Name:  Jefferson Davis

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Born:  June 3, 1808?
Died:  December 6, 1889
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Jefferson Davis was a U.S. senator from Mississippi, secretary of war, and, most famously, president of the Confederacy. He was born in Christian (later Todd) County, Kentucky, to Jane Cook Davis and Samuel Emory Davis, who were frontier farmers. The exact year of his birth was not recorded. When he was a young boy, the family moved to the Louisiana Territory, then to Mississippi. He was educated for two years at St. Thomas College, a Catholic boarding school in Kentucky, before resuming his studies at academies near his familyís home in Mississippi. He attended Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, for one year beginning in 1823. His father died the next year. Jeffersonís eldest brother, Joseph, secured his sibling an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His record as a cadet (1824-1828) was one of rowdy behavior and mediocre academic achievement.

Upon graduation the army commissioned Davis as a lieutenant and assigned him to the West. He saw little action, however, even during the Black Hawk War (1832), most of which he missed while away on furlough. In 1835, a military court found Davis guilty of showing disrespect toward a superior officer, but determined that it was not a military offense. Unhappy with the decision as well as with army life, he resigned. In June 1835, he married Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Zachary Taylor; she died three months later of yellow fever or malaria. Davis helped manage his eldest botherís plantations for several years. During that time he read extensively and became interested in public affairs, developing into a Democratic partisan and an advocate of statesí rights and territorial expansion.

In 1843, Davis was defeated in a race for state legislator, but the next year he was elected to Congress. In 1845, he married Varina Howell. With the commencement of the Mexican War, Davis resigned from Congress to join the Mississippi volunteers. He performed skillfully at the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista, for which he became a hero in his home state. In August 1847, the Mississippi legislature recognized Davisís new stature by appointing him to fill the U.S. Senate seat left unoccupied upon the death of Jesse Speight. In the Senate, Davis chaired the Committee on Military Affairs, promoted territorial expansion, and defended slavery, statesí rights, and Southern interests. He staunchly opposed the Compromise of 1850, which attempted to settle issues, particularly related to slavery, provoked by the Mexican War.  He countered unsuccessfully with a proposal for extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean (anticipating the equally unsuccessful Crittendon Compromise of 1861).

Davis resigned from the Senate in September 1851 to run for governor of Mississippi, but was defeated in a close election. In the spring of 1853, he was appointed to be secretary of war by the new Democratic president, Franklin Pierce. Davis proved to be a competent administrator who strengthened the U.S. army by insisting on improved training and equipment, merit promotions, and expanded arsenals, defenses, and personnel. He dispatched survey teams to locate potential routes for a transcontinental railroad, which he supported for national security reasons. He also advanced Southern views within the Pierce administration.

In 1857, Davis was reelected to the U.S. Senate, where he again served as chair of the Military Affairs Committee. When the Democratic Party split in the election of 1860, he supported the Southern candidate, John Breckinridge. Davis did not endorse immediate secession following Lincolnís election, but worked for compromise and supported the ill-fated Crittendon Compromise. When Mississippi seceded from the Union, Davis resigned his Senate seat. He accepted with reluctance the presidency of the newly proclaimed Confederate States of America.

As chief executive of a region seeking independence against a stronger opponent, Davis faced great obstacles. He has been praised as an intelligent, flexible, and effective administrator, but he lacked the crucial ability to inspire and lead the populace. He has been criticized for making unsound appointments, not paying enough attention to the western military theater, and ignoring the suffering of the general population. He interpreted the emergency powers under the Confederate constitution broadly and consequently oversaw the use of a military draft, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and the government regulation or control of key industries. After the northern elections in 1864, Davis proposed to arm slaves and to free them as a reward for military service. Despite intense opposition, the Confederate Congress approved a revised version of his plan, although the war ended before it was implemented.

When the Civil War ended in Confederate defeat, Davis was arrested and incarcerated at Fort Monroe (Hampton, Virginia) for two years. After being paroled, he published a two-volume The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which defended the right of secession. He engaged in several unsuccessful business ventures, and then died of pneumonia on December 6, 1889, while in New Orleans.

Sources consulted: American National Biography; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress; The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, ed. William A. Degregorio





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