The title might seem odd, given that Jefferson Davis (1808-89) served as president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and never once, in the 34 years between the end of the war and his death, expressed any remorse for his part in the conflict that tore America apart. Yet, as historian William J. Cooper Jr. reminds us in his sober, comprehensive biography, Davis "saw himself as a faithful American ... a true son of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers." Indeed, Davis's own father had fought in the Revolution, and Davis himself was a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran. He declared January 21, 1861, "the saddest day of my life," as he resigned his U.S. Senate seat to follow his native state of Mississippi out of the Union; yet he also unflinchingly defended secession as a constitutionally guaranteed right. Cooper's measured portrait neither glosses over Davis's lifelong belief that blacks were inferior nor vilifies him for it: "My goal," he writes, "is to understand Jefferson Davis as a man of his time, not condemn him for not being a man of my time." The chapters on the Civil War show Davis intimately involved in military decisions, as well as in diplomatic attempts to gain foreign support for the Confederacy. Cooper acknowledges the irony of his subject--who interpreted the Constitution as strictly limiting federal authority--being forced by the war's exigencies to create a powerful, centralized Confederate government. Yet, this depiction of a forceful, self-confident Davis makes it clear that he never could have been anything but "a vigorous and potent chief executive." The author also paints an attractive picture of a warm family man who was devoted to his strong-minded wife and their children. Neither hagiography nor hatchet job, this evenhanded work sees Jefferson Davis whole. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Much has been written about Jefferson Davis, claims Cooper (The American South, etc.), professor of history at Louisiana State University, and most of it is negative. Instead of viewing Davis strictly through a modern lens, Cooper has set out to understand Davis as "a man of his time who had a significant impact on his time, and thus on history" and to "not condemn him for not being a man of my time." Davis was born in Kentucky in 1808 and attended Transylvania University in Lexington. In 1824, he left the South for West Point, graduated in 1828 with a commission as Brevet Second Lieutenant and went on to a noteworthy career as a hero of the Mexican War and an able statesman. Davis served as secretary of war under President Pierce and then as a U.S. senator from Mississippi. Indeed, Cooper notes, many thought Davis would be president one day. Always believing himself a firm supporter of the Constitution and a true patriot, Davis trusted in the sovereign rights of states ("he looked to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John C. Calhoun as the great explicators of states' rights and strict construction, of the proper understanding of the nation and the Constitution"), which included the right to own slaves if a state so chose. Although Davis did not initially favor secession, he believed the Confederacy's goals to be consistent with the America he honored, and was proud to serve as the president of the Confederacy. Previous accounts of Davis's life have argued that he was basically an incompetent leader; some even have suggested that the failure of the Confederacy was, at the core, Davis's fault. But here Davis appears much like any other leader, possessing both strengths and weaknesses. In the already cluttered field of Civil War history, Cooper's is the definitive biography; readers will be particularly pleased to discover the compelling power of his narrative. (Nov.)
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