The Other Jefferson Davis

By Gugliotta, Guy | Humanities, September/October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Other Jefferson Davis


Gugliotta, Guy, Humanities


THE U.S. CAPITOL AS WE KNOW IT TODAY WOULD NEVER HAVE EXISTED WITHOUT JEFFERSON DAVIS. IN MANY WAYS, IT IS HIS BUILDING.

JEFFERSON DAVIS, LOVE HIM OR HATE HIM, was an unusual man. During a long and frequently cataclysmic life, his favorite job, according to his wife Varina, was serving as a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1847 to 1851 and again from 1857 to 1861. During these relatively peaceful days, Davis made his reputation as an outspoken and eloquent advocate of slavery and states' rights, shining up the resume that would later make him president of the Confederacy - the role that has defined his place in history.

But anyone who studies the Washington years soon makes the acquaintance of a second, more elusive, Davis. Despite his credentials as a southern firebrand, and unlike most of his Senate colleagues, Davis nurtured a transcendent vision of the United States as a great nation far more substantial than the sum of its fractious, disunited parts. This was no small thing. Examination of the congressional record during the 1850s reveals a collection of individuals who regarded the federal government primarily as a nuisance to be tolerated only to the extent that it provided money for new lighthouses, river harbors, and post offices. The only national issue worthy of debate - albeit incessant debate - was slavery, but even that had a frequently provincial cast. Slavery, most southerners thought, was none of the federal government's business. And except for outright abolitionists, many northerners had no quarrel with slavery in the states where it already existed. They just did not want it to spread.

States' rights was bread and butter for any southern Democrat, and Davis could argue the case as well as anyone. But throughout the 1850s - a time of growing polarization, bitterness, and, finally, desperation - Davis also championed nationhood. He articulated his vision in many ways. He advocated increasing the size of the country's tiny (almost 14,000 soldiers) army and de-emphasizing volunteers and militia. He was on the board of regents of the new Smithsonian Institution, which he saw as a national center for learning. He regularly invited visiting scholars and scientists - what Varina called "savans" - to his home to discuss new ideas of national import. In 1857, with tensions over slavery escalating toward a crisis, he wrote to President James Buchanan about the need to improve liberal arts education at West Point. Leadership "to maintain the honor of our flag," he wrote, "requires a man above sectional prejudices, and intellectually superior to fanaticism."

But Davis's most lasting legacy as a nation-builder, both figuratively and literally, was as a prime mover in the mammoth project to expand the United States Capitol from a small, cramped, statehouse-like building with an attractive central rotunda into a sprawling, magisterial seat of government with separate, marble-faced wings for the Senate and House, and a soaring new dome made of cast iron. The U.S. Capitol, as we know it today, would never have existed without Jefferson Davis. In many ways, it is his building.

There were good practical reasons to enlarge or, as it was called then, "extend" the Capitol. The United States had won an enormous tract of land in the Mexican War in 1848, the same year gold was discovered in California. By 1850, California had moved to the front of a long line of territories seeking statehood. There would be more senators and more House members. Congress needed more space.

And new chambers. The House (today's Statuary Hall) had acoustics so poor that several students of Congress blamed the chamber's chronically abusive and bellicose ambience not on actual political divisions, but on the apoplectic frustration of members forced to scream to be heard by colleagues standing less than ten feet away. As for the Senate, the chamber was too hot in summer, too cold in winter, and in dire need of extra gallery seats for the immense audiences who thronged the debates for a chance to see Clay, Webster, Benton, Houston, Douglas, Davis, and other luminaries at work. …

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