Craig Symonds: Was there a better choice for C.S.A. president than Jefferson Davis?
Professor Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy
It is hard to argue that there was a better choice as Confederate president than Jefferson Davis in 1861.There was no shortage of aspirants, especially among the so-called “fire-eaters” who had lobbied so long and so hard for secession. But as a rule, revolutionaries make poor statesman, and once secession became a reality, what the South needed was a statesman. Moreover, Davis had an impeccable pedigree—especially for a society engaged in war. He was a West Point graduate, a hero of the Mexican War, a former Secretary of War, and a former chairman of the Senate Military Affairs committee. It would be hard to find anyone with a better resume as a war president.
Once the war turned sour, however, Davis became the target of criticism, and that criticism turned especially bitter in the post-war years. One of the claims of the Lost Cause interpretation of history was that Davis’s poor leadership had contributed to, or even caused, Confederate defeat. This, however, was more a reflection of the South’s disappointment than of Davis’s weaknesses.
To be sure, Davis comes off second best in any comparison with Abraham Lincoln.
In a well-known essay written half a century ago, the late historian David M. Potter asserted that the outcome of the Civil War might have been reversed if the two sides had simply exchanged chief executives. No doubt Potter meant his statement to be deliberately provocative, but his assertion reflects the view of most historians that while Lincoln was a great president, Jefferson Davis was merely a good one, and that “good” was not enough to overcome the inherent difficulties the South faced in the war.
Jefferson Davis had to create both a government and a military establishment from scratch; his nascent country lacked a mature industrial base that could produce the tools of modern war; and the South had a smaller population and no Navy. Moreover, he had to fight a total war as the head of a society that avowed the virtues of limited government.
Lincoln, too, faced unprecedented problems. But during the war, his political skills allowed him to meet and master those problems—including military problems—that bedeviled and defeated Jefferson Davis. Indeed, it is the near-universal judgment of historians that the inexperienced Lincoln was a better natural leader than his well-prepared and experienced southern counterpart. Lincoln was pragmatic and flexible while Davis tended to be dogmatic and ideological. Worse, Davis clung to favored advisers (and generals), even after their effectiveness or political viability came into question.
A comparison of Lincoln and Davis suggests rather strongly that temperament is more important than experience or expertise in a president.
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| February 7, 2011; 9:50 AM ET
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