Jefferson Davis: Our Greatest Hero

Jefferson Davis: Our Greatest Hero


by Dr. Grady McWhiney
Southern League National Director

During and after the War for Southern Independence, Jefferson Davis was accused of a wide variety of villainies. Not all of his accusers were Yankees, but Northerners made the most extensive and lasting attacks upon Davis. In one of these insults -- a letter embossed with an American eagle crushing "Secession" and holding proudly in its beak a U.S. banner announcing "Death to Traitors" -- a New Yorker wrote: "Jeff Davis you rebel traitor here is the beauty of America one of the greatest treasures that ever waved over your sinful head. Now I want you to look at this motto and think of me for -- say death to cession [sic] and death to all traitors to their country and these are my sentiments exactly. Yours not with respect for I can never respect a traitor to his Country a cursed traitor." The same view of Davis as being "among the archtraitors in our annals" was expressed just as emphatically years later by Theodore Roosevelt and Harvard University Professor Albert T. Perkins.

Davis became, and remained to Northerners, the quintessential wrongdoer. Later generations of liberal progressives would consider him an American Hitler. Immediately after the War for Southern Independence Yankee authorities put Davis in jail and left him there for two years without a trial, while they tried to implicate him in the assassination of Lincoln, alleged cruelty to Federal prisoners, and treason itself. Though never brought to trial or convicted of any crime, Davis received abundant abuse in the Yankee press and on the podium. During and after the war the New York Times depicted him as a murderer, a cruel slaveowner whose servants ran away, a liar, a boaster, a fanatic, a confessed failure, a hater, a political adventurer, a supporter of outcasts and outlaws, a drunkard, an atrocious misrepresenter, an assassin, an incendiary, a criminal who was gratified by the assassination of Lincoln, a henpecked husband, a man so shameless that he would try to escape capture by disguising himself as a woman, a supporter of murder plots, an insubordinate soldier, an unwholesome sleeper, and a mean-spirited malingerer.

Anti-Davis sentiment was more than mere newspaper talk. Following the war the citizens of Sacramento, California, true to their vigilante tradition, hanged Davis in effigy. A few months later the Kansas Senate passed a resolution to hang him in person. More than ten years after the war ended, widespread opposition prevented him from speaking anywhere in the North. In 1876 a Yankee newspaper editor answered the question, should Davis be given amnesty, with a resounding "no," and in 1880 a man who cheered for Jefferson Davis in Madison, Indiana, was shot.

"Malice and slander have exhausted their power against you," a Southerner tried to assure the continually criticized Confederate President. At the end of the nineteenth century an observer noted: "I believe there never was a time when a whole people were more willing to punish one man than were the people of the North to punish Mr. Davis for his alleged crimes." Twenty years after Davis's death, handbills accusing him in Lincoln's assassination still circulated, and the New York Times published an editorial denouncing plans for a Southerner to donate for use on the new battleship Mississippi a silver service with the likeness of Jefferson Davis etched on each piece. More than a hundred years passed before the Congress of the United States officially forgave Davis for being President of the Confederacy.

No other Confederate leader had to wait so long for either official or unofficial exoneration. By the early 1900s, Robert E. Lee, the greatest Yankee killer of all time, had become a national hero, absolved of his sins, and soon considered so harmless that the government allowed his picture to be hung on the walls of Southern public schools alongside those of Washington and Lincoln. When I was young a number of Southern schools were named in honor of Jefferson Davis, but since then most, if not all of those, have been forced to change their names to dishonor the Confederate President.

Such efforts to disgrace him bothered even Southerners who were never his "particular friend." "I never believed he was a very great man, or even the best President the Confederate States might have had," wrote John S. Wise. "But he was our President. Whatever shortcomings he may have had, he was a brave, conscientious and loyal son of the South. He did his best, to the utmost of his ability, for the Southern cause. He, without being a whit worse than the rest of us, was made to suffer for us as was no other man in the Confederacy. And through it all he never, to the day of his death, failed to maintain the honor and the dignity of the trust confided to his keeping. It distresses me to this day," admitted Wise, "whenever I hear anybody speak disparagingly of this man, who was unquestionably devoted to the cause for which he lived and died, and who was infinitely greater than his traducers."

Davis knew how much he was maligned. He rejected an invitation to visit the North in 1875, explaining "the tide of unreasoning prejudice against me, in your section, was too strong to be resisted." "Demagogues, who know better, have found it easier to inflame and keep alive the passions of the war by personifying the idea [that] I instigated and precipitated it."

Yankees had even stronger reasons for damning Davis. He was, after all, a wholehearted supporter of those symbols of Southern wickedness that union military might had discredited -- slavery, states' rights, and secession. Davis had defended slavery; described the federal government as having "no inherent power, all it possesses was delegated by the States"; and he was equally emphatic on the legitimacy and necessity of secession. "The temper of the Black Republicans is not to give us our rights in the Union, or allow us to go peaceably out of it," he declared in January 1861. "If we had no other cause, this would be enough to justify secession, at whatever hazard." A few days later hereported to his old friend President Franklin Pierce: "Mississippi, not as a matter of choice but of necessity, has resolved to enter on the trial of secession. Those who have driven her to this alternative threaten to deprive her of the right to require that her government shall rest on the consent of the governed."

The invidious comparisons made between Davis and Lincoln during and after the war by certain foreigners further embittered Northerners. For example, William Howard Russell's published diary contained this unflattering contrast: "[Davis] is certainly a very different looking man from Mr. Lincoln. He is like a gentleman." Or consider the remarks of Percy Greg whose "Tribute to Confederate Heroes" appeared in 1882. He praised Davis as having more "moral and intellectual powers" than any twenty Federal statesmen, and a man vastly superior in every way to "the 'rail-splitter'. . . whose term, had he died in his bed four or five years later, would have been remembered only as marking the nadir of American political decline; the culmination of vulgarity. Lincoln's uncleanness of language and thought," insisted Greg, "would hardly have been tolerated in a Southern 'bar.'"

Perhaps even the contrast between the "gentlemanly" warfare advocated by Davis and the comprehensive destruction practiced by such terrorizers of civilians as Sherman and Sheridan embarrassed some Yankees. Davis believed that war should consist solely of combat between organized armies. He abhorred the killing of civilians and the destruction of private property during hostilities. Years after the war, when General Grant was dying of cancer, Davis wrote: "I have felt a human sympathy with him in his suffering, the more so because I think him so much better than the pillaging, house-burning, women persecuting Sherman and Sheridan." Judah P. Benjamin recalled that "when it was urged upon Jefferson Davis, not only by friends but by members of his Cabinet, that it was his duty to the people and to the army to repress outrages by retaliation, he was immovable in his resistance to such counsels, insisting that it was repugnant to every sentiment of justice and humanity that the innocent should be made victims for the crimes of such monsters." Davis proudly proclaimed after the war: "I am happy to remember that when our army invaded the enemy's country, their property was safe."

What made Davis so distinct and so utterly intolerable to most Yankees was his refusal to admit any guilt or to apologize for his actions and the cause he led. He told veterans of the Army of Tennessee who came to Mississippi to honor him in 1878: "Your organization was appropriate to preserve the memories and cherished brotherhoods of your soldier life, and cannot be objectionable to any, unless it be to one who holds your services to have been in an unworthy cause and your conduct such as called for repentance and forgiveness." Davis reminded these old soldiers that they must maintain pride in their cause as well as in their soldierly conduct. "The veteran who shoulders his crutch to show how fields were won must notbe ashamed of the battle in which he was wounded," Davis affirmed. "To higher natures success is not the only test of merit; and you, my friends, though you were finally unsuccessful, have the least possible cause to regret the flag under which you marched or the manner in which you upheld it."

Given this opportunity to explain his views to an understanding audience, Davis unburdened himself. "Every evil which has befallen our institutions is directly traceable to the perversion of the compact of union and the usurpation by the Federal Government of undelegated powers," he contended. "The events are too recent to require recapitulation, and the ruin they have wrought, the depravity they have developed, require no other memorial than the material and moral wreck which the country presents." Davis still believed in secession: My faith in that right as an inherent attribute of State sovereignty, was adopted early in life, was confirmed by study and observation of later years, and has passed, unchanged and unshaken, through the severe ordeal to which it has been subjected." He could express such views, he told his listeners, because he had no "desire for a political future." His only desire was to establish "the supremacy of the truths on which the union was founded." As for himself, he asserted, "I shall die, as I have lived, firm in the State rights faith."

Throughout his remaining years, Davis reiterated these views in speeches, letters, and interviews. He told an appreciative audience of Southerners in 1882: "Our cause was so just, so sacred, that had I known all that has come to pass, had I known all that was to be inflicted upon me, all that my country was to suffer, all that our posterity was to endure, I would do it all over again. [Great applause.]" A year earlier Davis had written to a fellow Southerner: "Nothing fills me with deeper sadness than to see a Southern man apologizing for the defence we made of our inheritance & denying the great truths on which all our institutions were founded. To be crushed by superior force, to be robbed & insulted, were great misfortunes, but these could be borne while there still remained manhood to assert the truth, and a proud consciousness in the rectitude of our course. When I find myself reviled by Southern papers as one renewing 'dead issues,' the pain is not caused by the attack upon myself, but by its desecration of the memories of our Fathers & those of their descendants who staked in defence of their rights -- their lives, their property & their sacred honor. To deny the justice of their cause, to apologize for its defence, and denounce it as a dead issue, is to take the last of their stakes, that for which they were willing to surrender the other."

A reporter who interviewed Davis a few years before he died discovered that the Confederate President's "heart [was] as warm as ever for the land he has loved so well," and that Davis "did not desert during the war and has not deserted since."

His steadfastness, his refusal to desert his cause, made Davis particularly obnoxious to his enemies. He was so unlike those Southerners who after the war disassociated themselves from their past as quickly as did certain Germans after World War II and thus gained American forgiveness and patronage. Davis was just the opposite of his fellow Mississippian Confederate General James L. Alcorn, who announced shortly after the war: "You were right Yankee! We are and ever have been in the Union; secession was a nullity. We will now take the oath to support the Constitution and the laws of the United States." As proof of his sincerity, Alcorn became a Republican governor of Mississippi in 1869 and a Republican member of the U.S. Senate in 1871. He also recouped his wartime financial losses and increased his property holdings. Good Yankees approved of such "enlightened" new Southerners as Alcorn, who were "eager to keep step with the North in the onward march of the Solid Nation," as one man expressed it; they disapproved of Jefferson Davis and their newspapers castigated him as "unrepentant" and "the greatest enemy of the South."

vis still carries such encumbrances. Were he alive today, even the most skilled public relations firm would have difficulty packaging him for the market. He was too honest and too politically incorrect to be elected to public office, or even to have any future in higher education, that last refuge of scoundrels. Scarcely any university professor would want Davis as a colleague. He probably would be as unsuccessful today in business as he was after the war. I even doubt that he could have found employment as aradio talk-show host. He was too dignified and too proud to truckle.

Yankees would have liked nothing better than to recast Jefferson Davis as a repentant sinner asking for forgiveness, but he refused to accommodate them. Instead, he assumed the burden of the lost cause, becoming the symbolic defender of not just the Confederacy and a proud Southern tradition, but of its people, their culture, and what Yankees judge to be their unforgivable past. Jefferson Davis is, and should be, our greatest hero. Like no other, he withstood criticism and denigration without kowtowing or wavering. Asking for no pardon, he refused to denounce his people or his cause. His image ought to be everywhere to remind us that for more than a hundred years he has symbolized our courage, our pride, and our unity.

In 1882, a year after the publication of his two-volume defense of himself and the Confederate cause, Davis advocated what Yankees considered totally unforgivable -- a history of the South written by and for Southerners. "I would have our children's children to know not only that our cause was just," he told members of the Southern Historical Society, "but to have them know that the men who sustained it were worthy of the cause for which they fought." Davis, full of hope and passion, outlined in this remarkable address, just what he believed history ought to be and how it should be used. "It is our duty to keep the memory of our heroes green," he announced. "We want our side of the war so fully and exactly stated, that the men who come after us may compare and do [us] justice." Davis did not call for objectivity. "I will frankly acknowledge that I would distrust the man who served the Confederate cause and was capable of giving a disinterested account of it. [Applause.]" "I would not give twopence for a man whose heart was so cold that he could be quite impartial," admitted Davis. "You may ask the schoolboy in the lowest form, who commanded at the Pass of Thermopylae. He can tell you. But my friends there are few in this audience who, if I ask them, could tell me who commanded at Sabine Pass. And yet," said Davis, "that battle of Sabine Pass was more remarkable than the battle of Thermopylae, and when it has orators and poets to celebrate it, will be so esteemed by mankind.

His appeal for orators and poets to preserve the deeds of heroic Southerners reveals that Davis understood the South's heritage. Southerners, like their Celtic ancestors, were oral and aural people who perpetuated much of their past in stories and songs. Davis compared the Confederacy's military heroes with their Scottish forebears: "May it not come to pass that in some hour of need, future generations, aware of the grandeur and the virtues of these men, will in a moment of disaster cry out like the ancient Scot:

O for an hour of Wallace wight,
Or well-trained Bruce
To lead the fight,
And cry St. Andrew and our right."

History, Davis believed, must inspire those who learn it. "Let the rising generation learn what their fathers did," he implored, "and let them learn the still better lesson to emulate not only the deeds, but the motives which prompted them. May God grant that sons ever greater than their fathers may rise whenever their country needs them to defence her cause. [Applause.]"

The kind of history that Davis advocated was unacceptable to Yankees. First, it was incompatible with the so-called scientific history taught in German seminars and in the later nineteenth century being popularized in the United States by Yankee professors. As adapted for Americans, this history stressed the evolution of New England institutions and how they contributed to the greatness of the United States. There was no place in such history for either the bard or the poet upon whom Davis relied to celebrate Southern values and heroes. Second, a history of the South that revered Southerners and their values rather than Northerners and their values would undermine all that the war had decided. To the victor went the power to write the history that justified the victory. It was that simple.

British history is really English history imposed upon the non-English peoples of the British Isles by their English conquerors. The same may be said of the history of the United States. What passes for standard American history is Yankee history written by New Englanders or their puppets to glorify Yankee ideals and heroes.

In the twentieth century, Yankees gained increasing control over the historical journals, the university presses, the commercial publishing houses, and the production and distribution of professional historians; consequently, the Yankee version of the American past became the history most often taught in the colleges and in the public schools.

It is precisely this condition that Mississippian Dunbar Rowland first complained about eighty years ago. "It seems to be admitted on all sides that the people of the South are neglecting the teaching of Southern History in all our institutions," he informed the governor. "That we are neglecting this important field of instruction is made evident by the astonishing amount of ignorance of Southern and State history among the rising generation of college students. Something should be done to enlighten them."

Part of the problem has been that the professors who taught the South's teachers adopted the "New South" doctrine of national unity as readily as Southern businessmen. North Carolina educator Robert Bingham announced in 1884 that "the greatest blessing that ever befell us was a failure to establish a [Southern] nationalism." Bingham boasted that "the past of the South is irrevocable, and we do not wish to recall it. The past of the South is irreparable, and we do not wish to repair it."

Yet this teaching of Yankee ideas and biases in Southern public schools, which Francis Butler Simkins labeled "the education that does not educate," often has been offset "by the survival of overwhelming traditions." Robert Penn Warren testified that his sympathetic view of Confederate history was obtained not from the schoolroom, but rather "from the air around me."

If today the South's air is still full of Confederate history, the bookshelves are not. Yankees now control the writing, publishing, and marketing of most books on the South's history and culture. Yankee professors and Southerners who think like Yankees have taken over most Southern colleges and universities. Southerners who believe in the traditions that Jefferson Davis appreciated are finding themselves unemployable, denied careers in higher education by national forces that systematically discriminate against them. Only Yankees and Scalawags who truckle to the enemies of Southern history and culture get important jobs where they have the opportunity to train college teachers. Most Southerners are relegated to academic Siberia where they receive low pay, scant research opportunities, and rarely see gifted students.

Something not yet fully understood, but that could destroy our culture, has occurred during the more than forty years that I have been a college professor. Discrimination against Southerners has always existed, but today in education it is rampant. Trying to find jobs for young Southerners is difficult in a market that favors political correctness and disdains Southerners. No university, not even one in the South, wants to hire a native son, especially one who appreciates Southern traditions. Not only has Jefferson Davis remained unforgiven by his enemies; so have the Southerners who came after him. We are being reduced to the status once imposed on our Celtic relatives -- the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish -- by their English neighbors. God help us!

  • Dr. McWhiney holds an endowed chair in Southern history at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, and is the author of a number of books, including Attack & Die and Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. This address was given in conjunction with the national meeting in Nashville at the Jefferson Davis birthday celebration in Centennial Park, 3 June 1995.



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