.

The Apotheosis of Washington, completed in 1865 by the Italian artist Constantino Brumidi, depicts the first president ascending to the heavens. Brumidi’s fresco interweaves historical figures with the deities of the Roman pantheon. Bottom right: Neptune, god of the sea, presides over the laying of transatlantic cable as thirteen maidens celebrate Washington’s rise to divine stature.

Library of Congress photo by Carol Highsmith of Brumidi's Apotheosis of Washington in the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda

Jefferson Davis, love him or hate him, was an unusual man. During a long and frequently cataclysmic life, his favorite job, according to his wife Varina, was serving as a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1847 to 1851 and again from 1857 to 1861. During these relatively peaceful days, Davis made his reputation as an outspoken and eloquent advocate of slavery and states’ rights, shining up the résumé that would later make him president of the Confederacy—the role that has defined his place in history.

A European-style portrait of Pocahontas that hangs in the U.S. Capitol.

Library of Congress photo by Carol Highsmith

Constantino Brumidi spent 25 years decorating the Capitol. The Senate wing’s first-floor hallways are known as the “Brumidi corridors” in honor of his ornate fresco style.

Library of Congress photo by Carol Highsmith

But anyone who studies the Washington years soon makes the acquaintance of a second, more elusive, Davis. Despite his credentials as a southern firebrand, and unlike most of his Senate colleagues, Davis nurtured a transcendent vision of the United States as a great nation far more substantial than the sum of its fractious, disunited parts. This was no small thing. Examination of the congressional record during the 1850s reveals a collection of individuals who regarded the federal government primarily as a nuisance to be tolerated only to the extent that it provided money for new lighthouses, river harbors, and post offices. The only national issue worthy of debate—albeit incessant debate—was slavery, but even that had a frequently provincial cast. Slavery, most southerners thought, was none of the federal government’s business. And except for outright abolitionists, many northerners had no quarrel with slavery in the states where it already existed. They just did not want it to spread.

States’ rights was bread and butter for any southern Democrat, and Davis could argue the case as well as anyone. But throughout the 1850s—a time of growing polarization, bitterness, and, finally, desperation—Davis also championed nationhood. He articulated his vision in many ways. He advocated increasing the size of the country’s tiny (almost 14,000 soldiers) army and de-emphasizing volunteers and militia. He was on the board of regents of the new Smithsonian Institution, which he saw as a national center for learning. He regularly invited visiting scholars and scientists—what Varina called “savans”—to his home to discuss new ideas of national import. In 1857, with tensions over slavery escalating to crisis, he wrote to President James Buchanan about the need to improve liberal arts education at West Point. Leadership “to maintain the honor of our flag,” he wrote, “requires a man above sectional prejudices, and intellectually superior to fanaticism.”

But Davis’s most lasting legacy as a nation-builder, both figuratively and literally, was as a prime mover in the mammoth project to expand the United States Capitol from a small, cramped, statehouse-like building with an attractive central rotunda into a sprawling, magisterial seat of government with separate, marble-faced wings for the Senate and House, and a soaring new dome made of cast iron. The U.S. Capitol, as we know it today, would never have existed without Jefferson Davis. In many ways, it is his building.

There were good practical reasons to enlarge or, as it was called then, “extend” the Capitol. The United States had won an enormous tract of land in the Mexican War in 1848, the same year gold was discovered in California. By 1850, California had moved to the front of a long line of territories seeking statehood. There would be more senators and more House members. Congress needed more space.

And new chambers. The House (today’s Statuary Hall) had acoustics so poor that several students of Congress blamed the chamber’s chronically abusive and bellicose ambience not on actual political divisions, but on the apoplectic frustration of members forced to scream to be heard by colleagues standing less than ten feet away. As for the Senate, the chamber was too hot in summer, too cold in winter, and in dire need of extra gallery seats for the immense audiences who thronged the debates for a chance to see Clay, Webster, Benton, Houston, Douglas, Davis, and other luminaries at work. In an era of one-term, nondescript, and frequently dreadful presidents, senators were the big celebrities of national politics.

Davis, however, had another simple, yet transcendent, reason to enlarge the Capitol: A great nation needed a great seat of government, not a glorified statehouse. During the 1850 debate to obtain an initial appropriation of $200,000 for the project, one senator scoffed at the price tag. Such a paltry sum, even in 1850 dollars, was simply an excuse to start something whose cost would easily eclipse anything the Senate could then imagine. This was true, and Davis started to minimize the project to make it more palatable, then suddenly stopped. What if it did cost more? he asked: “If this Union continues together, and this continues to be the seat of Government, I have no idea that any plan which may now be suggested will finally answer all the wants of the country.” Eventually, he said, “I think it likely” that Congress may have to “cover the whole square with buildings.”

Davis won the money on that day, but only by a vote of 24–21. Then, throughout the 1850s, both as a senator and as the mid-decade secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, he kept the project alive and eventually made it thrive, even though his national vision increasingly contradicted his own loyalties to Mississippi. In the end, of course, he chose Mississippi and the Confederacy, but one could speculate that were it not for blood ties, he could perhaps have gone the other way.

To anyone seeking the origin of Davis’s uncommon nationalism, the protagonist is not much help. This is the fault, however, not of Davis, but of the Union Army, which raided and torched his Mississippi plantation in 1863, destroying most of his personal correspondence. This event has left a substantial doughnut hole in the archive. We know a considerable amount about what other people thought of Davis, but very little of what Davis thought—at least privately—about other people.

Fortunately, the Jefferson Davis Project, headquartered at Rice University in Houston, has gone a long way toward filling this gap. The Davis Project is the official compiler of Davis’s papers. After forty-eight years and thirteen volumes, the work led by Lynda Crist is coming to an end. Volume 14, the last, will be submitted to the Louisiana State University Press next year.

Prior to their work, most of what was known about the pre-Civil War Davis had been published as part of a ten-volume set of mostly official papers—campaign speeches, floor debates, congressional reports, and the like—and a single volume of private correspondence that had escaped destruction. The Davis Project broadened this core collection substantially by mining federal government records, newspaper archives, and caches of private documents and personal papers of those who knew Davis.

What emerges is the portrait of a man who, in many respects, could be described as a national citizen long before he became a Mississippian. He was the youngest of ten children of a backwoods Mississippi cotton planter. He spent most of his childhood away from home in boarding schools, finally ending up at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he almost got thrown out three times before graduating in the bottom third of his class in 1828. He was not much of a scholar and, as a newly minted officer, not much of a soldier.

All evidence suggests that during the next seven years, which he spent riding the western frontier from outposts in Michigan and Oklahoma, he did little to grow up. The only thing he clearly cared about was Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Col. Zachary Taylor, his commanding officer at Ft. Crawford, in Michigan Territory. But Taylor did not want his daughter, “Knox,” to marry a soldier, and one can hardly blame him in Davis’s case. Davis’s friends described him as a hell-raiser with a hair-trigger temper. One disagreement with Taylor made Davis so furious that he contemplated challenging Taylor to a duel. He backed off when a friend pointed out that if he wanted so badly to marry Knox, shooting at dad would not help. In 1835, Davis resigned his commission and immediately married Knox. Taylor neither opposed the marriage nor attended.

Less than three months later, however, Davis and Knox both fell ill with malaria. Davis recovered, but Knox did not. A widower at 27, Davis went home to Mississippi to become a planter under the tutelage of his oldest brother Joseph.

There is no surviving record of Davis’s thoughts or feelings at what was probably the defining moment of his life. His professional accomplishments up to that time were negligible, and he had lost the only thing he had ever wanted, just months after obtaining it. He must have been devastated.

It was probably during these early years when the seeds of his nationalism were sown. He had attended school in Mississippi, Kentucky, and New York, built forts in the snowy reaches of the northern plains, and suffered hunger and thirst as a dragoon in forced marches across Oklahoma Territory. Until he went “home,” after Knox’s death, he had never had a firm anchor in Mississippi. Instead, as a wandering student and a wandering soldier, he had probably seen as much of the United States as anyone his age anywhere in the country.

Relatively little is known about the years between 1835 and 1840, but it seems that Davis became something of a recluse, even as he was building his plantation, growing cotton, buying slaves, and discussing philosophy and politics with his brother Joe. But by the time he emerged in 1840 as a delegate to the state Democratic convention, Davis had become a Mississippian, a politician, and an adult. His old reputation was soon forgotten. The new Davis was smart, conscientious, well-read and well-spoken. The sardonic wit was still there, but the sense of fun was gone. He was intensely loyal to a very few friends, but he made enemies easily and held grudges. His temper had not improved.

He worked to help win Mississippi for James K. Polk in 1844, married Varina Howell in February 1845, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives a few months later. He did not stay long, however, resigning in mid-1846 to command a regiment of Mississippi volunteers and join his former father-in-law—now Gen. Zachary Taylor—who was commanding U.S. troops in northern Mexico.

And this was the final piece of Davis’s nationalism. He went off to the Mexican War mostly for the excitement and to advance his political career, a motive he did not try to hide. In a letter to his sister Lucinda, he suggested that “if occasion offers it may be that I will return with a reputation.” The strategy worked. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Buena Vista, and parlayed a hero’s welcome at home into a U.S. Senate seat. He was an immediate star—tall and lean, ice-blue eyes, ramrod-straight and walking at first with a cane while he recovered from shrapnel wounds to his foot.

He quickly made his mark as an eloquent defender of slavery, but at the same time, below the surface, his nationalism was taking shape. The catalyst for this maturation was probably Zachary Taylor. Before the Mexican War, Davis and Taylor had barely known each other, and what little evidence exists suggests that their relationship had grown from mutual dislike to tolerance, then to moderate cordiality and had stopped there.

But during the war and especially afterward, the two men developed a deep mutual trust and confidence. The record of this relationship has survived today in a series of letters in which Taylor, both during and immediately after the Mexican War, consulted with Davis on a profound, personal level about his hopes and misgivings as he decided whether to run for president in 1848.

Taylor held nothing back, and what he had to say would have buried him politically if it had seen the light of day. Taylor was one of the biggest slaveholders in the country, but he told Davis he favored admitting California to the Union as a free state, and was sure that Congress would never allow another slave state. Taylor had made his peace with these views, which were anathema to Davis and most southerners. Further, Taylor was a war hero himself, and potentially a very formidable presidential candidate—and he was a Whig. Davis’s Democrats, meanwhile, were struggling with Michigan’s frumpy Lewis Cass as their standard-bearer. Davis had no political reason to like Taylor and every reason to oppose him, but he never breathed a word. Taylor was duly elected, and never veered from what he had told Davis. Had he not died suddenly of illness after only fourteen months in office, Taylor may have precipitated a showdown over slavery eleven years before it finally happened. Like Davis, he was an unusual man. Unlike Davis, he has been all but forgotten by historians.

Davis taught Taylor politics, and although only the general’s side of the correspondence has survived, it is probably safe to say that Taylor taught Davis nationalism. Taylor was a career military officer and had had many more years than Davis to travel the breadth of the United States and see its potential. It seems likely that Taylor transmitted these views to his former son-in-law, who, with a briefer biography but one remarkably like his own, would quite reasonably have incorporated Taylor’s life lessons into his subsequent political persona. This could be why Davis, the indifferent young officer, became the U.S. Army’s staunchest political advocate during the 1850s. He came to regard the army as a force for unity in the country, and sought out the Armed Forces Committee chairmanship during both his Senate stints, which were sandwiched around his years as secretary of war.

Davis won the initial Capitol appropriation, but abandoned Washington after the Mississippi Democratic party begged him to come home and run for governor. Hampered by illness and a late start, Davis lost a close election and spent a year on his plantation. He returned to Washington to join Pierce in March 1853.

Davis found the Capitol project underfunded and in disarray, with several eager power brokers looking to take it over as a patronage plum. Whoever controlled the project had several hundred jobs to dispense. Aside from the federal government itself, the Capitol extension was the biggest employer in the District.

The secretary of the Department of the Interior, nominally in charge of the Capitol, asked Davis to send him a U.S. Army engineer to superintend construction. Davis liked this idea so much that he induced Pierce to transfer the Capitol from Interior to his own department. Then he named U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Capt. Montgomery C. Meigs as engineer-in-charge. This was the perfect solution to keep the congressional dogs at bay. Any sniper looking to pick off Meigs and take control would have to contend with an implacable and vindictive Davis. Not a happy prospect.

For the next four years, Davis flicked aside all challenges and kept the money flowing. He, Meigs, and architect Thomas U. Walter assumed the new building would have to last a millennium. They stinted on nothing. Walter imagined and designed a soaring cast-iron dome to replace the leaky, wooden fire hazard that preceded it. Meigs made the marble façade twice as thick, ordered window frames of iron instead of wood, bought special English tiles for the floors, and hired Italian immigrant Constantino Brumidi to paint frescoes for the ceilings and walls and to decorate the rooms in an ornate, spectacular “high style.” When congressional skeptics complained that the décor was too sumptuous for a homespun, no-nonsense country like the United States, Davis ignored them. When Meigs and Walter needed more money, Davis got it for them.

Only once did parochialism intrude on Davis’s vision. When it came time to choose the design for a statue to stand atop the new dome, sculptor Thomas Crawford created an ethereal female figure, exquisite in every respect except that she wore a felt “liberty cap,” the symbol from classical antiquity of a manumitted slave. Davis did not like liberty caps, having told Meigs in a memo that the cap “is the sign of a freedman,” while “we were always free, not freedmen, not slaves just released.” Meigs suggested Crawford think of something else. The end result, standing atop the dome today, is Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, an unusual blend of Roman goddess and Indian princess crowned by an “eagle” headdress which looks like a rooster with its mouth open. This, too, is part of Davis’s legacy.

Davis lost absolute power over the Capitol when Pierce left office in 1857. Back in the Senate for the last four pre-war years, he fought several battles for the project, but its survival was no longer in doubt. With war approaching, the rest of Congress finally began to see Davis’s point of view. The new Capitol became a potent symbol, both nostalgic—what might have been and hopeful—what the United States might become, if only it survived. “I shall never hesitate, whenever a proper appropriation is called for the completion or the embellishment of the Capitol of my country, to vote for it with pleasure,” Georgia Rep. Joshua Hill said during House debate to fund Capitol construction in 1860. “I desire to make this Capitol the seat of a national constitutional government of the American people for a thousand years to come.”

Davis resigned his Senate seat and left Washington on January 21, 1861. On December 2, 1863, five months after Gettysburg, Freedom was mounted atop the Capitol Dome, and at the end of 1865, Brumidi finished the Apotheosis of Washington, the fresco in the ceiling of the Rotunda. Davis was in a military prison by then.

Indicted for treason, but never tried, Davis was freed after two years. He tried a few business ventures without success, then finished his days as a figure revered in the South for his dignity and refusal to disavow the rightness of his cause. He never returned to Washington, and never saw the completed Capitol, the living symbol of the national vision he had abandoned.

Guy Gugliotta is a prize-winning journalist based in New York and the author of the recently published Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War.


A source of 'pride' and 'heritage'

I first spotted the obelisk early Friday morning peeking up from the Todd County countryside like a giant pencil among the trees. Without the 23 miles of historic roadside markers leading up to it, from a distance, it’s impossible to guess what it is.

Last Thursday, Gov. Andy Beshear called Davis' statue in the Capitol an offensive symbol of slavery and asked that it be moved to another location.

Friday morning, as the Historic Properties Advisory Commission prepared to vote to pull it from the Capitol, I went to Davis' birthplace to check the mood in Todd County and see the state-funded museum that tells the failed president's life story.

The commission's vote is the latest in a string of anti-racism efforts stemming from the deaths of Breonna Taylor, who was shot March 13 by Louisville Metro Police officers serving a no-knock search warrant, and George Floyd, who was killed May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer pushed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

By the time I left Todd County, the group would vote 11-1 to pull Davis from that prominent spot in the Capitol and the pallets would be laid to remove him Saturday morning.

And as I drove there, I wondered whether the unrest would trickle nearly 200 miles south to a small town that may face a much larger question.

You can't remove a 350-foot obelisk with a few pallets and a crane.

Not to mention that when I walked the square in Todd County's county seat, Elkton, asking people about the monument on Friday, I didn't run into anyone who said that needed to happen.

The quaint downtown district feels like a true slice of 1950s Americana, complete with a soda fountain and a picturesque courthouse.

The sign for Jefferson Davis Hotel sticks out from the side of the building that has been refurnished into a boutique store and apartments in Elkton, Ky. (Photo: Henry Taylor / The Leaf-Chronicle)

When you ask people what the area is known for, they describe a family-friendly place. Over the years, downtown Elkton has turned into a destination for charter buses that bring in visitors to shop the boutiques and have a bite to eat.

As I chatted with folks, some forced an awkward smile and said kindly that they didn't want to talk about something that controversial. People are upset about it, they told me, and feel like they're trying to erase history by removing statues or monuments.

Some people called the structure a point of "pride" and "heritage."

Two days later, Meriwether, who has a doctorate from Indiana State University and who serves as vice president of enrollment management at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, was very clear with me about how he feels about Todd County and its attitude when we spoke on the phone.

Todd County is his home, and there are good people there.

But the area, which sits near the Tennessee border, is also a conflicted place where it's extremely difficult to talk about being Black. The foundation of white privilege has played out over generations in hiring practices, lending, education, policing, health care, politics and access to wealth, Meriwether told me.

"There are people who generally care about unity and positivity, but there are a lot of people that are hanging on to these antebellum ideas," he told me.


Early life and career

Jefferson Davis was the 10th and last child of Samuel Emory Davis, a Georgia-born planter of Welsh ancestry who had fought in the American Revolution. When Jefferson Davis, who was named for Thomas Jefferson, was age three, his family settled on a plantation called Rosemont in Woodville, Mississippi. At age seven he was sent for three years to a Dominican boys’ school in Kentucky, and at age 13 he entered Transylvania College, Lexington, Kentucky. He later spent four years at the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating 23rd in a class of 33 in 1828. At both Transylvania and West Point, Davis’s best friend was the future Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston. In the class behind Davis at West Point were two other cadets who would become prominent Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston.

Davis served as a lieutenant in the Wisconsin Territory and afterward in the Black Hawk War under the colonel and future president Zachary Taylor, whose daughter Sarah Knox would become Davis’s wife. According to a contemporary description, Davis in his mid-20s was “handsome, witty, sportful, and altogether captivating.” After being posted in Arkansas for two years, Davis resigned his commission in 1835, married Knox, and became a planter near Vicksburg, Mississippi, on land given to him by his wealthy eldest brother, Joseph. Within three months his bride died of malarial fever. Grief-stricken, Davis stayed in virtual seclusion for seven years, creating a plantation out of a wilderness and reading prodigiously in constitutional law and world literature.


Political Memoirs

Epitaph Of Thomas Jefferson

Near the end of his life, probably when he prepared and signed his final will in March 1826, Thomas Jefferson designed his own gravestone and prepared the text to be engraved on it. Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson. Epitaph. c. March 1826. Illustrated manuscript. Manuscript Division (207)

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Jefferson's seeks to set the story right

Thomas Jefferson began his memorandum notebook of political events while secretary of state in August 1791, and sporadically maintained it until the close of his presidency in 1809. Jefferson collected these notes and at least four newspaper clipping files as an &ldquoaid to my memory&rdquo in his political battles with the Federalists, particularly Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Chief Justice John Marshall. These notes, and the introduction, that Jefferson wrote for them, were to be his personal testimony and answer to John Marshall's account of the origins of political parties contained in The Life of George Washington (Philadelphia: 1804&ndash1807)

Thomas Jefferson. Manuscript memorandum. February 4, 1818. Manuscript Division (126)

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&ldquoThe object of the Declaration of Independence&rdquo

As his life advanced, Jefferson became more and more concerned that people understand the principles in and the people responsible for the writing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote: &ldquothis was the object of the Declaration of Independence. not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we [were] compelled to take.&rdquo

Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee. May 8, 1825. Manuscript letter. Page 2. Manuscript Division (213)

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Jefferson's vision of the Declaration of Independence in the world

Written on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson's letter to Roger C. Weightman (1787&ndash1876) is considered one of the sublime expressions of individual and national liberty. In this letter to the mayor of Washington, Jefferson continued to espouse his vision of the Declaration of Independence and the American nation as signals of the blessings of self-government to an ever evolving world. This was the last letter written by Jefferson, who died ten days later, on July 4, 1826. Coincidentally, John Adams, another great defender of liberty, died on the same day.

Thomas Jefferson to Roger Weightman. June 24, 1826. Manuscript letter. Page 2. Manuscript Division (214)

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Slave in Jefferson Davis' home gave Union key secrets

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- William Jackson was a slave in the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis during the Civil War. It turns out he was also a spy for the Union Army, providing key secrets to the North about the Confederacy.

William Jackson, a slave, listened closely to Jefferson Davis' conversations and leaked them to the North.

Jackson was Davis' house servant and personal coachman. He learned high-level details about Confederate battle plans and movements because Davis saw him as a "piece of furniture" -- not a human, according to Ken Dagler, author of "Black Dispatches," which explores espionage by America's slaves.

"Because of his role as a menial servant, he simply was ignored," Dagler said. "So Jefferson Davis would hold conversations with military and Confederate civilian officials in his presence."

Dagler has written extensively on the issue for the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence . Watch the stories of slaves as spies »

In late 1861, Jackson fled across enemy lines and was immediately debriefed by Union soldiers. Dagler said Jackson provided information about supply routes and military strategy.

"In Jackson's case, what he did was . present some of the current issues that were affecting the Confederacy that you could not read about in the local press that was being passed back and forth across local lines. He actually had some feel for the issues of supply problems," Dagler said.

Jackson and other slaves' heroic efforts have been a forgotten legacy of the war -- lost amid the nation's racially charged past and the heaps of information about the war's historic battles. But historians over the last few decades have been taking an interest in the sacrifice of African-Americans during those war years.

Jackson's espionage is mentioned in a letter from a general to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell refers to "Jeff Davis' coachman" as the source of information about Confederate deployments. Watch grandson of slaves: "They call me Little Man" »

Dagler said slaves who served as spies were able to collect incredibly detailed information, in large part because of their tradition of oral history. Because Southern laws prevented blacks from learning how to read and write, he said, the slave spies listened intently to minute details and memorized them.

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"What the Union officers found very quickly with those who crossed the line . was that if you talked to them, they remembered a great more in the way of details and specifics than the average person . because again they relied totally on their memory as opposed to any written records," he said.

Jackson wasn't the only spy. There were hundreds of them. In some cases, the slaves made it to the North, only to return to the South to risk being hanged. One Union general wrote that he counted on black spies in Tennessee because "no white man had the pluck to do it."

No one was better than Robert Smalls, a slave who guided vital supply ships in and out of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. He eventually escaped and provided the Union with "a turning of the forces in Charleston Harbor," according to an annual report of the Navy secretary to President Lincoln.

"A debriefing of him gave . the Union force there the entire fortification scheme for the interior harbor," Dagler said.

One of the most iconic spies was Harriet Tubman, who ran the Underground Railroad, bringing slaves to the North. In 1863, she was asked by the Union to help with espionage in South Carolina. She picked former slaves from the region for an espionage ring and led many of the spy expeditions herself.

"The height of her intelligence involvement occurred late in 1863 when she actually led a raid into South Carolina," Dagler said. "In addition to the destruction of millions of dollars of property, she brought out over 800 slaves back into freedom in the North."

As the nation marks Black History Month in February, Dagler said that history should include the sacrifices of the African-Americans who risked their lives for their nation. Many paid the ultimate sacrifice.

"They were all over the place, and no one [in the South] considered them to be of any value. Consequently, they heard and saw virtually everything done by their masters, who were the decision-makers," Dagler said.

Whatever happened to William Jackson, the spy in Jefferson Davis's house?


Watch the video: WHITE HOUSE OF THE CONFEDERACY. and Jefferson Davis bio (December 2021).