Jefferson Davis – Our Greatest Hero
By Dr. Grady McWhiney
League of the South
During and after the War for Southern Independence,
Jefferson Davis was accused of a wide variety of villainies. Not
all of his accusers were Yankees, but Northerners made the most
extensive and lasting attacks upon Davis. In one of these insults
— a letter embossed with an American eagle crushing "Secession"
and holding proudly in its beak a U.S. banner announcing "Death
to Traitors" — a New Yorker wrote: "Jeff Davis you rebel
traitor here is the beauty of America one of the greatest treasures
that ever waved over your sinful head. Now I want you to look at
this motto and think of me for — say death to cession [sic] and
death to all traitors to their country and these are my sentiments
exactly. Yours not with respect for I can never respect a traitor
to his Country a cursed traitor." The same view of Davis as
being "among the archtraitors in our annals" was expressed
just as emphatically years later by Theodore Roosevelt and Harvard
University Professor Albert T. Perkins.
Davis became, and remained to Northerners, the quintessential wrongdoer.
Later generations of liberal progressives would consider him an
American Hitler. Immediately after the War for Southern Independence
Yankee authorities put Davis in jail and left him there for two
years without a trial, while they tried to implicate him in the
assassination of Lincoln, alleged cruelty to Federal prisoners,
and treason itself. Though never brought to trial or convicted of
any crime, Davis received abundant abuse in the Yankee press and
on the podium. During and after the war the New York Times depicted
him as a murderer, a cruel slaveowner whose servants ran away, a
liar, a boaster, a fanatic, a confessed failure, a hater, a political
adventurer, a supporter of outcasts and outlaws, a drunkard, an
atrocious misrepresenter, an assassin, an incendiary, a criminal
who was gratified by the assassination of Lincoln, a henpecked husband,
a man so shameless that he would try to escape capture by disguising
himself as a woman, a supporter of murder plots, an insubordinate
soldier, an unwholesome sleeper, and a mean-spirited malingerer.
Anti-Davis sentiment was more than mere newspaper talk. Following
the war the citizens of Sacramento, California, true to their vigilante
tradition, hanged Davis in effigy. A few months later the Kansas
Senate passed a resolution to hang him in person. More than ten
years after the war ended, widespread opposition prevented him from
speaking anywhere in the North. In 1876 a Yankee newspaper editor
answered the question, should Davis be given amnesty, with a resounding
"no," and in 1880 a man who cheered for Jefferson Davis
in Madison, Indiana, was shot.
"Malice and slander have exhausted their power against you,"
a Southerner tried to assure the continually criticized Confederate
President. At the end of the nineteenth century an observer noted:
"I believe there never was a time when a whole people were
more willing to punish one man than were the people of the North
to punish Mr. Davis for his alleged crimes." Twenty years after
Davis’s death, handbills accusing him in Lincoln’s assassination
still circulated, and the New York Times published an editorial
denouncing plans for a Southerner to donate for use on the new battleship
Mississippi a silver service with the likeness of Jefferson Davis
etched on each piece. More than a hundred years passed before the
Congress of the United States officially forgave Davis for being
President of the Confederacy.
No other Confederate leader had to wait so long for either official
or unofficial exoneration. By the early 1900s, Robert E. Lee, the
greatest Yankee killer of all time, had become a national hero,
absolved of his sins, and soon considered so harmless that the government
allowed his picture to be hung on the walls of Southern public schools
alongside those of Washington and Lincoln. When I was young a number
of Southern schools were named in honor of Jefferson Davis, but
since then most, if not all of those, have been forced to change
their names to dishonor the Confederate President.
Such efforts to disgrace him bothered even Southerners who were
never his "particular friend." "I never believed
he was a very great man, or even the best President the Confederate
States might have had," wrote John S. Wise. "But he was
our President. Whatever shortcomings he may have had, he was a brave,
conscientious and loyal son of the South. He did his best, to the
utmost of his ability, for the Southern cause. He, without being
a whit worse than the rest of us, was made to suffer for us as was
no other man in the Confederacy. And through it all he never, to
the day of his death, failed to maintain the honor and the dignity
of the trust confided to his keeping. It distresses me to this day,"
admitted Wise, "whenever I hear anybody speak disparagingly
of this man, who was unquestionably devoted to the cause for which
he lived and died, and who was infinitely greater than his traducers."
Davis knew how much he was maligned. He rejected an invitation to
visit the North in 1875, explaining "the tide of unreasoning
prejudice against me, in your section, was too strong to be resisted."
"Demagogues, who know better, have found it easier to inflame
and keep alive the passions of the war by personifying the idea
[that] I instigated and precipitated it."
Yankees had even stronger reasons for damning Davis. He was, after
all, a wholehearted supporter of those symbols of Southern wickedness
that union military might had discredited — slavery, states’ rights,
and secession. Davis had defended slavery; described the federal
government as having "no inherent power, all it possesses was
delegated by the States"; and he was equally emphatic on the
legitimacy and necessity of secession. "The temper of the Black
Republicans is not to give us our rights in the Union, or allow
us to go peaceably out of it," he declared in January 1861.
"If we had no other cause, this would be enough to justify
secession, at whatever hazard." A few days later hereported
to his old friend President Franklin Pierce: "Mississippi,
not as a matter of choice but of necessity, has resolved to enter
on the trial of secession. Those who have driven her to this alternative
threaten to deprive her of the right to require that her government
shall rest on the consent of the governed."
The invidious comparisons made between Davis and Lincoln during
and after the war by certain foreigners further embittered Northerners.
For example, William Howard Russell’s published diary contained
this unflattering contrast: "[Davis] is certainly a very different
looking man from Mr. Lincoln. He is like a gentleman." Or consider
the remarks of Percy Greg whose "Tribute to Confederate Heroes"
appeared in 1882. He praised Davis as having more "moral and
intellectual powers" than any twenty Federal statesmen, and
a man vastly superior in every way to "the ‘rail-splitter’.
. . whose term, had he died in his bed four or five years later,
would have been remembered only as marking the nadir of American
political decline; the culmination of vulgarity. Lincoln’s uncleanness
of language and thought," insisted Greg, "would hardly
have been tolerated in a Southern ‘bar.’"
Perhaps even the contrast between the "gentlemanly" warfare
advocated by Davis and the comprehensive destruction practiced by
such terrorizers of civilians as Sherman and Sheridan embarrassed
some Yankees. Davis believed that war should consist solely of combat
between organized armies. He abhorred the killing of civilians and
the destruction of private property during hostilities. Years after
the war, when General Grant was dying of cancer, Davis wrote: "I
have felt a human sympathy with him in his suffering, the more so
because I think him so much better than the pillaging, house-burning,
women persecuting Sherman and Sheridan." Judah P. Benjamin
recalled that "when it was urged upon Jefferson Davis, not
only by friends but by members of his Cabinet, that it was his duty
to the people and to the army to repress outrages by retaliation,
he was immovable in his resistance to such counsels, insisting that
it was repugnant to every sentiment of justice and humanity that
the innocent should be made victims for the crimes of such monsters."
Davis proudly proclaimed after the war: "I am happy to remember
that when our army invaded the enemy’s country, their property was
What made Davis so distinct and so utterly intolerable to most Yankees
was his refusal to admit any guilt or to apologize for his actions
and the cause he led. He told veterans of the Army of Tennessee
who came to Mississippi to honor him in 1878: "Your organization
was appropriate to preserve the memories and cherished brotherhoods
of your soldier life, and cannot be objectionable to any, unless
it be to one who holds your services to have been in an unworthy
cause and your conduct such as called for repentance and forgiveness."
Davis reminded these old soldiers that they must maintain pride
in their cause as well as in their soldierly conduct. "The
veteran who shoulders his crutch to show how fields were won must
notbe ashamed of the battle in which he was wounded," Davis
affirmed. "To higher natures success is not the only test of
merit; and you, my friends, though you were finally unsuccessful,
have the least possible cause to regret the flag under which you
marched or the manner in which you upheld it."
Given this opportunity to explain his views to an understanding
audience, Davis unburdened himself. "Every evil which has befallen
our institutions is directly traceable to the perversion of the
compact of union and the usurpation by the Federal Government of
undelegated powers," he contended. "The events are too
recent to require recapitulation, and the ruin they have wrought,
the depravity they have developed, require no other memorial than
the material and moral wreck which the country presents." Davis
still believed in secession: My faith in that right as an inherent
attribute of State sovereignty, was adopted early in life, was confirmed
by study and observation of later years, and has passed, unchanged
and unshaken, through the severe ordeal to which it has been subjected."
He could express such views, he told his listeners, because he had
no "desire for a political future." His only desire was
to establish "the supremacy of the truths on which the union
was founded." As for himself, he asserted, "I shall die,
as I have lived, firm in the State rights faith."
Throughout his remaining years, Davis reiterated these views in
speeches, letters, and interviews. He told an appreciative audience
of Southerners in 1882: "Our cause was so just, so sacred,
that had I known all that has come to pass, had I known all that
was to be inflicted upon me, all that my country was to suffer,
all that our posterity was to endure, I would do it all over again.
[Great applause.]" A year earlier Davis had written to a fellow
Southerner: "Nothing fills me with deeper sadness than to see
a Southern man apologizing for the defence we made of our inheritance
& denying the great truths on which all our institutions were
founded. To be crushed by superior force, to be robbed & insulted,
were great misfortunes, but these could be borne while there still
remained manhood to assert the truth, and a proud consciousness
in the rectitude of our course. When I find myself reviled by Southern
papers as one renewing ‘dead issues,’ the pain is not caused by
the attack upon myself, but by its desecration of the memories of
our Fathers & those of their descendants who staked in defence
of their rights — their lives, their property & their sacred
honor. To deny the justice of their cause, to apologize for its
defence, and denounce it as a dead issue, is to take the last of
their stakes, that for which they were willing to surrender the
A reporter who interviewed Davis a few years before he died discovered
that the Confederate President’s "heart [was] as warm as ever
for the land he has loved so well," and that Davis "did
not desert during the war and has not deserted since."
His steadfastness, his refusal to desert his cause, made Davis particularly
obnoxious to his enemies. He was so unlike those Southerners who
after the war disassociated themselves from their past as quickly
as did certain Germans after World War II and thus gained American
forgiveness and patronage. Davis was just the opposite of his fellow
Mississippian Confederate General James L. Alcorn, who announced
shortly after the war: "You were right Yankee! We are and ever
have been in the Union; secession was a nullity. We will now take
the oath to support the Constitution and the laws of the United
States." As proof of his sincerity, Alcorn became a Republican
governor of Mississippi in 1869 and a Republican member of the U.S.
Senate in 1871. He also recouped his wartime financial losses and
increased his property holdings. Good Yankees approved of such "enlightened"
new Southerners as Alcorn, who were "eager to keep step with
the North in the onward march of the Solid Nation," as one
man expressed it; they disapproved of Jefferson Davis and their
newspapers castigated him as "unrepentant" and "the
greatest enemy of the South."
Davis still carries such encumbrances. Were he alive today, even
the most skilled public relations firm would have difficulty packaging
him for the market. He was too honest and too politically incorrect
to be elected to public office, or even to have any future in higher
education, that last refuge of scoundrels. Scarcely any university
professor would want Davis as a colleague. He probably would be
as unsuccessful today in business as he was after the war. I even
doubt that he could have found employment as aradio talk-show host.
He was too dignified and too proud to truckle.
Yankees would have liked nothing better than to recast Jefferson
Davis as a repentant sinner asking for forgiveness, but he refused
to accommodate them. Instead, he assumed the burden of the lost
cause, becoming the symbolic defender of not just the Confederacy
and a proud Southern tradition, but of its people, their culture,
and what Yankees judge to be their unforgivable past. Jefferson
Davis is, and should be, our greatest hero. Like no other, he withstood
criticism and denigration without kowtowing or wavering. Asking
for no pardon, he refused to denounce his people or his cause. His
image ought to be everywhere to remind us that for more than a hundred
years he has symbolized our courage, our pride, and our unity.
In 1882, a year after the publication of his two-volume defense
of himself and the Confederate cause, Davis advocated what Yankees
considered totally unforgivable — a history of the South written
by and for Southerners. "I would have our children’s children
to know not only that our cause was just," he told members
of the Southern Historical Society, "but to have them know
that the men who sustained it were worthy of the cause for which
they fought." Davis, full of hope and passion, outlined in
this remarkable address, just what he believed history ought to
be and how it should be used. "It is our duty to keep the memory
of our heroes green," he announced. "We want our side
of the war so fully and exactly stated, that the men who come after
us may compare and do [us] justice." Davis did not call for
objectivity. "I will frankly acknowledge that I would distrust
the man who served the Confederate cause and was capable of giving
a disinterested account of it. [Applause.]" "I would not
give twopence for a man whose heart was so cold that he could be
quite impartial," admitted Davis. "You may ask the schoolboy
in the lowest form, who commanded at the Pass of Thermopylae. He
can tell you. But my friends there are few in this audience who,
if I ask them, could tell me who commanded at Sabine Pass. And yet,"
said Davis, "that battle of Sabine Pass was more remarkable
than the battle of Thermopylae, and when it has orators and poets
to celebrate it, will be so esteemed by mankind.
His appeal for orators and poets to preserve the deeds of heroic
Southerners reveals that Davis understood the South’s heritage.
Southerners, like their Celtic ancestors, were oral and aural people
who perpetuated much of their past in stories and songs. Davis compared
the Confederacy’s military heroes with their Scottish forebears:
"May it not come to pass that in some hour of need, future
generations, aware of the grandeur and the virtues of these men,
will in a moment of disaster cry out like the ancient Scot:
O for an hour of Wallace wight, Or well-trained Bruce To lead the
fight, And cry St. Andrew and our right."
History, Davis believed, must inspire those who learn it. "Let
the rising generation learn what their fathers did," he implored,
"and let them learn the still better lesson to emulate not
only the deeds, but the motives which prompted them. May God grant
that sons ever greater than their fathers may rise whenever their
country needs them to defence her cause. [Applause.]"
The kind of history that Davis advocated was unacceptable to Yankees.
First, it was incompatible with the so-called scientific history
taught in German seminars and in the later nineteenth century being
popularized in the United States by Yankee professors. As adapted
for Americans, this history stressed the evolution of New England
institutions and how they contributed to the greatness of the United
States. There was no place in such history for either the bard or
the poet upon whom Davis relied to celebrate Southern values and
heroes. Second, a history of the South that revered Southerners
and their values rather than Northerners and their values would
undermine all that the war had decided. To the victor went the power
to write the history that justified the victory. It was that simple.
British history is really English history imposed upon the non-English
peoples of the British Isles by their English conquerors. The same
may be said of the history of the United States. What passes for
standard American history is Yankee history written by New Englanders
or their puppets to glorify Yankee ideals and heroes.
In the twentieth century, Yankees gained increasing control over
the historical journals, the university presses, the commercial
publishing houses, and the production and distribution of professional
historians; consequently, the Yankee version of the American past
became the history most often taught in the colleges and in the
It is precisely this condition that Mississippian Dunbar Rowland
first complained about eighty years ago. "It seems to be admitted
on all sides that the people of the South are neglecting the teaching
of Southern History in all our institutions," he informed the
governor. "That we are neglecting this important field of instruction
is made evident by the astonishing amount of ignorance of Southern
and State history among the rising generation of college students.
Something should be done to enlighten them."
Part of the problem has been that the professors who taught the
South’s teachers adopted the "New South" doctrine of national
unity as readily as Southern businessmen. North Carolina educator
Robert Bingham announced in 1884 that "the greatest blessing
that ever befell us was a failure to establish a [Southern] nationalism."
Bingham boasted that "the past of the South is irrevocable,
and we do not wish to recall it. The past of the South is irreparable,
and we do not wish to repair it."
Yet this teaching of Yankee ideas and biases in Southern public
schools, which Francis Butler Simkins labeled "the education
that does not educate," often has been offset "by the
survival of overwhelming traditions." Robert Penn Warren testified
that his sympathetic view of Confederate history was obtained not
from the schoolroom, but rather "from the air around me."
If today the South’s air is still full of Confederate history, the
bookshelves are not. Yankees now control the writing, publishing,
and marketing of most books on the South’s history and culture.
Yankee professors and Southerners who think like Yankees have taken
over most Southern colleges and universities. Southerners who believe
in the traditions that Jefferson Davis appreciated are finding themselves
unemployable, denied careers in higher education by national forces
that systematically discriminate against them. Only Yankees and
Scalawags who truckle to the enemies of Southern history and culture
get important jobs where they have the opportunity to train college
teachers. Most Southerners are relegated to academic Siberia where
they receive low pay, scant research opportunities, and rarely see
Something not yet fully understood, but that could destroy our culture,
has occurred during the more than forty years that I have been a
college professor. Discrimination against Southerners has always
existed, but today in education it is rampant. Trying to find jobs
for young Southerners is difficult in a market that favors political
correctness and disdains Southerners. No university, not even one
in the South, wants to hire a native son, especially one who appreciates
Southern traditions. Not only has Jefferson Davis remained unforgiven
by his enemies; so have the Southerners who came after him. We are
being reduced to the status once imposed on our Celtic relatives
— the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish — by their English neighbors.
God help us!