October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
The one great attempt which we have made in our history to turn our backs on the values which all of this uprooting brought us, and to swim upstream against the principal current in American life, was unquestionably the attempt to create an independent nation out of the southern Confederacy. It was an attempt made by high-minded men who were actuated by the best of motives, and it was doomed to fail; and the men who led the Lost Cause remain the tragic characters of American history, men who fought against destiny, lost, and went into star-crossed legend as persons who had stepped outside of the main pattern.
Of these, the most perplexing in some ways has been Jefferson Davis.
Even more than Lee, Davis has become a marble image; an image bedecked with fewer floral tributes, because Davis was a person who did not inspire acute personal loyalty on the part of strangers, but nevertheless an image rather than a man.
In Jefferson Davis: American Patriot , Mr. Hudson Strode tries very successfully to show the living man back of the image. This book is the first volume of a two-decker which will ultimately encompass all of Davis’ career, and it stops with the outbreak of the Civil War; and it is the most rewarding effort yet made to present Davis as a living, breathing human being, a warm passionate man who did his level best according to his lights and who cannot be faulted too much for the fact that his lights were situated in the wrong part of the sky.
Jefferson Davis: American Patriot, A Biography of the Years before the Great Conflict , by Hudson Strode. Harcourt, Brace and Co. 460 pp. $6.75.
Davis was a plebeian who finally came to speak for and to represent a highly self-conscious aristocracy. He was hot-blooded and impulsive, yet he comes down in history as an austere person whose veins held a mixture of ice water and acid. He was considered, in the North, a most doctrinaire bitter-ender, yet in the South he was accounted a moderate; and he commanded the devotion of hot-blooded men.
He was caught up, it appears, in a cause that led him where he might not have gone of himself. He had much of Lincoln’s background. He was, in essence, a frontiersman. He was court-martialed at West Point, and very nearly dismissed, for going off-limits for drinking bouts at the notorious Benny Haven’s; he was an indifferent student there, high on the demerit list, and not at all the devoted, rigidly controlled man of legend. It seems clear, from Mr. Strode’s account, that when he left the Army to become a Mississippi planter he stepped into a new role, shaped himself to fit it, and in essence created a new person of himself. Back of the president of the Confederate States, unseen by most biographers, there was a very different sort of person; a rather appealing man, whom it would be possible to like as well as to admire.
It seems very likely that before he gets through Mr. Strode will have produced the definitive biography of Davis. His second volume will be worth waiting for.