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; $39.95, cloth.)

The new millennium has seen a remarkable renewal of interest in the life of Jefferson Davis. In the past few years William Cooper, Jr., Felicity Alien, and William C. Davis have churned out major biographies of this critical Confederate. Hattaway and Beringer's offering is not intended to be a full biography, as it treats only Davis's years as president of the Confederacy. And despite the title, it does not always keep its focus on Davis. The book is perhaps closer to being a history of his presidential administration, for Davis himself disappears for long stretches as the authors detail the workings of the Confederate government. In fact, the narrative line is sometimes sufficiently discontinuous and the range of information presented about the Confederacy so vast (from the fact that the postmaster general wanted more artistic stamps to the rates of venereal disease among combat troops) that the book reads more like an encyclopedia of the Confederacy.

The Davis that emerges from this volume is a serious, hard-working, but flawed man. Hypersensitive to criticism, he relied on friends and cronies for important positions in government and the army to the detriment of the cause. Though he habitually involved himself in the minutiae of governing, he was indecisive. He lacked passion, charisma, and the ability to inspire. Though he devoutly believed in the Confederate cause, he could not convince the southern people to make the sacrifices that were necessary to achieve it. Hattaway and Beringer maintain that in the final months of the war Davis was so detached from reality that he lived in a world made only of his visionary hopes for a continuation of the struggle.

In order to describe Davis's presidential style, Hattaway and Beringer make use of a model devised by political scientist James David Barber to describe twentieth-century presidencies. According to this model, Davis was an "active-negative" president. Active-negative presidents are perfectionists who tend to pursue lofty goals in a rigid, controlled, and sometimes almost messianic manner. They react very badly to failure (which commonly befalls such types) because the causes they pursue are really public attempts to achieve a personal self-esteem that has been missing since childhood. …