June 3 of this year is the two-hundred and eleventh anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis. Born in Kentucky in 1808, actually not far from the birthplace of his future nemesis, Abraham Lincoln, Davis in another time might have risen to become in his own right a celebrated president of the United States. As it was, it was his thankless duty to captain the forlorn Confederacy through four years of tragic and bloody war which saw the end not only of the society and culture he loved, but, in effect, the practical end of the old constitutional republic originally set up by the Founders.
From a good family and with advantages that augured well for future prominence, Davis at an early age demonstrated both leadership potential and intelligence. Like many other well-bred Southern boys of the period, he received a superb classical education. In 1815 Davis entered the of Saint Thomas Catholic school at St. Rose Priory, a school operated by the Dominican Order in Washington County, Kentucky. At the time, he was the only Protestant student (he was an Episcopalian) at the school. As a boy he desired to enter the Church, but his age and family argued against it. Nevertheless, he would carry a strong affection and love for the Catholic Church throughout his life.
His famous war time correspondence with Pope Pius IX, an inveterate foe of liberalism in any form who was pro-Confederate, is famous, and indicates that the pope recognized Davis as de facto head of the Confederate States of America. In his correspondence the pope refers to Davis as the “Illustrious and Honorable President,” an implied recognition of the Confederate government. Responding to Davis’s expressed desire to find a just resolution to the conflict raging between the Confederacy and the North, Pope Pius finishes a letter to the Confederate leader acknowledging that there were, in fact, two separate governments in America: “May it please God,” wrote the pontiff, “at the same time to make the other peoples of America and their rulers…receive and embrace the counsel of peace and tranquility,” as Davis did.
After the conclusion of the war, while Davis was a prisoner in Fortress Monroe, Virginia, the pope addressed to Davis correspondence demonstrating his great sympathy for the Confederate president. The Blessed Pius IX sent a picture of himself to Jefferson Davis with the hand-written inscription: “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” [“Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus” – St. Matthew 11:28] Associated with the famous communication from Pius IX is the equally famous “Crown of Thorns,” for the longest time believed to have been woven by the pope and also remitted to Davis. Davis’s major biographer, Hudson Strode, accepted that account as the correct one.
Yet detailed research by a more modern biographer, Felicity Allen in her Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart, reveals that the crown was most likely woven by Varina Davis. Records donated by the New Orleans Confederate museum and now housed in the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University (Rare Books and Manuscripts Division) indicate that both the autographed photograph of Blessed Pius IX and the crown were originally donated, according to the inventory, in 1891: “The Pope sent this picture to Jefferson Davis whilst a prisoner at Fortress Monroe. Accompanying the picture is a crown of thorns made by Mrs. Davis that hung above it in Mr. Davis’ study.” [Quoted by Felicity Allen from correspondence with Tulane University, August 6, 1985; see for extensive detail: Jeff Davis's Crown of Thorns.]
Unfounded rumors abounded both during and after the war that Davis had converted clandestinely. But he remained an Episcopalian throughout his life. Nevertheless, the sympathy for the Confederacy and its president shown by the pope and the Catholic Church during the war were clear. Robert E. Lee, pointing to his own portrait of Pius IX, told a visitor that he was “the only sovereign…in Europe who recognized our poor Confederacy.”
Although Davis’s tenure at the helm of the Confederacy receives by far the most attention historically, his pre-war career was truly illustrious: A West Point graduate, Davis distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War as a colonel of the Mississippi Rifles volunteer regiment, and as United States Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Both before and after his time in the Pierce administration, he served as a US Senator from Mississippi. As senator, he argued against secession but believed each state had an unquestionable and constitutional right to secede for just cause from the voluntary Union of the Founders, just as they had seceded from England seeking political liberty. Davis resigned from the Senate in January 1861 after receiving word that his State of Mississippi had voted to leave the Union.
Davis explained his actions saying:
“[T]o me the sovereignty of the State was paramount to the sovereignty of the Union. And I held my seat in the Senate until Mississippi seceded and called upon me to follow and defend her. Then I sorrowfully resigned the position in which my State had placed me and in which I could no longer represent her, and accepted the new work. I was on my way to Montgomery when I received, much to my regret, the message that I had been elected provisional President of the Confederate States of America.
Davis had been a patriotic American who tried to save the Founders’ republic from Northern revolutionaries, and who reluctantly departed the Union with the old constitution intact to form a “more perfect Union.” He contended that he would rather be out of the Union with the Constitution than to be in the Union without the Constitution. The Southern States, he stated, seceded not to defend slavery but in order to save the Constitution of the Founders. Davis remarked in July 1864:
“I tried in all my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for 12 years, I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind; it would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came, and now it must go on till the last man of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize the musket and fight our battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self-government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence, and that, or extermination, we will have . . . Slavery never was an essential element. It was the only means of bringing other conflicting elements to an earlier culmination. It fired the musket which was already capped and loaded. There are essential differences between the North and the South that will, however this war may end, make them two nations.
At the end of the War, when a fellow traveler remarked that the cause of the Confederates was lost, Davis replied: “It appears so. But the principle for which we contended is bound to reassert itself, though it may be at another time and in another form.”
Davis was critical of the Gilded Age corruption and political ignorance of the United States Constitution. In 1881 he remarked: “Of what value then are paper constitutions and oaths binding officers to their preservation, if there is not intelligence enough in the people to discern the violations; and virtue enough to resist the violators?”
President Davis was never indicted for treason. He demanded a fair trial in order to argue the constitutionality of the South’s actions in 1860-1861. This was denied by his Jacobin tormenters, and the reason was revealed by Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, in 1867. Chase admitted that:
“If you bring these leaders to trial, it will condemn the North, for by the Constitution, secession is not a rebellion. His [Jefferson Davis] capture was a mistake. His trial will be a greater one. We cannot convict him of treason.” [quoted by Herman S. Frey, in Jefferson Davis, 1977, pp. 69-72]
President Davis died on December 6, 1889. In death as in life, citizens across the South mourned his passing and honored him as their champion.
In 1893 his body was transported by funeral train to Richmond where he was interred at Hollywood Cemetery. At each stop thousands of mourners, white and black, paid respects. In Raleigh historic photographs show a mammoth procession down Fayetteville Street. My grandfather (on my mother’s side), then a thirteen year old apprentice, stood along the street paying respects to Davis, and he would, sixty-seven years later, recount that moving and indelible experience to me, his young grandson.
Our traditions do not really die. Sometimes, under attack, they remain dormant, to be re-awakened by new generations that re-discover them and the supreme importance that they have played, and can continue to play, in our lives, if we let them.
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.