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Young Jefferson Davis

ISSUE:  Spring 1976
The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume U, 1841—1846. Edited by James T. Mclntosh. Louisiana State University Press. $20.00.

IT has taken more than ten years to assemble, edit, and publish two volumes of The Papers of Jefferson Davis. If the present pace of publication is maintained and if, as the editors predict, the series runs to 20 or 25 volumes, the entire edition should be available to scholars sometime between the years 2065 and 2090. It may not take that long, of course, and one wishes the editors Godspeed, but this time projection is only partially facetious. The publication of the Davis Papers clearly will stretch into the next century, and a brief glance at this extraordinary book or its equally impressive predecessor will show why it will take decades of work by a sizable group of extremely talented editors to complete this undertaking. The answer is research, and by any measure the scholarly effort that has been invested in this enterprise is nothing less than mindboggling.

The initial volume, which covered the first 32 years of Davis’s life, contained 535 documents plus a couple of undated letters, a family genealogy, and Davis’s brief autobiographical notes dealing with the events of his life between 1808 and 1840: his boyhood, his education at Transylvania College and West Point, his military service, his tragic first marriage, and his early years as a Mississippi planter. Volume I ran to 594 pages. The present volume, dealing with the five-year period in which Davis launched his political career, has only 255 documents, seven undated items, and Davis’s sketch of this phase of his life. Volume II is 806 pages long. The number of pages is a very superficial indication of the extent of the research that has gone into these two volumes, however. The editors have chosen not only to identify but to sketch the career of every person mentioned in the documents; they have provided, in similar meticulous detail, descriptions of all places and events that would not be known to even the most casual general reader; and they have discussed fully the historical background of the various issues which occupied Davis during his early years as a political figure.

The results of this approach to historical editing can be seen as clearly as any place in the account of a meeting of the Mississippi State Democratic Convention in 1844 in which Davis participated. The report of the proceedings themselves is relatively brief; it is extracted from a full newspaper account of the meeting so as to focus on Davis’s role, and it occupies eight pages of the text of Volume II. Accompanying this extract, however, are no less than 139 footnotes covering 43 closely-printed, double-columned pages. These notes contain an incredible amount of detailed information on individual Mississippians active in Democratic party affairs in the 1840’s, material which the editors frequently had to dig out of manuscript records in county court houses, state libraries, and other archival depositories. These notes, and others like them throughout both volumes, will be used extensively by historians and genealogists interested in the antebellum history of Mississippi and the South. One can ‘anticipate a similar wealth of detail about the Mexican War in Volume III (the present volume ends with Davis’s departure from Washington, where he had been serving as a freshman Congressman, to assume command of the 1st Mississippi Regiment); subsequent volumes will in all likelihood provide equally full information about the men and events surrounding Davis’s unsuccessful bid for the Mississippi governorship in 1851, his tenure as Secretary of War in the administration of Franklin Pierce, his service in the United States Senate from 1857 to 1861, and his career as President of the Confederacy.

The chief question about this editorial methodology is whether the results justify the extended wait for the full publication of the surviving documentary record. The answer, as far as the scholarly community is concerned, will most likely depend on the specific preoccupations of the historians interested in Davis’s life and times. Would-be biographers attempting to bring his life into better focus will probably answer with a resounding no. A definitive Davis biography is one of the major unfinished tasks of Civil War scholarship, and one can imagine scores of potential biographers pawing the ground at the starting gate as they anxiously await the completion of the Davis Papers, Scholars whose interests fall under the more general heading of Davis’s times are likely to be more patient, however. For them, the prodigious efforts of James T. Mclntosh and the other skilled members of his editorial team are producing a rich mine of information which will be exploited for years to come. Historians are supposed to have an understanding of the slow, steady pace with which human events unfold, and they should be able to see the benefits of a thorough, albeit time-consuming, approach to a scholarly enterprise of this magnitude. Aspiring Davis biographers, on the other hand, may be tempted to apply the famous aphorism attributed to John Maynard Keynes when he was asked about the merits of long run as opposed to short run economic analysis. “In the long run,” Keynes is supposed to have said, “we are all dead.”

There is no question at all about the excellence of the volume under review here. It is a model of editorial thoroughness, and it offers the best documentary guide we are ever likely to have of Davis’s formative years as a politician. The entries trace Davis from his first, unsuccessful campaign for public office (an 1843 state legislative race against Sergeant S. Prentiss), through his state-wide speaking tour prior to the Presidential election of 1844 as a Mississippi elector for James K. Polk, to his victorious battle for a seat in the United States Congress the following year. Davis’s speeches and correspondence while a member of the House of Representatives from December 1845 to July 1846 conclude the volume. In his numerous stump speeches and his congressional addresses, Davis emerges clearly as a strong Jacksonian Democrat, tinged only slightly with the Southern hues which will color his politics so strongly in the decade of the 1850’s. He supported Jackson’s hard-money, antibank views, worked vigorously for tariff reduction, opposed federal support for internal improvements of a primarily local character, and advocated territorial expansion through the annexation of Texas and a settlement of the Oregon question that would satisfy legitimate American claims.

Perhaps the most intriguing of all his pro-Jackson positions was his endorsement of Jackson’s strong defense of the Union during the Nullification crisis. In a fascinating “Eulogy on the Life and Character of Andrew Jackson,” delivered in 1845, the young Mississippi planter-politician left no doubt that he agreed with Jackson’s course of action against South Carolina during the 1830’s. “Resistance to the laws it was his duty to suppress by all the means at his command,” Davis told a Vicksburg audience, “and when loud and deep were heard threats of disunion, the destruction of that confederacy, the establishment of which had cost him all except his honor and his life, he resolved, cost what it might, to save it.” Sectional references occasionally crop up in his speeches. In remarks to the 1844 Mississippi State Democratic Convention, for example, he claimed that the annexation of Texas was “a point of vital importance to the South” because the slave-holding states were “becoming relatively weaker” while the “fanatical spirit which has for years been battering in breach the defenses with which the federal constitution surrounds our institutions” was gaining strength. Pro-Southern statements dot his speeches more frequently after he takes his seat in Congress late in 1845, but on balance his avoidance of strongly sectional, pro-slavery rhetoric is one of the most noteworthy features of his public addresses in the years covered by this volume,

The only disappointing feature of the first volume of The Papers of Jefferson Davis was the almost total lack of private letters to and from Davis while he was a young man. Most of Davis’s personal correspondence from his early years appears to have been destroyed by Federal troops in Mississippi during the Civil War. If it were not for the fortunate survival of a packet of love letters to his second wife, Varina Banks Howell, and several letters from Varina to members of her family, the second volume would also be almost completely barren of material affording a glimpse of Davis as a private rather than a public man. Particularly revealing is a letter 17-year-old Varina sent her mother just after she had met Davis for the first time in December 1843.

“He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me,” she wrote; “yet he is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself.” She thought Davis was “the kind of person I should expect to rescue one from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward.” She obviously found him an attractive man, but she insisted that she would never “like him as I do his brother Joe.” Most incredible of all, Davis was “refined and cultivated, and yet he is a Democrat!” A courtship blossomed despite his political persuasion, and their romance was undoubtedly furthered by the tender letters Davis, then in his mid-thirties, sent to Miss Ho well. “You surely did not think how much it would cost me when you asked me to burn your letters,” he told her in March 1844; “if the house was on fire those letters with the flowers you have made sacred by wearing and the lock of your hair, would be the first thing I should think of saving.” They were married in February 1845, and by the end of that year, 19-year-old Varina Howell Davis was living in Washington as a congressman’s wife, sending home the latest social gossip and remarking, with something less than girlish modesty, that she had the reputation “of giving the most delightful little hops of the season.”

Davis must have carried on a fairly extensive political correspondence while he was serving in the House, but almost none of these letters seem to have survived. Extant documents written by Davis during his term in Congress consist largely of queries seeking information, favors, and services from various government bureaucrats for his Mississippi constituents. These letters, culled primarily from files in the National Archives by what was obviously some very laborious searching, give the impression that Davis must have frequently felt like the status of his high office had been reduced to the level of a pension clerk or a land office functionary. His health deteriorated in Washington, and Varina confided to her mother in January 1846 that “Jeff. . .is not so happy as he used to be—his mind wants rest.” “I feel so fearful—so uneasy—he has not been well since we arrived here,” she went on; “he has little fevers—cold constantly—severe earaches he sits up until two or three o’clock at night writing— until his eyes even lose their beauty to me they look so red and painful.” She thought “he would not stand it another year.” Six months later they were on their way back to Mississippi, where Davis would take command of the state’s volunteer regiment in the war against Mexico. His star was still rising. A Vicksburg newspaper editor’s prediction in 1845 that young Jefferson Davis would become “the Calhoun of Mississippi” and “the impersonation of the true spirit of the South” was closer to realization than anyone then knew.

This review should not close without a word on the handsome design of the book itself. The Louisiana State University Press has lavishly provided maps and illustrations and a typography and binding commensurate with the quality of the editorial work that went into this volume. The editors and the publisher deserve the highest praise for their joint efforts.


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