At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis

By Shearer Davis Bowman | Go to book overview

5 Jefferson Davis, Horace L. Kent, and the Old South

Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, like most political leaders in the Lower or Cotton South, began the secession winter of 1860–61 as a hesitant disunionist but came to endorse the decision to quit the Union as regrettable but necessary. He hoped that the U.S. government would let the seceding states depart in peace and avoid an internecine war. In this stance, Davis seems clearly to have spoken and written what the great majority of disunionist southerners thought and hoped on the eve of the Civil War. For this reason and for the obvious reason that he became the Confederacy’s first (and only) president, Davis’s life story before the secession crisis provides a valuable window on the historical evolution of the Old South, setting the stage for a more wide-ranging analysis of his region’s economy and society. This analysis addresses some substantial differences between the Upper and Lower Souths and discusses some individual citizens—in particular, a Virginia slaveholding merchant, Horace L. Kent, and his employee, Robert Granniss—to help illuminate those differences.

Jefferson Davis’s father was Georgia native Samuel Emory Davis, probably born in 1756 and soon orphaned. After fighting against the British as a teenager during the American Revolution, Samuel Davis became proprietor of a two-hundred-acre land grant in Wilkes County and married Jane Cook of South Carolina in 1783. By the mid-1780s, his estate had grown to more than four thousand acres, though most remained uncleared, and by 1787 he owned his first slave, Winnie. In 1793, he and some of his wife’s relations responded to the lure of the fabled and fertile lands in trans-Appalachian Kentucky, just separated from Virginia as an independent state. After several years there, Samuel settled his family in the southwestern part of the state in what later became Todd County. He owned a second slave by 1801. Seven years later, forty-eight-year-old Jane gave birth to her tenth child in twenty-three years. Given the first name Jefferson in honor of the Virginian then serving as president, the boy received as his middle name Finis, Latin for “the end”: Jane clearly intended that he would be her last child.

Jefferson Davis spent his first two years on his father’s tobacco and horse farm, housed in “a double log cabin with two large rooms on either side of a

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