Jefferson Davis, Confederate President

Article excerpt

Jefferson Davis, Confederate President. By Herman Hattaway and Richard E. Beringer. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Pp. xix, 542. Preface, acknowledgments, prologue, maps, illustrations, epilogue, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95.)

Recently, journalist Bob Woodward published Bush at War (2002), a fascinating look at the wartime presidency-in-progress of George W. Bush. Likewise, the new work by historians Herman Hattaway and Richard E. Beringer, Jefferson Davis, Confederate President, could well be titled Davis at War. Whatever the title may imply, Hattaway and Beringer have delivered neither a year-by-year portrayal of the Confederacy's chief executive nor a narrowly focused political analysis of Davis's ill-fated presidency. Instead, the authors provide a vivid portrait of the man, the office, and the southern nation during the star-crossed struggle for independence. This engaging approach allows the reader to derive a sense of the challenges, both personal and professional, that Davis encountered as a president at war.

Hattaway and Beringer present their underlying thesis in the first sentence of an all too brief preface. "The story of Jefferson Davis's life and career is a great although ultimately tragic one" (p. xi). In the opening chapter, the authors seduce the reader with an unsentimental journey through Davis's early years before depositing their audience squarely into the hot seat of the Confederate nation's executive branch, balanced on the brink of war. Ensuing episodes unfold in a dramatic style that promises to stimulate the interest of even the most jaded Civil War historian. The turn of events leaves the reader with a stunned sense of shock, much like that which Davis must have felt upon his selection as commander-in-chief of a fledgling nation cast in the role of rebel. The Davis of Hattaway and Beringer emerges as a somewhat pedantic president who, although of brilliant mind, was not suited to the politics of command and did not possess the command of politics necessary to guide the southern people successfully through the inevitable internal and external struggles that a nation must endure to win a war for independence.

Political scientist James David Barber provides the paradigm that Hattaway and Beringer apply to their investigation of Davis. Barber's work, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House (1985), classifies the presidential personalities of America's chief executives into four categories. According to Barber, these personality types determine the success and impact of a presidency. Hattaway and Beringer treat Davis as a peer of U.S. presidents and subject him to the same methodological scrutiny. Within Barber's model, Hattaway and Beringer classify Davis as an "active-negative president"-one who desires power out of a sense of duty but is a perfectionist and therefore seeks uncompromising control in the performance of each presidential task. In Davis's case, the authors demonstrate that "he poured a great deal of energy and commitment into his work" but, in doing so, became increasingly isolated from his advisors, suffered from a growing persecution complex, and ultimately became "afflicted by a sense of failure" (pp. …