I’ve long been interested in the American presidency. I’ve read, perhaps, more about the various men to have served that role than any other particular historical subject. Over the last 2+ years participating in the Cannonball, I’ve read about 20 biographies of various presidents. I have books on the office itself, not just the men who’ve sat in it. I’ve read countless articles and think pieces. And in all of this, Jefferson Davis, one and only president of the Confederate States of America, is never considered.
On its face, this seems reasonable. Davis was never elected to serve the American people, and the Confederacy lost the war. Why should he be counted among the (now) 45 men to have served their country in this way? The country he served no longer exists.
Looked at another way, he was president of approximately nine million Americans (roughly a third of whom were slaves, and given no rights or representation). Both before and after the war, these 9 million (again, barring the one-third held in bondage, and later disenfranchised) were seen as American citizens. The Civil War is often called the bloodiest war in US history, having taken at least three quarters of a million lives (more than any other conflict, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of overall population); which is a number that counts both Union and Confederate lives lost. If we count Confederate dead as American lives, and we count Confederate living as American lives, shouldn’t we count their president as one of the 45?
So I grabbed the first book on Davis that I could find, in an attempt to better understand his presidency. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t feel like I have a better handle on the man, or his years as the Confederate president.
McPherson spends scant time on his career prior to the Civil War, and doesn’t make much of an effort at drawing a character outline of the man. He’s shown as being fairly cold and austere, little liked by his contemporaries, and largely consigned to the scrap-heap of failure by history, but he acknowledges this is possibly unfair without fully exploring the potential discrepancies. Jefferson Davis was the most capable administrator the South had at its disposal, and he spent much of the war doing just that – combing through paperwork. He also took an active role in shaping military strategy. Having served in the army, Davis fought both in the Black Hawk War and the Mexican-American War, and eventually served as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. He wasn’t nearly as capable a military tactician as he thought himself, however, and often fought with military leaders on how best to fight the war (a trait, incidentally, that he shared with Abraham Lincoln).
His fighting wasn’t limited to military matters. Unlike Lincoln, he constantly battled with the Confederate Congress. It is an incontrovertible fact of history that the Civil War was fought to preserve slavery in the South. It wasn’t until decades after the war that southern apologists began distorting the causes of war (rebranding it as a war of northern aggression), but the justifications given by Confederate leaders (including in their articles of secession) make plain that the cause was slavery.
With that said, there’s no denying the fact that states rights were an issue. It’s just that the right they were fighting to preserve was the right to own slaves. Given this, however, the individual states that comprised the Confederacy were far stronger (relative to the CSA) than the Union states were to the USA. A confederation, after all, is a more loosely joined union of sovereign entities than the United States purports to be. So, almost by definition, Jefferson Davis had a far tougher job dictating to the southern states during the war than did Abraham Lincoln. The Confederacy simply didn’t run as smoothly, and he was far more constrained than his counterpart.
But, he showed himself to be a strong and decisive leader in spite of the numerous obstacles in his path. As the Confederacy lost ground in Arkansas, Arkansans demanded more troops be sent to defend the state. Jefferson Davis had none to spare, however. The Confederacy had a much smaller army than the Union, and needed to concentrate its forces to operate effectively. As can be imagined, this caused problems in states feeling the pressure of Union forces, like Arkansas. As can also be imagined in states already willing to secede from one union, threatening to leave another isn’t out of character. Jefferson Davis appointed a new Lt. General and declared martial law.
Despite his ability to take strong, decisive action when needed, Jefferson Davis has not gone down in history as an effective leader. He had a tendency to get lost in detail, and was generally disliked by everyone. He largely ignored civil matters in favor of military ones (however, there was an existential war taking place), and cared little for popular opinion. McPherson seems to generally lean towards the almost universal negative opinion of his legacy as being a relic of bad press more than actual incompetence; however, he doesn’t spend a great deal of time exploring this.
Ultimately, the South lost the war (I don’t need to explain this, right? We all know the Confederacy lost?), and Jefferson Davis’s 3 year tenure as president of the Confederate States of America came to an end. As often happened, he was never held to account over his role in dividing the country. Though he was seen as a traitor in the north, he was considered a hero in the south. And he never apologized for secession, the execution of captured blacks, nor their re-enslavement (both of which he ordered).
So, if we were to include him in our presidential rankings, where would he place? Despite this being a fairly thin biography, I think it’s safe to put him pretty near the bottom. While he may not have let the nation break apart like James Buchanan, or actively ignored the rebuilding of the South after the Civil War (and potential prevention of what would become Jim Crow) like Andrew Johnson, he was the actual president of the seceded states. I think it’s uncontroversial to say Jefferson Davis is the worst president in American history.