Monday, February 27, 2006

Biography of Jefferson Davis

If you are looking for a fair, balanced, and non-partisan biography of Jefferson Davis, then I have found the book for you. Joseph McElroy’s Jefferson Davis is one of the best biographies I have read. It may not have the literary greatness of David McCullough’s writings, but it is extraordinarily informative, unafraid to tackle the issues, deals honestly with faults, and gives praise where praise is due. There is one problem, and that is you may need to go to Abe Books to find it. I got it at a used book store in Washington D.C. It was written in the early 1920’s, and probably is no longer in print. Oh yeah, the book is just under 700 pages as well, so do not bother if you are not willing to read.

One of the things I appreciated the most about McElroy is that he was not a partisan. Most of the Davis biographies one finds are written by bitter avid Southerner’s. McElroy is up front about condemning Davis’s view of slavery, but he also points out Davis was kinder to his slaves than most plantation owners. The vast majority of Davis’s slaves waited for Davis in Mississippi and worked for him again after the war as freedmen. On the plantation Davis actually had a legal system for his slaves where other slaves would serve as judge, jury, and executioners. Davis did not have white overseers and when whippings occurred, they were administered by other slaves on a slave convicted by a jury of his peers. McElroy also does not agree with Jefferson Davis about the right of the state. Yet, he honestly presents the view of Davis and lets Davis do his own defense.

McElroy also has many helpful points of comparison. He does a very nice comparison between Lincoln and Davis that sheds a great deal of light on the Civil War struggle. This is not the only helpful side by side comparison, but he also compares Davis to his political rivals prior to Lincoln, after Lincoln, and even does some military comparisons of Davis to other great military leaders. Davis was actually a war hero in the Mexican War showing what European military leaders proclaimed, ‘genius’ on the battlefield.

One other aspect of the book that I found interesting was the constant comparisons of the American Civil War to the League of Nations. McElroy talks of how secession from a union is always an option until the majority of the parts become wealthy on account of the union, and then secession is untenable without violence. He then draws a direct line to the League of Nations and makes a bold prediction of violence should the League continue. It should be noted that Japan walked out of the League of Nations shortly before WWII. I believe his criticisms may also hold true for the United Nations. This element of McElroy’s writings add interesting tidbits to the already intriguing biography.

I recommend this book to all lovers of Civil War history.