The Jefferson Davis you may not know about

By Dr. Arnold M. Huskins | Guest Columnist
Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Today, June 3, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the American statesman and Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

His birthday was once a state holiday in Georgia, but the 200th anniversary of his birth is being ignored while the one of his adversary, Abraham Lincoln, will be celebrated by academia and government officials next year. To many, this is as it should be, for they view Davis as the rabid secessionist and traitor whose sole purpose was to suppress blacks in America. Unfortunately, their knowledge of him is severely limited.

Davis, the son of a Revolutionary War patriot, had a long history of service to the United States. Graduating from West Point, he served with distinction in the Black Hawk War and in the Mexican War as commander of the First Mississippi Rifles. Elected as a U.S. representative and twice elected senator from the Magnolia State, he also served as Secretary of War, when he enlarged the Army, modernized military procedures, directed important Western land surveys for future railroad construction, and masterminded the Gadsden Purchase.

DURING THE secession crisis, he urged restraint, making speeches in Boston against it and joining the Committee of Thirteen in hopes of finding a compromise to keep the nation united. When Mississippi seceded, only reluctantly did he resign his Senate seat, asking its members to forgive him for any offenses he may had committed against them. In the Southern nation, he hoped to become a military commander, but the delegates chose him to be their new president which he accepted with resignation. Immediately, he appointed a Peace Commission to resolve the Confederacy’s differences with the Union, offering to pay for any federal property on Southern soil as well as any of the Southern portion of the national debt.

As president of the Confederate States, Davis was unflinching in his efforts to maintain the new nation engaged in its struggle for survival. Realizing that increased centralization was necessary for success, Davis’ efforts were opposed by states’ rights advocates. Nonetheless, he obtained a power then unprecedented in American history — the power to conscript men to fight. So unwavering was his devotion to Southern independence that he proposed late in the war the arming and freeing of the South’s slaves. Interestingly enough, while living at the Confederate White House in Richmond, Va., Davis and his wife became the foster parents of an orphaned, abused black child known as Jim Limber Davis.

AFTER THE WAR, Davis was captured in Irwinville, Ga., and was sent to Fortress Monroe, where he was placed in irons for three days. He was indicted for treason and imprisoned for two years, but was never brought to trial and released. Suffering from ill health, he tried several business ventures before retiring to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When he died in 1889, The New York Times eulogized Davis with a 2,000 word tribute.

Surprisingly, Davis’ views on slavery were progressive compared to the prevailing sentiments of that day. As a slave owner, he always was working within the constraints of society to be kind to his slaves, whom he regarded as people and not just property, and he never gave them nicknames, believing it to be disrespectful. He established a judicial system ran entirely by his slaves, with him having only one right — the power to reduce a sentence.

Davis believed that blacks could be as smart and productive as whites, and he believed in the educability and progress of blacks in America. He organized his plantation, Brierfield, for the kind of training that would protect them, once freed, from being exploited by ruthless white competition. In his view, slavery would have a natural end — "the slave must be made fit for his freedom by education and discipline and thus made unfit for slavery."

JEFFERSON DAVIS was a man of his times, and — though maligned by the Southern people after the war — he gained their respect after suffering on their behalf. Unfortunately, political correctness has caused many today to have a myopic and negative view of Davis. However, his contributions to both nations that he loved should not be ignored.

© 2008 The Augusta Chronicle

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