Author: Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederacy)
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading, 2010 (original 1881)
Every now and again I come across a hidden gem, a book that is not on the major lists of classic works but that covers such a range of ideas and aspects of human existence that it winds up ranking on my list of top fifty reads in my life. This is one of those cases, and I owe Barnes and Noble a huge thank you for their publication of this work, the first half of Davis’ memoirs. I will warn that it is a tome, at 480 pages of text plus another 180 of appendices and at least ten of endnotes, but it is well worth the time and effort to sort through it.
The Civil War was about business interests, and any discussion of slavery only clouds the issue–let’s start with that. Jefferson Davis’ memoir provides a clear statement of the reasons behind the secession of the eleven “sovereign” states which formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 (in theory thirteen states had Confederate armies, but two were silenced by disarmament enforced by Union troops). I did not know many of the details about the Southern position before reading this book, as they have been ignored or “discredited” (a word that is difficult to use here but that some who do not know what it means use to state that they disagree with its premises and facts), but now I must say that not only am I far more knowledgeable and less prone to making assumptions, I believe I am a “Confederate sympathizer” to a certain degree.
Davis’ biggest concern is the abuse of the legislative and executive powers of the United States by sectional interests. As he states early on, the South was penalized multiple times by tariffs which a) protected Northern industry and b) were used to make improvements in the North that Southern congressmen would not ask to be made in their territories. This was the basis of corruption and dishonesty, and was coupled with a refusal to enforce fugitive slave laws and a failure to honor property rights in neutral territories prior to their having become States; and when an entirely sectional government was elected in 1860, Southerners were forced to deliberate upon whether the “general government” as an “agent” instituted for a purpose could still do what the South had entered into agreement for its establishment to do.
Their answer was, of course, that it could not do this, and they seceded. Davis justifies this by reference to the language of the Constitution, and shows how theories against the right of secession are based on misconstructions of that brilliant document; all of his logic is very plain, and adds up quite clearly. (Ultimately the debate really goes back to whether government fits Hobbes’ conception–where men give up their rights to the government in exchange for protection of their lives but something goes wrong and they cannot get those rights back and are forced to concede more and more–or Locke’s conception, where government is still the result of a social contract but the people reserve the right to alter or abolish it if it no longer works for them.) But the seceding states retained the hope for peace, and did not attempt to build their armies despite their unpreparedness for any sort of major conflict; instead they sent commissioners to the United States government in the hopes of amicably settling certain potential sources of disagreement, such as the removal of United States troops from Fort Sumter in South Carolina (where they were no longer wanted and needed as they were on the territory of a foreign nation), which the Union government kept waiting with delays before finally dismissing them ignominiously and sending reinforcements to the garrison at Fort Sumter. Davis exposes the hypocrisy of the political leaders of the Republican party of the time and their broad construction of the language of the Constitution to the point where they rendered the document nearly meaningless. The full implications of this early abuse of the document continue to be displayed at the present, mind you.
Davis describes the organization of the Confederate government, the initiation of the Civil War and its early battles, some military strategies pursued by his generals, the suppression of the border states by Union armies (which truly disgusts me), the finances of the Confederacy and its manufacture of arms after the war had already started in a game of catch-up; he discusses some of the conflicts that arose between himself and governors of the respective states, and some of the more reckless behavior of his generals in disobeying his orders that led to reverses in the fate of the Confederacy.
The book is ridiculously complete in its scope, covering all aspects of both the theoretical and the practical that bear relevance to its subject matter, and compares favorably with many of the memoirs I have read by participants in world affairs–notably Trotsky’s and Roosevelt’s. It should be considered by every student of U.S. History and I would urge that it be taught in schools but for the fact that there are hundreds of other books that need also to be read and only so much time in which to read them. I certainly have set out that time, but it is to some limited degree understandable that others have not.