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Authors: Bruce Chadwick

1858 (6 page)

BOOK: 1858
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Shortly after his election, Jefferson Davis fell in love for the second time. His brother Joe had invited Varina Howell, 17, the beautiful, well-educated daughter of a prominent family in Natchez, to a Christmas party at his plantation. Davis and the Natchez beauty were smitten with each other at that first meeting.

He was an older man, eighteen years her senior, and at first the slender, brunette Varina worried that he would see her as a daughter and not a lover, but that feeling changed. “He is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself,” she wrote her mother, adding that he looked thirty, not thirty-five. Varina, a very political woman who read the Washington, DC newspaper, the
National Intelligencer
, every day, wrote light-heartedly that Davis “was refined and cultivated…and yet he is a Democrat!”

Varina Howell was five feet ten inches tall, thin and graceful with a lovely olive complexion; her large, dark brown eyes captured the attention of everyone who ever met her. She had become a young woman by the Christmas of 1843 and began to show far more maturity than girls her age. The lovely brunette was one of the belles of Natchez, the teenage girls who had been taught all the refinements of life as they prepared for marriages to well-bred husbands. Yet Varina was a strong-willed, independent woman who had no intention of subjugating herself to a domineering husband. She did not share the commonly held view of the Southern aristocracy that in a marriage wives existed only to serve their husbands; her husband would be her partner in life, not her master.

Davis hadn’t thought that he could ever love a woman again as much as he had loved Sarah, but he found himself writing Varina romantic letters and dreaming about her. He wrote that he had “longings of love” for her and that “I have to be with you every day and all day.”
Of their future, he wrote her, “Your spirit is with me. I feel its presence. My heart is yours.”
They shared common interests. Davis loved music; Varina played the piano. She too was an accomplished horsewoman. They both enjoyed discussing politics; both loved to read.

Early on in their courtship, though, Varina detected the stubbornness and defensiveness that others found alarming in Davis. “He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion,” she wrote. In another letter, she wrote that “it was this sincerity of opinion which sometimes gave him the manner to which his opponents objected as domineering.”

The arrival of Congressman Jefferson Davis and his young wife in Washington caused quite a stir. The two quickly became much sought after guests at dinners and parties and hosted some of the capital’s most well attended soirées. The youthful Varina was rapidly acknowledged as one of the Hill’s best dressed women, especially when she wore simple but elegant white dresses, a pin in the cleavage and either a rose or camellia in her hair.
She charmed everyone, North and South, and those who attended dinners at her home marveled at the way that she and her husband were able to get along with the radical Republicans in the House and Senate, such as William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner, even more radical than Seward, talked often about how much he enjoyed socializing with the Davises.

One social lioness said of Varina that, “Nor must we fail to acknowledge the social influence of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, one of the most cultivated women of her time—greatly sought by cultivated men and women.”

She was more than a popular hostess. Varina Davis was her husband’s personal goodwill ambassador, working hard to help him win friends and influence legislators. She hosted numerous dinner parties, making certain that each year every single member of Congress dined at the Davis home at least once. She helped her husband with his social and political correspondence and subscribed to several newspapers for him so he always knew what was going on in the country. She worked directly on his behalf too, spending one day each week at her home on G Street to meet anyone who wanted to talk about his bills or policies.

Varina was adamant in her beliefs and would never back down in disputes. To argue with Varina was “to the annihilation of all who had the temerity to cross swords with her,” said her friend Virginia Clay, the wife of Senator Clement Clay.

Most freshmen congressmen said little during their first term, but Davis plunged into the business of the nation, delivering several major speeches and quickly becoming one of the Southern states’ rights contingent’s most successful spokesmen in the House of Representatives. Some even said that Davis might become the Speaker of the House one day. But the Mexican War intervened.


To protest the statehood of Texas, formerly Mexican territory, Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande in April 1846, and attacked a U.S. Army force led by Davis’s former father-in-law, Colonel Zachary Taylor. Dozens of Americans were killed and Congress declared war on Mexico. Davis, the army veteran, left Washington as soon as he heard the news and went back to Mississippi to join a volunteer force that was headed to Mexico. “I felt my services were due to the country and believed my experience might be available in promoting the comfort the safety and efficiency of the Mississippi regiment…I could not delay until the close of the congressional session,” he told Mississippians in a letter published in many newspapers in that state.

In Mexico, Davis captured twenty Mexican soldiers practically single-handedly in his first battle and led his men to a second straight triumph the following day. Two months later, Davis took his men into battle against the legendary Mexican general Santa Ana, the man whose army captured the Alamo in 1836, at Buena Vista. He led his 370 Mississippians in a surprise assault on the Mexicans, scattering them. During the attack, Davis was shot in the foot. Later that day, another Mexican force of two thousand cavalry attacked his volunteers and some other regiments across an open plain. Outnumbered by more than three to one, the quick-thinking Davis, bleeding through the handkerchief he had wrapped around his foot, ordered his men to form a right angle and opened up with nonstop volleys against the stunned Mexicans, who soon fled in defeat.

The soldiers who served under him were impressed by the bravery of their wounded officer. “He could lead them into hell!” said one of his men of the regiment’s respect for their commander. Later, one of the Mexican generals he encountered that day at Buena Vista said his army lost because of “the flashing sword of Davis.”
Zachary Taylor cited Davis for “highly conspicuous bravery” and President Polk offered to make the Mississippian a general, an honor Davis refused.

Davis, still hobbling from his war wounds, was seen as a national hero upon his return to the United States. Following a round of parties in Mississippi, Davis was appointed to fill one of his state’s two unexpired U.S. Senate seats. He was, in the eyes of the public, a military legend and national hero.

His life changed with the introduction of the Compromise of 1850 four years later. The legislative bill was yet another measure designed to give both the North and South something each wanted in an effort to hold the Union together as the slavery issue grew in volatility. The Compromise abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia, admitted California to the Union as a free state, set boundaries for Texas and New Mexico, admitted Utah and New Mexico as territories with the slave question unresolved there, and included a fugitive slave law that required Northerners to return runaway slaves to their owners. It was no compromise for Davis, who argued against it in the Senate. For him, it was yet another effort to end slavery and demean Southerners.

The senator, who rose to denounce the Compromise fifty-four times, speaking more than anyone else in the Senate chamber, still could not understand the uproar over slavery. What was so bad about it? He treated his slaves well and assumed that others did, too. Where was the evil?

There was nothing wrong with it; its abuses, he said, arose when slave owners treated their workers badly. “It is enough for me to know,” he declared, “…that it was established by decree of Almighty God, that it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both testaments…that it has existed in all ages; has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”

And, he always told friends, blacks were better off in slavery than on their own. “In a moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts, but with careful religious instruction, under the supervision of a superior race.”

He and other Southerners defended slavery for several reasons: no one should tell Southerners what to do with property—and slaves were property; the loss of slaves would cripple the agricultural economy of the South; freed slaves would take jobs away from whites, rob stores, and marry white women, tainting the race; the simple-minded slaves could not function on their own. Despite the fact that slaves learned to read and write, slaves were not intelligent, he said, and because of their diminished intellectual capacity they therefore had to be subservient to the white race. He engaged in name-calling, referring to them as “pygmies” at times.
He said that slavery allowed them to enjoy rewarding lives under the guidance of well-intentioned masters who had the welfare of their workers at heart. And he lectured his audiences that the freed blacks in the North had accomplished nothing with their freedom, insisting that he had thus proved his point.

He explained his view clearly in Aberdeen, Mississippi, in a May 1851 speech. A reporter for the
Monroe Democrat
wrote, “Colonel Davis said that he always thought and sincerely believed that the institution of slavery, as it now exists among us, is necessary to the equality of the white race. Distinctions between classes have always existed, everywhere, and in every country…destroy them today and they will spring up tomorrow. Menial services have to be performed by someone and everywhere the world over persons [slaves] by whom menial services have been performed as a class have been looked upon as occupying, and are reduced to, a state of inferiority.”

Concerning whites, Davis told the crowd, “The rich, by siding with the party in power…will always be safe. Not so with the poor. Their all is suspended upon their superiority to the blacks…the social equality of their wives, daughters, and sons are all suspended and involved in this question.”

He told another audience, “Can anyone believe, does anyone hope, that the southern states in this confederacy will continue…to support the Union, to bear its burdens, in peace and in war, in a degree disproportioned to their numbers, if that very government is to be arrayed in hostility against an institution so interwoven with its interests, its domestic peace, and all its social relations?”

Callous Northern domination of the South was a theme that Davis would embrace all of his life, cleverly reminding people that the bedrock of the Constitution was the protection of the rights of the minority (slaveholders) against the will of the majority (non-slaveholders). “A moral crevasse has occurred; fanaticism and ignorance—political rivalry, sectional hate, strife for sectional dominion—have accumulated into a mighty flood and pour their turgid waters through the broken Constitution,” he argued.

Again and again in the 1850s, he told audiences that “I see nothing short of conquest on one side or submission on the other.”
In letters to friends, he referred to politicians from states north of the Mason-Dixon Line as “our northern aggressors.”

As early as 1851, he hinted at secession.
“The bitter waters [of North-South disagreement] have spread far and wide and as the torrent rolls on, it will acquire volume and velocity, from inexhaustible source of supply. When it becomes palpable to every man’s sense, that from the free states we have nothing to expect but eternal war upon the institution of slavery, I believe the southern people will awake and unite, not to preserve the Constitution, or the union, but to organize a government for themselves.”

He told friends that if that day came, the South would leave the Union peacefully, but added ominously that if the Northerners tried to stop the Southern states, “I will meet force with force!”

Davis was so angry at the passage of the Compromise that he left the Senate and went home to run for governor against a man who favored it to make his point. He misjudged not only the feeling of his fellow Mississippians, but the political climate. He lost.

BOOK: 1858
8.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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