Thursday, September 10, 2015

Was Jefferson Davis a "good" president?


President Jefferson Davis
While Jefferson Davis is hailed as hero of the Confederacy in the South and vilified as a traitor in the North, his performance as president is criticized by historians.

Author William C. Davis in Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, points out Davis’s failures and notes several key decisions made by Davis that aided and prolonged the life of the Confederacy. Davis cites the president's "appointment and continued support of Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and his critical role in organizing the civil and military institutions of the new nation." On the negative side, the author lists Davis’s "inability to effectively work with either the prideful politicians or disgruntled commanders of the South, his tendency to overwork himself with details better left delegated, his refusal to admit error and replace highly appointed but incompetent friends, and his numerous health problems all proved to limit his effectiveness as a wartime president." William C. Davis concludes that “for all Davis’s flaws as an executive, without his performance of his civil functions as president, the Confederacy would not have lasted until 1865." [From review of book  by Than Dossman]

In another review of Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, Ashley Lauman states: 

As chief executive, Davis found himself troubled by the shortcomings that had plagued him since his early years—an inability to deal with equals unless they fawned upon him, excruciating difficulty in making decisions, and a stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing. Much of author Davis’s coverage discusses his subject’s difficulty in cooperating with his several generals; and he praises Robert E. Lee for discovering early on how to maintain a harmonious relationship with his president. As president, Davis lacked the instincts of a true administrator; rather, his abilities and personality were more suited to a bureaucratic position. Nonetheless, despite taking the brunt of public outrage for the declining success or individual failures during the war, Davis performed as well as any human could be expected to as the underdog Confederate leader facing the much stronger Union foe.
In William J. Cooper's A Reassessment of Jefferson Davis as War Leader: The Case from Atlanta to Nashville, the author quotes a comparison made by Eric L. McKitrick:

It seems apparent that the leadership of Abraham Lincoln was superior to that of Jefferson Davis.“ Lincoln was flexible; Davis was rigid. Lincoln wanted to win;  Davis wanted to be right. Lincoln had a broad strategic vision of Union goals; Davis could never enlarge his narrow view. Lincoln searched for the right general, then let him fight the war; Davis continuously played favorites and interfered unduly with his generals, even with Robert E. Lee. Lincoln led his nation; Davis failed to rally the South. Simply, Lincoln contributed mightily to the Union victory; Davis contributed mightily to the Confederate defeat.
The biography on the Mississippi History Now web site notes that Davis had the same difficulties as Lincoln in dealing with generals, states, and Congress.


As the only president of the Confederacy, Davis was in a unique situation as he struggled to run a war and, simultaneously, to mold a new country. Like his northern counterpart, Abraham Lincoln, Davis had epic struggles with his army commanders, the state governors, and Congress. Unlike Lincoln, he lacked the essential resources to ensure success. 
Davis' biography on the Civil War Trust web site also mentions his failures as a president.

Initially, Davis was a popular President with the Southern people. He had a dignified bearing, a distinguished military record, extensive experience in political affairs, and — most importantly — a dedication to the Confederate cause. Unfortunately for Davis, these attributes were not enough to triumph over the harsh challenges posed by his new position. His early popularity was a result of war fervor and he did not have the personality necessary to sustain it. He was impatient with people who disagreed with him, and he had the unfortunate habit of awarding prominent posts to leaders who appeared unsuccessful. Davis’ loyalty to these people led to bickering and quarrels throughout his administration. In addition, he was plagued by chronic illness. 
Was Davis a victim of an unwinnable situation? Did his illnesses affect his ability to be an effective leader? Was his personality, formed by past successes, at the root of his problems? What do you think?  

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