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Posted at 9:45 AM ET, 02/ 7/2011

Dennis Frye: Was there a better choice for C.S.A. president than Jefferson Davis?

By Dennis Frye

Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park


The Confederacy needed George Washington -- his spirit of ’76; his valor of Valley Forge; his victory at Yorktown; his affirmation at Annapolis; his character at the Constitutional Convention; his presence as president.

Washington, unfortunately, could not reincarnate from his Mount Vernon grave. The Confederacy, instead, selected a leader with the attributes of Andrew Jackson.

Jefferson Davis personified the American leader of the mid-19th century. A graduate of West Point, as colonel of the 1st Mississippi Regiment during the Mexican War, he became a national hero for his role in the Battle of Monterrey and his wounding at Buena Vista. The Confederacy needed a war hero at its helm. Perhaps more important, Davis had been Secretary of War during the Franklin Pierce administration; so theoretically, Davis understood how to prepare for and manage war -- a prospect for the South.

The seceded states required an experienced politician as president. Davis served in both the United States House and Senate, where he readily admitted his hero was John C. Calhoun. But Davis also admired Webster and Clay as great thinkers and negotiators, and these influences molded Davis as a moderate. The Confederacy needed a moderate -- one who was practical, not perfunctory; a diplomat, not a zealot; a statesman, not a bellower. Davis possessed these qualifications.

Davis also had earned respect in the North. He presented the Confederacy with its best leadership option for co-existence. No other Southern politician had received an invitation by the Democratic Party to speak at revered Faneuil Hall in Boston in 1858 -- a center of abolitionist agitation. Surrounded by the portraits of Sam Adams and John Hancock, Davis reminded his Massachusetts brethren that Boston was the birthplace of “community independence.”

“Our fathers asserted that great principle -- the right of the people to choose the government for themselves,” Davis proclaimed amid cheers. “That government rested upon the consent of the governed. In every form of expression it uttered the same idea, community independence, and the dependence of the government upon the community over which it existed.”

If Davis, then, was the best choice, what went wrong? Davis ultimately could not control the advocates of states rights in his own confederacy of states. He, like Washington, witnessed self-inflicted suicide similar to the Articles of Confederation.

Washington’s resurrection perhaps could not have saved the Confederacy.

By Dennis Frye  | February 7, 2011; 9:45 AM ET
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