The Essential Writings
Publication Date: August 10, 2004
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Jefferson Davis is one of the most complex and controversial figures in American political history (and the man whom Oscar Wilde wanted to meet more than anyone when he made his tour of the United States). Elected president of the Confederacy and later accused of participating in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he is a source of ongoing dissension between northerners and southerners. This volume, the first of its kind, is a selected collection of his writings culled in large part from the authoritative Papers of Jefferson Davis, a multivolume edition of his letters and speeches published by the Louisiana State University Press, and includes thirteen documents from manuscript collections and one privately held document that have never before appeared in a modern scholarly edition. From letters as a college student to his sister, to major speeches on the Constitution, slavery, and sectional issues, to his farewell to the U.S. Senate, to his inaugural address as Confederate president, to letters from prison to his wife, these selected pieces present the many faces of the enigmatic Jefferson Davis.
As William J. Cooper, Jr., writes in his Introduction, “Davis’s notability does not come solely from his crucial role in the Civil War. Born on the Kentucky frontier in the first decade of the nineteenth century, he witnessed and participated in the epochal transformation of the United States from a fledgling country to a strong nation spanning the continent. In his earliest years his father moved farther south and west to Mississippi. As a young army officer just out of West Point, he served on the northwestern and southwestern frontiers in an army whose chief mission was to protect settlers surging westward. Then, in 1846 and 1847, as colonel of the First Mississippi Regiment, he fought in the Mexican War, which resulted in 1848 in the Mexican Cession, a massive addition to the United States of some 500,000 square miles, including California and the modern Southwest. As secretary of war and U.S. senator in the 1850s, he advocated government support for the building of a transcontinental railroad that he believed essential to bind the nation from ocean to ocean.”
Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) was the president of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, served in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and was secretary of war under Franklin Pierce.
William J. Cooper, Jr., is Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University. His most recent book is Jefferson Davis, American, winner of the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Biography and the Jefferson Davis Award. He lives in Baton Rouge.
“Eclipsed in our memory of the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and other military heroes, Jefferson Davis was arguably one of the most important figures in the antebellum and wartime eras. Davis’s biographer William J. Cooper, Jr., has sifted through the huge number of Davis letters and speeches to select those that best tell the story of his life and provide insight on his character in this invaluable volume.” —James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
“To have the most important letters, speeches, and public documents of Jefferson Davis gathered into a single volume is invaluable. To have Jefferson Davis’s leading modern biographer making the selection and placing the documents in context was inspired.” —George C. Rable, Charles G. Summersell Professor of Southern History, University of Alabama, and author of Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, winner of the 2003 Lincoln Prize
“This volume, full of well-chosen words from Jefferson Davis, must be on every Civil War buff’s bookshelf.” —William W. Freehling, Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky and author of The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War
“William J. Cooper, Jr., is exactly the right person to prepare a useful and accessible single-volume edition of Davis’s most important writings, and he has performed that task superbly. Historians, students, and the general public alike will all find this to be a fascinating volume.” —Michael F. Holt, Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History, University of Virginia, and co-author of The Civil War and Reconstruction
“He had the pride, the spirit of initiative, the capacity in business which qualify men for leadership, and lacked nothing of the indomitable will and imperious purpose to make his leadership effective.” —Woodrow Wilson