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Posted at 9:41 AM ET, 02/ 7/2011

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

By John Marszalek

Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University


Charleston elitist Emma Holmes wrote in her diary two months after the ending of the Civil War that “Great as his [Jefferson Davis] errors of judgment have been and much as our failure may have been owning to his obstinate prejudices for or against certain of our generals and other officials, still he was a pure minded patriot whose all was involved in ours.” William C. Davis and William Cooper have both written excellent modern biographies of Davis, and they both give him his due, while also noting his weaknesses. However, neither agrees with David Potter’s earlier assessment that if Davis and Lincoln had exchanged positions, the South would have won the war. Emma Holmes would have disagreed, too.

Neo-Confederates insist that the United States merged victorious simply because it had more of everything. Confederate leader Robert Toombs expressed this same idea in the post-war period when he responded to a former Union officer who said “we whipped you” by saying “No, we just wore ourselves out whipping you.”

Significantly, the issue of Davis being opposed to secession does not enter into the discussion of his presidential effectiveness. There is common agreement among both historians and neo-Confederates that Davis was a man of extreme dedication to the Confederate cause. The argument is over how good a president he was, not the depth of his loyalty.

An intriguing way to look at this issue is to consider the alternatives. If not Davis, then who would have done a better job as Confederate president? Any southerner that comes to mind had shortcomings. Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was a near invalid. Robert Toombs and Howell Cobb did not have a national following and had personal weaknesses besides. Judah B. Benjamin, the most talented of the Cabinet, was Jewish, and clearly anti-Semitism would have kept southerners from following him. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were military men with little talent for the politics the presidency demanded. Historian Rembert Patrick once wrote that: “The Confederacy chose as its President its most suitable citizen and he did everything in his power to establish its independence.”

In the end, the Confederacy had as its president the best it had to offer, but he was simply not enough.

By John Marszalek  | February 7, 2011; 9:41 AM ET
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