Waite Rawls: Was there a better choice for C.S.A. president than Jefferson Davis?
President and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy
The Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of America was finalized and signed on February 8, 1861. One of the first acts of the new Congress was to choose the first Provisional President. They did so the following day, and Jefferson Davis was by far the best choice—for both political and military reasons.
We see shades of the Congress’ political concerns today, as both our current Democratic and Republican Parties are split between moderates in each camp and the “true believers.” At the time of the selection of President, the Confederate Congress was faced with a similar choice in leadership. Should they pick a hard-line “fire eater” who had led the secessionist movement, a movement primarily centered around slavery? If so, Alabama’s William Lowndes Yancey, Georgia’s Howell Cobb or Robert Toombs, or South Carolinian Robert Barnwell Rhett would get the nod.
Their principal concerns, however, were northward to the Upper South, where their hard-line pro-slavery stance had gained some support but had not resulted in the secession of the Upper South states. Moderation in the conduct of the Deep South might have some influence. Additionally, there was some hope, in both North and South, that some compromise might be struck or that the Deep South would be allowed to go in peace. Again, moderation might have some influence over future events.
The Confederate Congress also knew that war, not peace, might result from the secessions of the Lower South states, and Davis’ military experience was extensive. He was a graduate of West Point and had distinguished himself in the U. S. Army during the Mexican War. He had resigned from his seat in the U. S. Senate to become President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War, where he proved to be one of the more progressive men to hold that seat in our country’s history, before or since. He knew the leading Army professionals personally, and he appreciated recent changes in the conduct of war from his close study of recent conflicts in Europe. America has had a number of war-time generals who later became President, but no U. S. President has ever been better qualified to be a war-time Commander-in-Chief than Jefferson Davis.
So the Provisional Confederate Congress turned to the leading Southern moderates—Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis and Georgian Alexander Stephens for their choice. Both had served in the U. S. Congress, both had close friends in the North, and both had originally opposed secession. Stephens had actually voted against secession in the Georgia convention, and Davis had been proposed as a possible compromise candidate for U. S. President in 1860 by some Northern Democrats. Davis became the unanimous choice for President because he engendered a high level of trust in his character and confidence in his military experience. Stephens was the unanimous choice for Vice President.
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| February 7, 2011; 9:54 AM ET
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