Jefferson Davis, American: A Biography: Cooper, William J.

Jefferson Davis, American: A Biography

Cooper, William J.

Published by Alfred a Knopf, 2000
ISBN 10: 0394569164 / ISBN 13: 9780394569161
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Synopsis: West Point graduate, secretary of war under President Pierce, U.S. senator from Mississippi-- how was it that this statesman and patriot came to be president of the Confederacy, leading the struggle to destroy the United States?

This is the question at the center of William Cooper's engrossing and authoritative biography of Jefferson Davis. Basing his account on the massive archival record left by Davis and his family and associates, Cooper delves not only into the events of Davis's public and personal life but also into the ideas that shaped and compelled him.

We see Davis as a devoted American, yet also as a wealthy plantation owner who believed slavery to be a moral and social good that could coexist with free labor in an undivided Union. We see how his initially reluctant support of secession ended in his absolute commitment to the Confederacy and his identification of it with the legacy of liberty handed down by the Founding Fathers. We see the chaos that attended the formation of the Confederate government while the Civil War was being fought, and the ever-present tension between the commitment to states' rights and the need for centralized authority. We see Davis's increasingly autocratic behavior, his involvement in military decision-making, and his desperation to save the Confederacy even at the expense of slavery. And we see Davis in defeat: imprisoned for two years, then, for the rest of his life, unrepentant about the South's attempt to break away, yet ultimately professing his faith in the restored Union.

This is the definitive life of one of the most complex and fascinating figures in our nation's history.

Review: The title might seem odd, given that Jefferson Davis (1808-89) served as president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and never once, in the 34 years between the end of the war and his death, expressed any remorse for his part in the conflict that tore America apart. Yet, as historian William J. Cooper Jr. reminds us in his sober, comprehensive biography, Davis "saw himself as a faithful American ... a true son of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers." Indeed, Davis's own father had fought in the Revolution, and Davis himself was a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran. He declared January 21, 1861, "the saddest day of my life," as he resigned his U.S. Senate seat to follow his native state of Mississippi out of the Union; yet he also unflinchingly defended secession as a constitutionally guaranteed right. Cooper's measured portrait neither glosses over Davis's lifelong belief that blacks were inferior nor vilifies him for it: "My goal," he writes, "is to understand Jefferson Davis as a man of his time, not condemn him for not being a man of my time." The chapters on the Civil War show Davis intimately involved in military decisions, as well as in diplomatic attempts to gain foreign support for the Confederacy. Cooper acknowledges the irony of his subject--who interpreted the Constitution as strictly limiting federal authority--being forced by the war's exigencies to create a powerful, centralized Confederate government. Yet, this depiction of a forceful, self-confident Davis makes it clear that he never could have been anything but "a vigorous and potent chief executive." The author also paints an attractive picture of a warm family man who was devoted to his strong-minded wife and their children. Neither hagiography nor hatchet job, this evenhanded work sees Jefferson Davis whole. --Wendy Smith

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Jefferson Davis, American: A Biography
Publisher: Alfred a Knopf
Publication Date: 2000
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: New
Edition: 1st Edition

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