Steven Hahn reviewed James McPherson’s new book about Jefferson Davis in yesterday’s New York Times. It includes nothing out of the ordinary from a typical academic review in a popular publication until you reach the very end.
I found this to be somewhat curious.
Yet, there is a larger and more unsettling issue. Treating Davis as commander in chief risks lending the Confederacy a legitimacy it never achieved at the time. No foreign country accorded the Confederacy diplomatic recognition, at least in part because of an unwillingness to openly support a slaveholders’ rebellion. Only after the war, as part of a reconciliation process, were Confederates spared serious punishment and then tendered respect as a cause and a state, enabling men like Davis and subsequent devotees of the “lost cause” to get a hearing for their version of events.
To be sure, McPherson calls Davis a “rebel” and avoids comparing him to Lincoln, but like most historians who write on the war, he effectively structures the struggle in a way Lincoln never would: between two states and countries. Over time, this has enabled some Americans brazenly to fly the Confederate flag while denying its association with slavery and treason. Union soldiers had a better take when they sang of hanging Jeff Davis.
How else are we suppose to ‘treat’ Davis other than as a commander in chief? That is what he was elected to do and that is exactly how he served throughout the life of the Confederacy. I do not understand why historians need to privilege Lincoln’s outlook to frame our analysis. Whether a foreign nation acknowledged the independence of the Confederacy seems less relevant than the fact that the constituent states and a significant segment of the population behaved as if they had established an independent nation.
Of course, this does not preclude acknowledging the fact that the southern states engaged in what ultimately was a failed rebellion, but as an analytical framework I don’t see how historians can get around the fact that for a few short years Davis served as the one and only president of the Confederacy.