Commanding Differences between 2 Presidents

By Leidner, Gordon S. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

Commanding Differences between 2 Presidents


Leidner, Gordon S., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The similarity of their early years is well known: Both were born in log cabins in Kentucky, fewer than 100 miles apart and within a year of each other.

Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas, was a hard-scrabble farmer who placed minimal value on education. He soon moved his family to the Indiana wilderness for a continuing life of manual labor and hardship.

Jefferson Davis' father, Samuel, was a successful tavern keeper who moved his family to Mississippi and bought a large farm and slaves for a life of anticipated gentility. He wanted his youngest son, Jeff, to become an educated gentleman.

Shunning the local one-room schoolhouse, he sent the 8-year-old to St. Thomas's preparatory school in Kentucky. After two years there, he allowed Jeff to return to attend a newly established "academy." At 16, Jeff was sent to Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky. Subsequent to this, Jeff's wealthy brother Joseph arranged for his appointment to West Point.

Lincoln received less than a year of formal education in his entire life. What little he did receive was from a local, one-room school similar to what Samuel Davis disdained. Thomas Lincoln seemed more interested in extracting as much work from him as possible. He occasionally hired out his son as a laborer, keeping the money the boy earned, until Abe reached age 21.

It was then that Abe left his father and stepmother and set out on his own to become "a piece of driftwood" and eventually found his way to New Salem, Ill. There he worked at improving himself - studying grammar and speech with borrowed books, taking a job as a store clerk, becoming postmaster, studying geometry, becoming a surveyor and running for the state legislature.

In his first campaign speech, Lincoln stated the truth when he said, "I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me."

Although he lost the election, he did not get discouraged, and in 1834 won the first of four successive terms to the state legislature. During these years Lincoln began reading law on his own, and finally won admission to the Illinois bar.

Davis, after graduating from West Point, spent several years in the Army, then quit to marry the daughter of future President Zachary Taylor. Joseph Davis gave his brother an 800-acre farm and slaves for a wedding gift. When Jefferson's wife died a few months later, however, he abandoned the farm and went to work for Joseph.

Davis later was elected to Congress, probably largely a result of Joseph's influence. Davis soon quit Congress and returned to the Army to fight in the Mexican War, and was then appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat by Mississippi's governor. After a term in the Senate, he ran for governor and lost, was appointed secretary of war by President Franklin Pierce, and returned to the Senate for another term.

Finally, having gained a reputation as a bold spokesman for the South, Davis was elected president of the Confederate States of America by the Provisional Confederate Congress in 1861.

After his four terms in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln's political career continued with a single term in Congress, and a couple of failed attempts at the Senate.

During the course of campaigning for political office and practicing law, he developed into "the best stump speaker in the West" and became one of the most capable and popular politicians in the newly formed Republican Party. It was this popularity, political skill and a split in the Democratic Party that finally put him into the White House in 1861.

The most noteworthy difference between the careers of these two men besides the disparity in formal education was that while Lincoln had to work single-handedly for everything he had, Davis had been largely provided for - by his father, wealthy brother or political friends. This fact had an impact on both men's ability to govern others. …

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