- Series: Modern Library Classics
- Paperback: 496 pages
- Publisher: Modern Library (August 10, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0812972082
- ISBN-13: 978-0812972085
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #773,447 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Jefferson Davis: The Essential Writings (Modern Library Classics) Paperback – August 10, 2004
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“Eclipsed in our memory of the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and other military heroes, Jefferson Davis was arguably one of the most important figures in the antebellum and wartime eras. Davis’s biographer William J. Cooper, Jr., has sifted through the huge number of Davis letters and speeches to select those that best tell the story of his life and provide insight on his character in this invaluable volume.” —James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
“To have the most important letters, speeches, and public documents of Jefferson Davis gathered into a single volume is invaluable. To have Jefferson Davis’s leading modern biographer making the selection and placing the documents in context was inspired.” —George C. Rable, Charles G. Summersell Professor of Southern History, University of Alabama, and author of Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, winner of the 2003 Lincoln Prize
“This volume, full of well-chosen words from Jefferson Davis, must be on every Civil War buff’s bookshelf.” —William W. Freehling, Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky and author of The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War
“William J. Cooper, Jr., is exactly the right person to prepare a useful and accessible single-volume edition of Davis’s most important writings, and he has performed that task superbly. Historians, students, and the general public alike will all find this to be a fascinating volume.” —Michael F. Holt, Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History, University of Virginia, and co-author of The Civil War and Reconstruction
“He had the pride, the spirit of initiative, the capacity in business which qualify men for leadership, and lacked nothing of the indomitable will and imperious purpose to make his leadership effective.” —Woodrow Wilson
From the Hardcover edition.
From the Inside Flap
Jefferson Davis is one of the most complex and controversial figures in American political history (and the man whom Oscar Wilde wanted to meet more than anyone when he made his tour of the United States). Elected president of the Confederacy and later accused of participating in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he is a source of ongoing dissension between northerners and southerners. This volume, the first of its kind, is a selected collection of his writings culled in large part from the authoritative "Papers of Jefferson Davis, a multivolume edition of his letters and speeches published by the Louisiana State University Press, and includes thirteen documents from manuscript collections and one privately held document that have never before appeared in a modern scholarly edition. From letters as a college student to his sister, to major speeches on the Constitution, slavery, and sectional issues, to his farewell to the U.S. Senate, to his inaugural address as Confederate president, to letters from prison to his wife, these selected pieces present the many faces of the enigmatic Jefferson Davis.
As William J. Cooper, Jr., writes in his Introduction, "Davis's notability does not come solely from his crucial role in the Civil War. Born on the Kentucky frontier in the first decade of the nineteenth century, he witnessed and participated in the epochal transformation of the United States from a fledgling country to a strong nation spanning the continent. In his earliest years his father moved farther south and west to Mississippi. As a young army officer just out of West Point, he served on the northwestern and southwestern frontiers in an army whose chief mission was to protectsettlers surging westward. Then, in 1846 and 1847, as colonel of the First Mississippi Regiment, he fought in the Mexican War, which resulted in 1848 in the Mexican Cession, a massive addition to the United States of some 500,000 square miles, including California and the modern Southwest. As secretary of war and U.S. senator in the 1850s, he advocated government support for the building of a transcontinental railroad that he believed essential to bind the nation from ocean to ocean."
"From the Hardcover edition.
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Davis's authority and resolve grow throughout the course of the book. And his often lengthy letters recreate in vivid detail the context in which he writes. He has a wonderful (for us) habit of recounting all that has occurred that prompted each letter or report or speech, and thus little editorial explanation is really required. Sometimes, however, his accounts of events are almost diffident and self-effacing, and lack true context, as for example in his official report of his tactical decisions at the battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War. The context, of course, is that it was a splendid victory, and he returned home to Mississippi as a war hero and important national figure. During writings like these, I longed for a more intrusive role from the editor, but Davis's words are left to speak for themselves.
One of Davis's most remarkable attributes is how strikingly different his written communiques are from his speeches. The first are straightforward, almost as functionary as that Mexican War report. His speeches, however, are powerful and full of ringing phrases and colorful metaphors and similes. It is true that Davis studied rhetoric and highly prized the flourishes and style of the classical orator, but we have here before us vivid proof of his extempore style in glorious bloom, filled with clarity and humor. His written prose often sits a bit sullenly on the page.
This selection of writings also makes plain Davis's unapologetic views on slavery and blacks, along with his clear-eyed opinions of states' rights versus federalism, the U.S. Constitution, and the right of secession. Time and again he details ideas that seem shocking to us today: he justifies slavery because blacks can't take care of themselves, or because it exposes them to Christianity. He believed slavery also to be good for whites, because it "elevates" poor Southern whites to work above the menial, and to enjoy an equality with the wealthy. Some of these views seem laughable and antique (if not deplorable) to our 21st Century ears. Some of them even appear apologetic and self-serving. But Davis was no hypocrite; further, his writings (and the writings elsewhere of many others) point up how contemporary Northerners (excluding, officially, abolitionists) felt complete distain for blacks. He also notes the shocking scenes of extreme white poverty he saw in Northern cities, and the sweat-shop conditions of working whites in Northern factories, virtually slavery. Davis's point to Northern moralizing was simple: Put your own house in order before condemning and trammeling on the institutions of others.
Most dramatically, Davis comes across not as a secessionist. His closest equivalent today would be the "strict constructionist" judges and politicians who believe the U.S. Constitution meant exactly what it said. And what it said was, slavery is legal, the states are voluntary members of a voluntary union, and people have a right to their property (even if that property is another human). Davis condemned Northern-sponsored restrictions on the rights of slave-owners to migrate with their slaves to the western territories. Others could bring their property with them to these new lands, presumably held in common by every American; why not slave holders? Davis saw Northern agitators, attacking legal institutions which Southerners had inherited, as the true instigators of disunion. Throughout the war, he insists again and again, the Yankees had usurped the true American nation, forcing out Southerners now intent on recreating the original vision of the Founding Fathers.
Depending on your point of view, Davis either was out of step with the times, or a man refusing to yield on a point of principle. In reality, he straddled a critical transition between the old ways and the new. Like standing over an earthquake fissure, he had to jump one way or the other. He and his countrymen jumped firmly on the side of the old, and the South went down in flames. But Davis never went down. He was unreconstructed to the end, the original father and symbol of the Southern cause. Who knows ... he may have hated the role. But he played it out perfectly to the end.
What William C. Davis has done is to make both the man and the forces that gave him fire and light more immediate and tangible.
Weaving through the myriad controversies and struggles of the pre-Civil War, Civil War and post war years, the author somehow manages to explain endless geographical, political and societal issues without ever losing sight of Davis' central role in them.
A dense but vastly entertaining book that even readers who are not interested in the Civil War would find fascinating.