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Jefferson Davis in New England

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926

It was the Fourth of July, 1858, and the passengers on the coast steamer “Joseph Whitney” on its way to Boston were celebrating the anniversary not by bell-Tinging, boisterousness and mere noise, but reverently and fittingly by prayers and patriotic speeches. The speaker who stirred them the most and who commanded their breathless attention was a fellow passenger, a slender, erect, middle-aged man of distinguished, dignified appearance whose magnetic voice, manner, and sincere expressions of patriotism seemed especially adapted to win any audience.

This man who so charmed his hearers was Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, notable for his achievements as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, and for his career in the United States House and Senate. Whenever Davis spoke people listened. In his early political days in the House, ex-President John Quincy Adams upon one occasion moved nearer to listen to him and prophetically remarked after he finished, “We shall hear more of that young man, I fancy.” At the close of President Pierce’s administration in 1857 when Davis was resigning as Secretary of War in order to resume his office as United States senator, Pierce ended his long farewell interview with his friend Davis by warmly clasping his hand and saying: “I can scarcely bear the parting from you who have been strength and solace to me for four anxious years and never failed me.”

Early in 1858 Senator Davis, who was having a busy, trying winter, caught a severe cold which resulted in an intense inflammation of his left eye. He was sick for more than two months, and at the adjournment of Congress was still so far from well that his physician urged him to go with his family to Maine for a rest and change of climate. The trip from Baltimore to Boston was made on the steamer “Joseph Whitney” and that was the circumstance which gave the passengers the opportunity of listening to Davis on the Fourth of July.

On July 8, The Advertiser, the Portland, Maine, Republican newspaper, printed the following short, uninspired item: “Hon. Jefferson Davis, late Secretary of War, and at present one of the Senators from Mississippi, arrived in this city yesterday morning, on the boat from Boston. He is accompanied by his family, and will, it is understood, spend the summer in this vicinity.” The Eastern Argus, however, the Democratic newspaper, gave much more space and color to Mr. Davis’s arrival. It began, “Hon. Jefferson Davis and lady, with their family, arrived in our city yesterday morning,” and then after referring to Davis’s sickness as his reason for coming, the Argus continued, “We are quite sure that our citizens will cordially welcome this distinguished and gallant son of the South to our city, and will desire to render the sojourn of himself, and his accomplished lady as agreeable and as conducive to its principal object [health] as possible.” The item closed with a glowing comment on Davis’s record in the Black Hawk and Mexican wars and on his fine achievements as a political figure in Washington.

That some of the citizens at least “desired to render the sojourn of Senator Davis as agreeable as possible” was evidenced by a serenade given to him on the third evening after his arrival. This courtesy the Republican Advertiser summarily dismissed with a mere wave of the hand: “Hon. Jefferson Davis at Mrs. Blanchard’s was serenaded by the Portland band last evening, and made a speech to the crowd assembled.”

The Argus, of course, described the occasion in far more detail. On Saturday the tenth, it told of the serenade which took place at about ten o’clock Friday evening when “Chandler’s Band discoursed some of its sweetest music” before an “immense concourse of people” including many of the “fair sex.” Colonel Davis appeared on the steps, and after being introduced by James L. Farmer, Esq., was heartily cheered. He then spoke for half an hour “making a chaste, eloquent and very happy speech.”

On Monday the twelfth, the Argus again mentioned the occasion of the serenade as “a pleasing, a hopeful one without distinction of party. It was in every respect the expression of generous sentiments, of kindness, hospitality, friendly regard, and the brotherhood of American citizenship. Prominent men of all parties were present . . . The beautiful mansion of Rensallaer Cram, Esq., directly opposite to Madame Blanchard’s was illuminated, and the light thrown from the windows of the two houses revealed to view the large and perfectly orderly assemblage with which Park and Danforth Streets were crowded to hear the musical voice and inspiring eloquence” of Jefferson Davis.

The same issue of the Argus contained the text in full of the “inspiring eloquence” of Davis who so skillfully mingled state’s rights theories with true Union sentiments and graceful thanks for his cordial reception in Portland that he apparently offended nobody, and won for himself frequent interruptions of applause, and three rousing cheers at the end. This, too, in a truly Northern stronghold—in the very New England state which had given birth to the already phenomenally popular novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It was a tribute to the power and charm of Jefferson Davis.

Senator Davis modestly said he realized the demonstration was not a personal tribute but was “Maine’s greeting to her sister state Mississippi” and was a “mark of national fraternity.” He spoke appreciatively of the beauties of Portland and of the hospitality and courtesy of her citizens. “I came to your city in quest of health and repose . . . have been showered with kindnesses. . . . And surely no place could be more inviting to an invalid who sought a refuge from the heat of a Southern summer . . . . Above all these I place the gentle kindness, the cordial welcome, the hearty grasp which makes me feel truly and at once, though wandering far, that I am still at home.”

The Portland Transcript, a weekly literary sheet, in a short notice about the serenade closed with the words: “It was a genial, patriotic speech, and was listened to with pleasure by a large crowd. The delightful music by the band, the eloquence of the speaker, the illumination of neighboring houses, and the courteous and hospitable spirit manifested, made the occasion a very pleasant one.” The Portland Angus on July 15 quoted the favorable comments on Davis’s speech of the Boston Courier and Boston Post.

Davis had been in Portland hardly more than a week when he was invited to attend the graduating exercises of the Girls’ High School and speak to the students. This invitation must have been a mark of personal esteem, for the school committee was composed of a group of prominent, non-partisan men.

Even the Advertiser admitted that Senator Davis “made a brief and felicitous address to the scholars , . . spoke of their prospects and duties, and encouraged them by his genial tones to go forth . . . with zealous and joyful hearts, to the various walks in which their lives should be cast.”

One of the undergraduates who was present, Elizabeth McL. Gould [Rowland], described this scene which occurred in the crowded schoolroom on an unusually hot July day. The exercises had already begun when there was an “extra bustle at the door . . . and there was a decided movement on the platform to find places for the entering party . . . Two good chairs and a front place were found for a portly lady, quite at her ease and not in the least like a Portland woman, and for a slight elegant-looking man with bright wavy hair, and a distinguished appearance in spite of disfiguring green spectacles.” Some of the girls tittered, and whispered behind their fans. Alas for their manners. They were snickering “because of the green glasses.” The visitors paid the closest attention to the exercises, listening to everything with an air of mingled surprise and interest. As the attractive young valedictorian, pretty Sarah Ellen Hart, read her original poem, the gentleman turned to a member of the school committee to ask, “Who is the young lady?” and to his embarrassment received the grim reply, “Oh, she is a daughter of one of our Northern mudsills!”

“A little later one of the school committee introduced the Honorable Jefferson Davis whose honeyed eloquence caused us to forgive and forget the green spectacles. I do not remember a word he said, but I do remember that his voice was music, his words fluent, elegant and charming, and that we drank it all in—it was something quite unusual and wholly delightful.”

This same Mrs. Rowland in a short history which she wrote of the Girls High School singled out the incident of Davis’s attending the 1858 commencement as a “memorable episode,” and spoke of it again at some length at a school reunion in 1913, more than half a century after its occurrence. Such was the vivid, ineffaceable impression Jefferson Davis made upon one little New England girl.

In her accounts Mrs. Rowland omits any mention of the unpardonable rudeness of the high school committee member who answered Mr. Davis’s query with, “Oh, she is a daughter of one of our Northern mudsills.” Surely the ever courteous Mr. Davis was not responsible because some Southern senator in a heated moment had once referred to all the plain people of the North as “mudsills.”

Being asked to attend and speak at a high school graduation, flattering as it may have been, was a small honor compared to that tendered to Senator Davis in August. It is a peculiarly interesting fact that the conservative far-northern college, Bowdoin, which had graduated Longfellow and Hawthorne, the college situated in the New England village where Harriet Beecher Stowe had so recently written her anti-slavery novel, should have conferred the degree of LL.D. on Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

In 1858, the Trustees and Overseers of Bowdoin College, having studied the career of Jefferson Davis as an army officer, as Secretary of War, and as United States representative and senator, discerned in that honorable record what they considered contributions of worth to the country at large and generously laying aside all petty sectional and party prejudices—of which there were many at the time— they paid tribute to those contributions by an LL.D. degree.

The degree bestowed by his own Alma Mater upon his friend was no doubt pleasing to ex-President Franklin Pierce, and also to Leonard Woods, the President of Bowdoin College, a Southern and anti-abolitionist sympathizer. Curiously enough the only other recipient of an LL.D. degree from Bowdoin College in 1858 was another United States senator, William Pitt Fessenden of Maine. Fessen-den’s son has compared his father and Davis. “The two senators,” he wrote, “were very much alike in some of their mental and physical characteristics, resembling each other in appearance. They both had slender figures and intellectual faces, were high-strung in spirit and prompt to resent attack. Senator Davis was eloquent in debate and sharp in reply.”

These two men alike and yet so unlike who were frequently on opposing sides of a question in Washington, and who had often debated warmly with each other, one a Democratic representative of the South with all that that implied in 1858, the other a New England Republican leader with all that that implied, received the same honorary degree at the same time from the same college! It is not surprising that the degree was given to Fessenden, a son of Maine, and a graduate of Bowdoin. What more natural and fitting than that his distinguished services and ability should thus be recognized by his home college in his friendly home state. The amazing thing is that a degree should have been given to Davis—Jefferson Davis so soon to be President of the Southern Confederacy. It indicates the possession of compelling and winning qualities that could not be ignored.

Judging from the newspapers, the 1858 Bowdoin commencement was considered a success. To quote the Portland Transcript:

“On Wednesday, Commencement proper took place. The same old hat on the same dignified Presidential head, entered the church at the usual hour, surrounded by the dignitaries of the day and the young aspirants for baccalaureate honors. The ordinary amount of fine orations, elegant bouquets, and smiling and chatting friends—with music to match—filled the hours appropriated to the commencement services.

“The Degree of ll.d. was conferred upon the distinguished Senators Fessenden of Maine and Davis of Mississippi. . . . In the evening the President received his friends with his usual grace and dignity, his lip wreathed with becoming smiles. . . . The services of the week, as a whole, are reported as more than usually interesting.”

The Advertiser chronicled its approval at some length, noting among other details of the Wednesday exercises: “The number of people present was very large—and by many thought to be greater than it has been for several years. . . . President Woods wore the surplice, band and Oxford cap. . . . The performances of the graduating class were considered very creditable; the music was excellent, and everything seemed to pass off in a manner satisfactory to all concerned. The degree of LL.D. was conferred on Hon. William Pitt Fessenden of this city, and Hon. Jefferson Davis, U. S. Senator from Mississippi.” After an account of the Thursday proceedings the Advertiser concluded, “And thus ended the most brilliant commencement festivities Bowdoin has enjoyed for several years.”

A few days after the Bowdoin commencement Senator Davis in company with Mr. Allan of Montreal, proprietor of the steamships, made an inspection of Portland Harbor. Davis was particularly interested in this inspection as he had done much while Secretary of War to strengthen all seacoast defenses. That task had involved his spending a great deal of time and thought upon the fortifications of Portland Harbor on account of the difficulty of securing firm and permanent foundations for the forts there. It was of course gratifying to him to view the successful results of his conscientious care and labor.

In the late afternoon just when the brilliant sunset colors were appearing in the sky, as the revenue cutter, which had been placed at Mr. Allan’s disposal, was winding in and out among the numerous green-clad islands on her way back towards the wharf a salute was fired in honor of the two distinguished guests on board. James L. Farmer, who was present, described how the smoke from the saluting gun gently settled until it formed an almost perfect silver halo above the head of Davis who stood smiling and erect with that air of dignity which seldom deserted him. Davis’s friends enthusiastically assured him that this halo was a good omen—a sign that he was to become a great national leader. Alas for the illusive promise of that crown of thin gray smoke!

During their entire stay in Portland, Mr. and Mrs. Davis were most cordially and hospitably received, as Mrs. Davis herself bore testimony: “The people of Portland were as kind as our own could have been, and we met many old acquaintances and made some agreeable new ones. . . . Clam-bakes were arranged for his [Mr. Davis’s] amusement, and evenings at home for me, at different charming houses in the town; but most pleasant of all, were the basket parties at Cape Elizabeth, where we sat down to exquisite refreshments, cooked under the directions of the ladies of the city, where each dish was the chef-d’oevre of some good housekeeper.”

Mr. Davis’s popularity as a speaker was so great that at one of these out-of-door parties an aristocratic young man begged to act as a waiter in order not to miss hearing Mr. Davis make an informal speech at the table.

Madame Blanchard’s where the Davis family stayed was no ordinary boarding house, but was famous for its interesting and cultured guests. It was a meeting place for brilliant folk. There, to quote Mrs. Davis, “happy in the society of intellectual men of bright minds and cordial manners, Mr. Davis hourly improved, and found . . . rest and recreation.”

Little Maggie—Margaret Davis, a beautiful child of four or five, “the light of her father’s eyes”—had the true Davis faculty of winning the hearts of the cold New Engenders. Her mother said of her: “She could not be kept in the old-fashioned garden planted with white, red, and black currants in rows under wide-spreading apple-trees, but whenever it was possible would run off to the neighbors, where her brave little spirited ways always made her welcome. She knew everyone in the neighborhood. One old sea captain used to tell her wonderful stories upon which she dreamed at night. Not infrequently I heard people in the street designate me as ‘little Maggie’s mother.’”

Mr. Davis gave evidence of his sense of humor and lib-eral-mindedness one day in a Portland barber shop whither he went with his friend Dallas Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, of the Coast Survey fame. The two men got into conversation with John Todd, the barber, a Yankee “character” with a deserved reputation of being something of a student and philosopher. Todd asserted that the angel that John saw on Patmos, who declared that time should be no longer, was the angel of telegraphy, and then went on to discuss modern research and modern experiments as a fulfillment of prophecy, whereupon Davis exclaimed, “That is the first and only sensible interpretation I ever heard of the Book of Revelations.”

As he skillfully cut and snipped Davis’s thick hair Todd introduced one of his favorite subjects, spiritualism, and sternly reproved Davis for dismissing it as utter nonsense without having, as he himself acknowledged, studied into it at all, which reproof Davis met with the generous words: “I will take it all back, sir; I was too fast.”

As the talk later touched on politics Todd expressed the fervent wish that the spirits of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others would return to stop the statesmen who were trying to break up the Union. Upon being informed by Bache that his present patron was Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, the barber quickly said to Davis, “As Nathan to David, ‘Thou art the man,’” at which sharp thrust Davis laughed heartily and appreciatively, and in the next few weeks went back three times to Todd’s shop. Upon one of these three occasions he listened tolerantly to Todd’s vehement inveighing against slavery. And this is the same Davis who has been charged with superciliousness and the inability to see any side of a question other than his own!

In September, 1858, the Davis family were invited to accompany Professor Dallas Bache and his surveying party on a camping trip to the eastern part of Maine. An amusing incident recorded by Mrs. Davis happened on the way. At a country inn where the party stayed overnight was a very large stout man whom Mr. Davis heard at dawn apparently addressing a meeting. Upon rising and looking out of the window, Mr. Davis beheld the man in the barnyard, clad in a figured calico dressing-gown, surrounded by a huge flock of noisy barnyard fowl which he was feeding and haranguing. “Consider, weigh, and accept these arguments, be just to one another, your liberties, your lives depend upon it,” he pleaded. When he saw Mr. Davis convulsed with laughter watching him, he bowed low and said, “Fellow citizens, allow me to present one more able and more eloquent than myself. Hear ye him,” which made Davis laugh harder than ever. Davis was fond of recalling this incident which never failed to bring a smile to his face. Proof again of the humor and humanness of the man.

After three happy, health-restoring weeks of outdoor life in congenial company on Mount Humpback, the Davis family returned to Portland to bid good-bye to friends and to start for Washington. Davis left Maine with real regret, for there had been little to mar the pleasantness and restfulness of his three months’ vacation there. To be sure his political views had been subject to some relentless criticism from the Republicans and ardent abolitionists, which is not surprising at a time when party and sectional feeling about slavery and the right of secession ran hot and high, but personally Davis was not only respected and esteemed but beloved by many in the far-northern state of Maine.

Even the editor of the partisan Advertiser which was bitter about Davis’s politics announced: “Senator Davis has personally received no discourteous notice in our columns, and he never will.” And again in an editorial he wrote: “As a private gentleman we know him [Davis] to be polished, refined and courteous; of most liberal culture, and we doubt not, honorable impulses. In our younger days we were made the recipient of personal courtesies from Mr. Davis, which though doubtless out of his own recollection, we have no desire to forget and no reluctance to acknowledge. We would certainly be very happy to reciprocate them at any time an opportunity were afforded us. But this has nothing to do with our course as a public journalist. . . . The Mississippi senator is not a ‘sensitive plant,’ and has not battled on the field and in the forum for a quarter of a century without being thoroughly inured to all kinds of manly controversy . . . therefore we shall not cease to discuss Davis’s politics.” And yet a third time the Advertiser insisted, “Of Mr. Davis personally we have not a word to say.”

Expecting to stop off for a day only in Boston on their journey South, Mr. and Mrs. Davis were detained there because of the sudden, severe but not fatal illness of their baby, Jefferson Davis, Jr. “Then,” wrote Mrs. Davis, “I saw Boston under its most lovable guise. Every kindness was showered upon us that benevolence and sympathy could suggest.” “Mrs. Harrison Grey Otis, a large gentle-looking lady, herself came to spend one night and to help me to nurse.” “Throughout the long anxious night she sat calm and tender, doing what she could, and this was much. . . . Hundreds of others expressed their sympathy in the kindest manner.”

While the family were still in Boston, Mr. Davis was invited to speak before a large enthusiastic meeting held in Fanenil Hall on October 11, where in the course of his speech he expressed his gratitude for “that generous hospitality which evinces itself tonight, which has evinced itself in Boston since I have been here, and showed itself in every town and village in New England where I have gone.”

As Davis thus paid his tribute to Boston and New England, so New England in return—through the mouth of the Bostonian, Charles Francis Adams, Jr.—paid to Davis a tribute: “To me Davis was a distinctly attractive as well as interesting personality. . . . He was very much of a gentleman in his address—courteous, unpretending, and yet quietly dignified. A man in no way aggressive, yet not to be trifled with. I instinctively liked him, and regret extremely that it was not my good fortune, then and later, to see more of him.”

Whatever New England people may have thought of Davis’s political views at all times, and however they may have regarded Davis the President of the Southern Confederacy, in 1858 they recognized in their visitor Jefferson Davis, citizen of the United States, a genial, charming Southern gentleman with a winning personality.


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