On this day in 1889, Jefferson Davis passes away. He is best known as the former President of the Confederate States of America.
How ironic, given Davis’s feelings about the Civil War. He didn’t really want to secede from the Union in the first place, and he would have preferred not to serve as President of the Confederacy. Regardless, Davis was selected for the post. Mrs. Davis caught a glimpse of her husband’s face when he was first notified that he would be President. He looked “so grieved,” she later said, “that I feared some evil had befallen our family.”
Davis had served in the United States army or government for many years.
He was a veteran of the Black Hawk War and the Mexican-American War. He served in Congress, both as a representative and a Senator. He was Secretary of War for a time under Franklin Pierce, but then he returned to his service as a Senator.
Davis was an acknowledged leader of the South in Congress—but he still did not really want to separate from the Union. He finally left the Senate only when his home state, Mississippi, decided to secede. As he and other southern Senators departed, Davis gave a farewell speech. The southern Senators were leaving, Davis noted, because their states were “about to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us.”
As the southern Senators left the room, people in the gallery reportedly wept.
Davis would probably have preferred to serve as an officer in the Confederate Army, but he did not get his wish. When the seceding states held a constitutional convention in February 1861, delegates named Jefferson Davis as a provisional President. His nomination was basically a compromise between moderate and radical elements in the Confederacy.
Davis was inaugurated on February 18, 1861, noting that the southern states were asserting a “right which the Declaration of Independence of 1776 had defined to be inalienable; of the time and occasion for its exercise, they, as sovereigns, were the final judges, each for itself.” One of his first actions was to send a three-man peace commission to President Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln refused to meet with these men.
Jefferson ran unopposed in the presidential election that followed, and he was easily elected to a full, 6-year term on November 6, 1861. He was popular at first, but perhaps no one could have maintained such popularity during the course of a long, hard Civil War? Jefferson certainly had plenty of troubles. The Confederacy was facing tough odds, given its smaller population and relative lack of manufacturing facilities.
After Confederates surrendered to Union forces, Davis tried to escape to Texas. Andrew Johnson wasn’t going to let that happen! He thought that Davis might have helped in the assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln. After Davis was captured, he was held for a few years, but never fully tried in a court. He was indicted for treason, but the U.S. government faced potential difficulties in proving a case. Davis had not committed treason if the states had a constitutional right to secede. Ironically, the new 14th Amendment may have protected Davis further. It already punished him by forbidding him from holding public office in the future, thus any new trial and new punishment could be seen as punishing him twice for the same offense.
Many feared that either the constitutional claim or the double jeopardy claim could win. Johnson ended up issuing amnesty to Davis and others on Christmas Day in 1868.
The former President of the Confederate States of America lived out the rest of his life as a free man.
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (2003)
Jefferson Davis, Farewell to the Senate (Jan. 21, 1861) (reprinted HERE)
The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It (Brooks D. Simpson et al. eds; 2011)
William C. Davis, Look Away!: A History of the Confederate States of America (2002)