Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis
President of the Confederate States of America
February 18, 1861 to May 5, 1865

1855 to 1865
Source: Library of Congress

Jefferson Davis was elected the first & only President of the Confederate States of America, 1861 to 1865. While it was originally a provisional position, he was officially elected by the people on November 6, 1861 for a six year term. Ironically, Davis had never served a full term in any government position he had previously held & this would also be the case here.

Davis was one of ten children and was raised in the South, living in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. He had a very strong education throughout his life, which included time at a Catholic School (though he was Protestant), two colleges and eventually West Point. While at West Point Davis was put under house arrest during the Eggnog Riot, which was caused by the smuggling of whiskey to make an eggnog for a Christmas party. Almost one third of the students were involved and nineteen were court-martialed, though Davis was spared this punishment. It was also during this time that the beginning of a longstanding feud began between Davis and Joseph E. Johnston, which would have implications during the Civil War.

Feuds were not unusual in Davis’s life. He was a headstrong individual who lived life with conviction and enormous self assurance. He courted Sarah Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor, whom he later married against the future President’s approval. Everyone who attended the wedding was in tears, with the exception of Davis – which people found strange. Davis did cry three months after the wedding though, when Sarah unexpectedly died from malaria. Davis had been stricken with the disease as well but managed to survive, though it did cause the hollow cheekbones that was his most defining facial feature. He lived the next eight years in seclusion, studying government and history and talking politics with one of his brothers.

In 1844 he was elected to the House of Representatives for the state of Mississippi. A year later he married Varina Howell, who was his biggest supporter and bore him six children though only one lived to adulthood. In 1846 he resigned his position to fight in the Mexican War, where he served honorably and was touted as a hero. Even Zachary Taylor told Davis that “My daughter was a better judge of character than me” after his acts of heroism. After the war he returned to Mississippi and was appointed to serve in the U.S. Senate. It was here that Davis earned a reputation for being a hard headed bulldog. He refused to play the political game and never considered how someone could be of potential use to him down the road. He had strong convictions and principles but made many enemies in the process. Sam Houston from Texas once said that Davis was “As ambitious as Lucifer and as cold as a lizard.”

During his time in the Senate, Davis continuously championed for Southern nationalism. Initially he was not talking about secession but Southern domination and power within the Union. Prior to the Mexican War most expansion had been in the North; now tables appeared to be turning and the opportunity to expand South was something Davis obsessed over. Because of his ties to the war, he often spoke of conquering territory in Mexico, Central America and even Cuba. If they could acquire more land and add it to the list of slave holding states, it would give the South more power. He even envisioned ending the restrictions on the slave trade when it came to importation of slaves from Africa. As one of the most educated individuals in the Senate, he used State’s Rights and the Constitution as his argument for not just Southern expansion, but slave expansion. In 1850 he led efforts to hold a convention of southern states where secession was threatened. Much to his dismay his peers and constituents did not share his views and instead choose to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Now the settlers in these new territories could vote to decide whether to allow slavery. To Davis this was unacceptable, but he also realized that he was no longer in sync with his constituents so he resigned.

President Pierce nominated Davis to be his Secretary of War, which was accepted. This allowed Davis to continue to push for his agenda of Southern expansion. Eventually he returned to the Senate, but when Mississippi seceded in 1861 he resigned his position. Though he didn’t agree with secession, he gave in when those around him supported it. He stayed in Washington City for more than a week, hoping to be arrested as a traitor so he could prove his case in the courts. It never happened, so Davis returned home. Immediately he was asked to help form an army for the state of Mississippi, which thrilled Davis. It was exactly what he wanted; a role as a key commander in the new army. But fate had other plans for him.  In February 1861 a letter was delivered to his home, where it announced that by unanimous vote he was elected Provisional President of the Confederate States of America, which at this time included just seven states.

When Davis was sworn in at the Alabama capitol building, he became the face of the rebellion. He and many citizens in the South believed they had every right to end their relationship with the U.S. national government and they were prepared to fight for it. He dug in his heels and prepared for a long war that he knew he would win.

When Virginia joined the Confederacy, the capital city was moved to Richmond, Virginia. The election held in 1861 legitimately provided Davis with the official role of President of the Confederate States of America. He was sworn in on the anniversary of George’s Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1862.


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