“Who cares?” might be your first reaction; after that, sarcasm might take over: “We know how he would vote — and it wouldn’t be for someone named Barack Obama.”
First let’s establish why you should care; then maybe we can knock away some of that sarcasm too.
We venerate Lincoln, but in many ways Jefferson Davis was far the more interesting statesman. Both men were born in Kentucky, but while Lincoln was largely self-taught Davis received a classical education that led to graduation from both Transylvania University (a school of future statesmen in Kentucky) and West Point.
While Lincoln’s early years were nondescript and his only military experience was ninety days’ uneventful service in the militia during the Black Hawk War, Jefferson Davis served as a professional soldier for seven years (and in fact, befriended Chief Black Hawk as he led him into captivity). He later resigned his seat in the United States Congress to lead the Mississippi Rifles in the Mexican War, a war that Lincoln, as a young Congressman from Illinois, opposed as one of the most vocal members of the anti-war faction in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Before he became president of the Confederacy, Davis had been a United States congressman, a U.S. senator (the New York Times called him “the Cicero of the Senate”), and Secretary of War; he had also been a planter; and when his first wife (Zachary Taylor’s daughter) died of fever early in their marriage, he spent long hours in his library, not only in mourning, but eventually in study — of literature, politics, and constitutional debates. Davis was a very well-read man.
Lincoln eventually found a career as a lawyer. Some thought he had a lawyer’s (and a politician’s) slipperiness; some even thought him coarse. But no one ever said that Jefferson Davis was coarse. He was seen as stern, unbending, dignified, and a man of principle — indeed, to a fault. He certainly compromised, as all politicians must do, but he was not what we’d call a trimmer.
NOR WERE HIS principles unworthy. It is true that Davis thought slavery in the South was a positive good — that the “peculiar institution” uplifted and Christianized blacks from heathen savagery. His own roseate view of slavery was determined by his experience — he and his brother were kindly, high-minded masters: educating their slaves, providing them with religious instruction, forbidding harsh treatment of them (the whip was forbidden), caring for their health, and treating them with respect (in Davis’s case, he regarded his black manservant James Pemberton as a trustworthy friend and confidant, and made him overseer of his plantation).
Lincoln certainly opposed slavery, but on grounds that might make us uncomfortable today. He wanted to keep the Free States (or newly created Free States) the domain of white labor. He said he wanted new territories “to be homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted with them. Slave states are the places for poor white people to move from.”
Lincoln reassured nervous voters during the Lincoln-Douglas debates that he had he had never been “in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality…. I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Lincoln’s solution to the problem of slavery was expatriating black Americans to Africa or Central America or the Caribbean.
Today, though the Republican Party is “the Party of Lincoln,” few people, I wager, would claim that race would determine Lincoln’s support for his party’s nominee. There is even less reason to think that race would determine Jefferson Davis’s vote. Unlike Lincoln, Davis did not envision an all-white future. He saw — and approved of — blacks and whites living and working in close proximity, their children playing together. He believed that the ultimate end of slavery might be “the preparation of that race for civil liberty and social enjoyment”; he said, “it is quite within the range of possibility that the masters” would eventually, of their own volition, desire to free the slaves “when their slaves [themselves] would object.” If that day came, Davis, like Lincoln did not believe that black and white could exist on equal terms. But he doubted because, in his experience, they never had been equal — and if he worried that uneducated free blacks would be taken advantage of by unscrupulous whites, Reconstruction only confirmed his fears.
But if we give Lincoln the benefit of the doubt of one hundred years’ experience, we should do the same for Davis. Though few call the Democrats “the Party of Jefferson Davis,” there seems little doubt that he would have no more qualms about casting a vote for Barack Obama than Lincoln would, should he deem him the better candidate.
THAT LEAVES the final question: how would Jefferson Davis vote? Davis’s principles were those of free trade; strict constitutionalism; a limited federal government and expansive state’s rights; outspoken opposition to federal spending on “internal improvements,” which were the proper province of the states or better still private enterprise, unless they could be justified on grounds of national security (he was a proponent of federal support for a transcontinental railroad running along a Southern route); and an imperialist foreign policy.
Davis favored not only the war with Mexico, but American “filibusters” in Central America, and the annexation of Cuba. It is ironic, perhaps, that Davis, a man devoted to his sectional interest, was also a man determined to advance America’s imperial interests while Lincoln, who opposed the conquest of a great Western empire for the United States (one of the prizes being John McCain’s state of Arizona), found himself full of belligerence when it came to bloodletting on an almost unimaginably larger scale against his fellow Americans.
Davis did indeed put his country first. Before the war, he believed that his country was his state, the state that had elected him to high office and where he farmed, Mississippi. After the war, he proved to his own satisfaction, in a massive treatise, that secession had been constitutional. He wanted to show also that the South had fought with honor and courage. But now that the great cataclysm of war had proved secession “impracticable” he accepted the verdict so that “on the basis of fraternity and faithful regard for the rights of the States, there may be written on the arch of the Union, Esto perpetua.”
Davis’s support for limited government, federalism, and an expansionist foreign policy makes it all but certain that he would cast his vote for John McCain (Davis would have considered Arizona an honorary Southern state).
You won’t see anyone seeking the mantle of Jefferson Davis, but he was a worthier man than politically correct history would have you think.