JEFFERSON DAVIS by Eaton Clement


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A mediocrity in charge of an impossibility--this is the Jefferson Davis that emerges from Eaton's sturdy biography, the first full-scale academic treatment of the Confederate president since 1907. Undistinguished as a West Point student, as a US Senator and as Franklin Pierce's Secretary of War, Davis was mainly noted for military bravery in Mexico and for his early espousal of ""Southern imperialism"" in the West. On the issues of Democratic Party unity and secession, however, he was no fire-eater, and his espousal of a merely defensive war against the Union was one of the sorest points among the multitude of his Confederate critics. A poor administrator and a stiff public figure unable to inspire the no-surrender passions he himself felt, Davis failed to build the Confederacy into a real nation. Freely admitting this, the sympathetic Eaton points to the difficulties confronting him, and here the book becomes especially valuable. Planters cared only for their personal property; soldiers deserted, en masse; state governors hoarded men and supplies from the central authorities, themselves crippled by a no-account Congress. The very states-rights principle the South was fighting for undermined it; taxation and rail development were foiled, while the ""common people"" bore the chief burdens of the war. There must have been some wryness in Davis' voice when, after the war, he told an Alabama throng, ""Your demonstration now exceeds that which welcomed me then"" at his presidential inauguration. Otherwise, we rarely hear Davis himself; though Eaton stresses his ""stoic armor"" and ""sphinxlike"" reserve, he also claims an eloquence never documented. Finally, Davis' sense of honor is stressed; but what the biography admirably shows is that honor demands results, unfortunately for Davis and his Confederacy.

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1977
Publisher: Free Press/Macmillan