Two presidents and their war
By William S. McFeely
September 8, 2014
Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson, Penguin Press, 352 pp., $32.95
Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Richard Brookhiser, Basic Books, 376 pp., $27.99
When these two books arrived at my door, I anticipated fireworks: a powerful contrast between two leaders busy winning and losing a deadly and crucial war. No such luck. The books could not be less alike. Richard Brookhiser’s Founders’ Son examines Abraham Lincoln’s intellectual development. But in Embattled Rebel, James M. McPherson, the preeminent Civil War historian, seems unconcerned with Davis’s mind apart from how it made war.
He is scrupulously attentive to his book’s subtitle, Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. The book largely ignores Davis’s earlier political career and his personal life. His wife, Varina, makes only a cameo appearance in a handsome photograph; other pictures are mostly of generals. We get very little about Davis’s handling of civilian issues. McPherson explicitly states that he has not attempted to compare Davis with Lincoln. (Readers are sure to do so on their own.)
Davis, a graduate of West Point, served in the peacetime army and, in the Mexican War, commanded a volunteer regiment. In the years preceding the Civil War, he was secretary of war in the Franklin Pierce administration and, in the Senate, served as chairman of its military affairs committee. When the South seceded, he anticipated becoming the commanding general of the rebel army but was instead called on to serve as president of the Confederacy.
Davis immediately went to work assembling an army where there was none. At first, the vast job of outfitting for the coming war took priority over selecting a cabinet. In his book, McPherson deals only with the two cabinet members charged with martial responsibilities. Secretary of the Navy Stephen A. Mallory served well for the duration. By contrast, LeRoy Walker, secretary of war, did not last long. A succession of men went on to fill the post—all of them failures, thanks in part to Davis’s insistence on directing the war himself.
McPherson pays ample attention to Davis’s troubled relationship with his generals. Despite his victory at Manassas, General P. G. T. Beauregard’s huge ego rankled, and he never received another significant command. Even more troubling for Davis was General Joseph E. Johnston. Competent but stubborn, he had to be cajoled by Davis into supporting Richmond’s goals for the war. Davis was desperate for Johnston to halt Union General William T. Sherman’s advance on Atlanta in 1864. When it appeared that Johnston would let Atlanta fall, Davis replaced him with General John B. Hood. “This act was perhaps Davis’s most divisive and fateful proceeding as commander in chief,” McPherson writes, yet neither Hood nor Johnston, once restored to his post, halted Sherman. In a book that is generally favorable to Davis’s performance, this judgment needs explanation. How was it “divisive”? How “fateful”?
In his assessment of Davis, McPherson wonders whether a change in strategy would have made a difference in the fate of the Confederacy. The South carried out a “dispersed defense,” attempting to repulse the Union forces everywhere they invaded. Davis’s preference for an “offensive-defensive” approach was never truly tested. Indeed, it was tried only twice—with the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania, turned back at Gettysburg, and in Hood’s ill-fated incursion into Tennessee the following year.
Richard Brookhiser, the author of biographies of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, as well as other studies of the founding fathers, has written not a “full-dress biography of Lincoln” but a “history of a career, and the unfolding of the ideas that animated it.” Working mainly from Lincoln’s speeches, Brookhiser carefully examines the full range, from his early talks as Lincoln began his career to the famous ones of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and those of his presidency. In his 1854 Peoria speech, Lincoln alludes to the American Revolution, the galvanizing work of the founders, as the “pure, fresh, free breath of the revolution.” Here, Brookhiser abandons all restraint: “The founding fathers marched through Lincoln’s speech—no longer dead and gone, but living presences.” This is just one of hundreds of references Brookhiser makes to the founders. He considers them collectively, although Washington does emerge as his favorite. In addition to the men we think of in this group, Brookhiser also cites the considerable influence of Thomas Paine and Henry Clay.
Other historians have noted Clay’s influence on Lincoln’s Whig days, but seldom have they given it the weight Brookhiser does. He places Clay firmly in the line of descent from the founders to Lincoln. In describing the Great Compromiser’s last great speech in the debates that would lead to the Compromise of 1850, he notes that Clay was holding a piece of George Washington’s coffin, “the precious relic” of the first among Brookhiser’s founders.
For his analysis of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Brookhiser turns to another father, God the Father. Following the teaching of Eliza Gurney, a Quaker who visited Lincoln in the White House in the fall of 1862, he cites, point after point, the scriptural sources of the famous speech.
A curious incursion into the Lincoln story is Brookhiser’s analysis of a speech by Alexander Stephens in Savannah. Stephens, a Whig, had opposed Georgia’s secession and was at odds with Jefferson Davis, a Democrat, but he had just been named vice president of the Confederacy. After praising the Confederate constitution, Stephens spoke of Thomas Jefferson. Like other founders, he said, the author of the Declaration of Independence thought slavery was evil, and the institution “would be evanescent and pass away.” (Only later did Jefferson predict that slavery would threaten the survival of the Union.) Then Stephens switched gears:
Those ideas … were fundamentally wrong. They rested on the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. … Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid … upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.
Lincoln, slow to state the opposite so unequivocally, eventually got there in his Gettysburg Address, which echoed Jefferson. More important, Lincoln acted—he, not one of the founders, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
There is much to admire in Founders’ Son, but the singular attention to the founders gives pause. History is change. Although the present always carries the baggage, good and bad, of the past, there is likewise the new with which to contend. Lincoln’s America was a different place from that of the founders. Just consider the growth in the number and value of the Confederacy’s slaves. Brookhiser knows this, but he is insistent that the thinking of the 18th century, crucial for Lincoln, should serve us just as well today. One expression of this line of thinking is the originalism championed by several justices of the Supreme Court. They will find support in this book. The founders can give us lots of fatherly advice, but engaging with their wisdom does not take the place of making our own contemporary judgments.
William S. McFeely is the Abraham Baldwin Professor of Humanities, emeritus, at the University of Georgia. His Grant: A Biography received the Pulitzer Prize.