Reading, Writing, and History:Jeff Davis: The Man Behind The Image


He joined Varina in Canada, went thence to England—and began to look about for a job. What does the president of a nonexistent nation do for a living, when he has a wife and children to support? For a full decade this was a problem. For a time Davis served as president of an insurance company in Tennessee. He was a fish out of water, and he confessed to Varina that there was a great difference “between a man of business and a Soldier, or a Planter, or a Senator, or a Cabinet Minister, or a President, or even an exiled representative of an oppressed people.” It came hard, because this man’s pride was strong, and he wrote frankly: “I have compounded with my pride for the material interest of my family, and am ready to go on to the end as may best promote their happiness,”

Unfortunately, the end of this venture was not far off. The Panic of 1873 Put the insurance company in deep trouble. Davis resigned, returned to London, thought for a time that he had a connection as American representative of a British business firm but found that the British businessmen at last grew frightened because of “a secret dread of displeasing the Yankees.” He came back to the United States, dabbled for a time in a company preparing to exploit mineral deposits in Arkansas, spent several years in the fruitless attempt to organize a Mississippi Valley association designed to promote direct trade between the valley states and England, saw it fail at last because that same “secret dread” afflicted British capitalists … and finally, late in the 1870s, settled down at Beauvoir in Mississippi, on the gulf coast, to write his memoirs.

This book, a two-volume affair called The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, came out in 1881. It did not make a fortune for him—the North, where American books were mostly reviewed and bought, was not yet ready to admit that the one-time Confederate president had anything to say that anybody needed to listen to—but Davis found himself able to support his family, and in his final years he got a measure of peace and happiness. The climax came in 1886 and 1887, when Davis appeared in public at the dedication of Confederate monuments in Montgomery, Atlanta, Savannah, and Macon. Suddenly, and apparently quite unexpectedly, he found himself the hero of the South. He was no longer the president who had failed to win the war: he was the man who had kept the faith, who had endured years of imprisonment, who had behaved with dignity and integrity during the time that followed, who in his book had stood firmly by the cause he had led—and, all in all, he was again the man he had been at Montgomery in 1861, when crowds stood to cheer the very sight of him.

Davis died in 1889. On the day of his death his daughter Winnie, in Paris, knowing that he was ill but not realizing that he was so near the end, sent him a letter closing with these words:

… when I am away from you I can only think, and think, and love you for your goodness and tenderness, with which you covered me as with a cloak all through my childhood, screening my faults and answering my unreasonable questions with always an honest reply, the rarest thing given to a child in the world. And so I will end by saying, as I began, “My darling father.” Good night.

Need it be repeated? There was a warm and tender human being behind the reserved individual who set so much store by “the consciousness of rectitude.”