Was Jefferson Davis a good President?

Okay, so the obvious answer is “No - he started a brutal civil war, supported slavery, and led the South to ruin.” But that’s no fun. We’ve had several threads evaluating Lee’s military prowess and Lincoln’s political acumen - what about Davis? Did he have any particular non-military policy successes before the CSA crashed and burned? Policy failures?

What I’m wondering about is not so much how well he handled the war, but how well he ran his “country”, if that makes sense. Discuss!

I’m not a fan of Davis at all, but it’s unfair to say he started the war. It would have happened with or without him; he supported secession but was not among its most ardent creators; he was in fact in D.C. as senator when Mississippi seceded and his Farewell Address to the U.S. Senate was a pleading for peaceful disunion- he was very anti-war because he had no delusions about the South’s ability to win.

He did not run or lobby for the presidency and did not want it- he wanted a field command. When he was appointed he protested and attempted to decline (though obviously not terribly hard- I don’t much think he and Varina and the kids would have been stood against a wall and shot had he absolutely refused).

His hope, and the hope of other military minds (for Davis was a military man- in adition to being a war hero he receives great praise as Secretary of War [even the camel idea wasn’t as stupid as it sounded and its failure wasn’t Davis’s fault]) was that the North would let the South leave peacefully. Failing that, his hope was that a short bloody campaign to show “we mean business” would work- he never entertained delusions of capturing D.C. and Boston but only of tiring them out to the point they said “This isn’t worth it”, which wasn’t a totally unreasonable expectation and had the president not been Lincoln would probably have worked (there’s much speculation that even after Gettysburg and Vicksburg had McLellan been elected a peace could have been negotiated, but Lincoln was a damned stubborn man [who my father believed was also Davis’s illegitimate half-brother but I won’t go there).

Davis was an undeniably bad commander-in-chief, however. Since save for the first few days the entire history of the Confederacy was one of war it’s almost impossible to judge him as a political leader since war/politics were too interwoven.

Davis is as enigmatic a figure in his own right as Lee- very complex man. He seems thoroughly dislikable: he was an ardent classist, ABSOLUTELY convinced of his own near divine correctness- his opinions changed occasionally, but never the fact he was absolutely 100% right, and whatever his viewpoint he clung like a bulldog to a Hereford’s ear- rigid and unyielding, traits I consider very possibly the worst any leader can have. I love what his 2nd wife said in a letter to her mother after first meeting him:

He’s a man of great contradictions. He was an ardent white supremacist (conflating slavery and the inferiority of blacks in the most religious of terms) even by the standards of antebellum slaveowners. Who was by all accounts a kind master. He ordered all black men caught in Federal uniform and their white officers to be executed on the spot. And he taught many of his slaves to read and write in violation of the law. He refused to consider any peace terms of the war that involved freeing of slaves even when the South was clearly licked and the war absolutely unwinnable. And he sold his beloved plantation to a former slave on credit. Not a simple person. He was a man who believed in the most fierce discipline and scoffed and bellowed at the lack of patriotism of soldiers who complained of hardships, and yet generals tried to block any condemned deserter from writing an appeal to him because he fully pardoned almost every single appeal he received. He was an anti-Semite and anti-Catholic, who appointed a Jew to his Cabinet and received a crown of thorns woven by Pope Pius IX himself and dedicated much time to fundraising and money when he could [the war left him penniless until a relationship with a benefactress that nearly caused his divorced gained him Beauvoir [sadly unlikely to be restored from Katrina’s damage anytime soon as big money corps fear donations will be looked upon unfavorably]) to the charities of a convent in Savannah.

But ultimately I would say that his political career is too inseparable from his military commandership and thus he must be judged by the latter, and therefore was a terrible leader.

His continual arrogance, refusal to admit he was wrong, refusal to acknowledge he was in an absolutely unwinnable war, his disregard for the poor, zealous employment of appointing cronies to high office and ignoring their corruption and or absolute incompetence- these are his most damning traits. I’m just damned glad no other citizen of a Southern state who did these things was ever again elected to a presidency.

Without attempting to go too much into the rest of your excellent summation, I will pick out one part for discussion: “resfusal to acknowledge he was in an absolutely unwinnable war.” This is an unfair criticism. Almost no one in the North or the South at the beginning of the war understood the true dynamics of what was going on. As the war progressed, there were few in the South who could be convinced that the South could not win. And even to the extent that, pressed to admit it, a Southerner could say that, that did not mean that many or even measurable numbers of them, were willing to capitulate short of complete defeat.

So I don’t really bash Jeff Davis much with this concept. He would have been damn near unique in the South if he had seriously been willing to accept capitulation in, say, early 1864, when the moving hand had already writ.

Excellent post, Sampiro. Consider my ignorance well and truly fought.

Davis - gentility + social conscience = LBJ

Davis - gentility - brains = W