Jefferson Davis’ Civil War

Growing up in the North, I learned that the Civil War was about slavery.  But I’d heard, that in the South, they all thought it was about state’s rights.

In 2004 I moved to Asheville, NC and was wandering about the library when a book almost jumped off the shelves at me.  It was Jefferson Davis’ (President of the Confederacy) history of the Civil War (The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government). I wondered how he saw it? So I immediately sat down to read.

I read his introductory material and the first chapter, which laid the background for the war.

I was struck by the intelligence and humbleness of the man.  He takes great pains in the introduction to explain that he understands that he was too close to the events to be able to present an unbiased view.  But also notes that those events are fresh in his mind, so he decided to write them down, as fairly as possible, in the hope that they would be useful to future historians who could view the war from a more distant perspective.

He opens the book with a detailed history of the laws in this country that led up to the war.  It’s all about slavery.  He shows an amazing breadth of knowledge about exactly what was legal, in regards to slaves, when and where in all the states of the country.

(I hadn’t known that the importation of slaves was made illegal sometime in the early 1800s.  The only way you could buy slaves after that was from breeders, such as the businessmen in Charleston, SC.)

(Cynical aside — the South was in favor of the stopping of the slave ships from Africa.  It meant the market for the slave trade was all theirs.  But in stopping the slave ships, they cut the Yankees out of the profits of the business.  Hmmm.  Would things have been different if the North had still been getting a slice of that lucrative pie?)

Davis examines all these laws, many of them state laws, and makes the strong case that each state should be able to make it’s own laws regarding slavery.  Here was the answer to age old debate.  Yes it was about state’s rights, but the only state’s right they cared about was the right to own, buy and sell slaves.

Previous to discovering this book, I had been interested in Buchanan when historians were saying Bush was the second worst president ever.  The worst was Buchanan, president just before Lincoln.

It turns out Buchanan was the best educated and most experienced president we’ve ever had.  He is condemned by historians, however, for his failure to take steps earlier to stop the South from leaving the Union.  But the reason he didn’t was that he just didn’t see that our Constitution said anything about forbidding states from leaving.  While he regretted that the South might leave, he didn’t see how the Federal Government had any right to stop them.

Davis, in his book, expresses a lot of respect and admiration for Buchanan.

As I read through Davis’ historical perspective and his argued points of view, I couldn’t help but admire the breadth of his knowledge, and the reasoned intelligence behind his arguments.  If only people wrote and argued like that today…

But one point kept grating.  Everything he wrote, everything he believed, his entire intellectual edifice was built on one fundamental assumption.  Slaves were property.  Not people.  Property.

He would argue, for example, why should a person’s property in one state become not property after crossing a state line? (Remember the issue of the day was slavery in the Western states.)  He clearly viewed slaves in the same category as cattle, and that they should be covered by the same sorts of property law.

Mind you, there is nothing malicious or hateful in anything he wrote.  He doesn’t come across like that.  It seems his conscience was perfectly clear, and that he genuinely saw no difference between cattle and slaves.

Strange, how such an intelligent, well-spoken piece of work, such as his History of the Civil War, is based on a single fundamental premise, that slaves were property, not people.  That so many people would die because of it, that tensions would still run high a hundred and fifty years later.

2 thoughts on “Jefferson Davis’ Civil War”

  1. Well, you made me want to read the book, Dennis! Davis was also a West Point graduate, along with Robert E. Lee, which for some of their classmates made their work for the Confederacy especially galling.

  2. I consume a lot of history via audio books as I travel. Presently only have about 50 more hours of Shelby Footers Civil War to go. Your report lines up with what I have read. A first person account from the lessder of the losing side certainly carries great weight. Thanks.

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