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Author Biography: Brian R. Dirck is assistant professor of history at Anderson University.
When Jefferson Davis was eight years old in summer 1816, his family sent him away from his home on the Mississippi frontier to attend St. Thomas College in Kentucky. His father Samuel Davis, a farmer of modest means, wanted his youngest son to receive a decent education, even at the high cost of sixty-five dollars per year and some marital stress, for Jefferson's mother opposed the idea. "I was sent on horseback through what was then called `the Wilderness,'" he later recalled; "there were no steamboats, nor were there stage-coaches traversing the country." Samuel did not tell his wife about their son's journey until Jefferson was gone.
It was an eventful trip. Jefferson met Andrew Jackson while traveling through Tennessee, an experience he never forgot. He seemed to do well at St. Thomas's, a Catholic institution. "I was the only Protestant boy remaining, and also the smallest boy in the school," he later said, and "the priests were particularly kind to me." Jefferson excelled at Latin and Greek, particularly for a child of his age, and he stayed for two terms. By summer 1817, however, his mother compelled Samuel to fetch her son home.
Jefferson found his father in the fields when he arrived. Samuel "was a man of deep feeling, though he sought to repress the expression of it whenever practicable," his son recalled. But on this occasion the usually taciturn father abandoned all restraint and hugged Jefferson "with more emotion than I had ever seen him exhibit, and kissed me repeatedly." It was the only such outburst he ever remembered from his father.
Jefferson expressed deep respect and devotion for Samuel, calling him a "silent, undemonstrative man of action" whose words "had great weight with the community in which he lived." In truth, however, he must have harbored mixed feelings for this "silent, undemonstrative man" who eschewed overt affection and preserved an emotional distance from his family. Six years after embracing his son in a Mississippi cotton field, Samuel died. Jefferson was away at school in Kentucky again—this time at Transylvania University in Lexington—when he received the news. His reaction was stoical almost to the point of callousness, as he wrote mechanically to his sister that he had "lost a parent ever dear to me." Jefferson Davis rarely mentioned his father again.
Samuel Davis and Thomas Lincoln would have found much in common. Both were hardworking small farmers who relocated frequently from place to place. Samuel moved from Georgia to Kentucky, to Louisiana, and finally to Mississippi. Thomas Lincoln grew up in Kentucky; he was twenty-five when Samuel, ten years his senior, settled in an area of Kentucky not far away. The Lincolns had roots in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Thomas eventually moved his family to Pigeon Creek in Indiana and then to Illinois. Both Samuel and Thomas were community leaders in their way. Both valued education as a means for advancing their sons' futures. "Knowledge is power," Samuel wrote Jefferson in his last letter to him. Thomas Lincoln might have said the same to his son Abraham, whose diligent pursuit of self-education has become part of American folklore. "As a usual thing, Mr. Lincoln never made Abe quit reading to do anything if he could avoid it," remembered Sarah Bush Lincoln, Abraham's sister. "He would rather do it himself first."
Jefferson's relationship with Samuel was reserved, but Abraham Lincoln can only be described as fundamentally alienated from his father. If Thomas wished to see his son acquire an education, he also beat Abraham when he neglected farm chores for books. Abraham felt the back of Thomas's hand for other reasons as well, to the point that the boy sometimes "dropt a kind of silent unwelcome tear, as evidence of his sensations." The two developed an edgy, strained relationship by the time Abe was a teenager. Thomas thought his son was lazy, impertinent, and irreverent. For his part, Abraham was dismayed by his father's lack of ambition, his financial carelessness, and his general ignorance. Thomas "never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name," Lincoln wrote. This lack of education was almost the only characteristic Lincoln consistently attached to his father, along with a saying Thomas often quoted that stuck in Abraham's head: "If you make a bad bargain, hug it the tighter." Abraham thought his father was indeed a bad bargain, but he did not follow Thomas's advice; rather, he moved as far away as he could, leaving the family farm while in his teens and never returning if he could help it. When Thomas lay on his deathbed in 1851, Abraham refused to visit him, writing his stepbrother that "if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant." He did not attend his father's funeral.
Fathers like Thomas Lincoln and Samuel Davis were supposed to fill multiple roles in early America. As they moved in increasing numbers from farm fields to professions and businesses that separated them from the home and their children's presence, various commentators suggested they compensate by cultivating a closer, more intimate relationship with their children. They were to instruct theft sons in the pragmatic business of earning a living, and they were to set examples of competence as breadwinners. They were also moral instructors, supplementing the role of the good "republican mother" by passing along to their sons lessons of thrift, industry, and ethical behavior. Fathers were essentially conservative figures in the sense that they preserved a secure, solid foundation within the family upon which the child would construct a stable self-identity and personal value system.
Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis idolized their mothers—and, in Lincoln's case, his stepmother—with a fairly straightforward, nineteenth-century sentimental adoration. Their relationships with their fathers were a more complex, and in many ways a more revealing, matter. Samuel Davis and Thomas Lincoln affected their sons in a variety of ways, but they also left holes, empty spots in Abraham's and Jefferson's lives. Lincoln's contempt for his illiterate father is palpable, so much so that it is doubtful he felt his father could ever have anything worthwhile to teach him. In fact, Lincoln felt compelled to lecture his father occasionally on the values of hard work and prudence. Samuel Davis may have been a more effective moral instructor for his children, but he was not a paragon of prosperity. When he instructed Jefferson to "use every possible means to acquire usefull [sic] knowledge" as the best path to prosperity, he did so as a penniless man who felt he had not adequately followed his own advice.
Thomas's and Samuel's primary contribution seems to have been negative, examples against which their sons reacted. Lincoln's indulgent and kindly care for his boys—"had they sh[i]t in Lincoln's hat and rubbed it on his boots, he would have laughed and thought it smart," a friend irritably observed—was a marked contrast to Thomas's erratic, quarrelsome, and sometimes violent ways. Davis named his son Samuel after his father, but he established a much different relationship with "Le Man," as he called the boy. "He was Mr. Davis' first thought when the door opened," his wife Varina recalled, "and the little fellow would wait as patiently as possible, sometimes a quarter of an hour, at the door to kiss his father first." Davis was also nearly Lincolnian in his permissive parenting; Varina remembered their daughter Margaret "would as soon as she could talk say, `I wish I could see my father, he would let me be bad.'"
Another consequence of Thomas's and Samuel's distant fathering lay in their sons' strong, almost overweening ambition for success. Lincoln's law partner marveled at his seemingly bottomless desire to succeed, writing that Lincoln's ambition was "a little engine that knew no rest." Davis was no less driven; ambition and the desire for fame and recognition were key in his psychological makeup. Ambition can be fed by a number of factors, and scholars have noted in both Lincoln and Davis a direct connection between their fathers' failures and their own energetic pursuit of success. In Lincoln this was a particularly pronounced trait. When as a teenager he fled the family farm in Indiana to pursue his fortune farther west, he fled Thomas Lincoln and the dirt-under-your-fingernails farming life that his father represented.
Unlike Lincoln, Davis never spoke disparagingly of his father and seemed to bear him no enmity. Samuel Davis left his younger son a legacy of failure, however, whether Jefferson cared to admit it or not. Samuel himself acknowledged this. When Jefferson was fourteen his father traveled to Philadelphia in a vain attempt to recover a family inheritance that might have helped pay his debts. He was unable to do so, and in a sad letter to Jefferson shortly before he died he wrote that his life was ending with "mischiefs and misery." Samuel wrote Jefferson, "That you may be happy and shine in society when your father is beyond the reach of harm is the most ardent desire of my heart." His father's stark juxtaposition of his son's future happy life with his own death and subsequent release from care was not lost on Jefferson. When Samuel died a year later, Jefferson wrote his sister, "I lost a parent ever dear to me, but rendered more so (if possible), by the disasters that attended his declining years." One suspects that the twin images of Samuel Davis and economic ruin remained entwined in Jefferson's mind thereafter.
This ambition pushed Lincoln and Davis into politics, putting them in a position to think, act, and feel nationally as they sought acclaim through the acquisition of national public offices. Even more important, they sought in the national arena the fathers they had not possessed in theft homes. Lacking faith in their domestic fathers, Abraham and Jefferson sought strong and reliable father figures elsewhere, and this search proved to be the foundation of their national imaginations.
For Davis this figure was his brother Joseph, whom he often referred to affectionately as "Brother Joe." Brother Joe was nearly twenty years older than Jefferson. He was a man of contradictory impulses, restless and ambitious yet soberingly serious, paternalistic to a fault yet often indifferent to others' feelings. Gifted with a first-rate intellect and what one contemporary referred to as "inquisitiveness of mind," he was a learned man, an intellectual, and a genteel Southern patriarch. This complex man became in many ways Jefferson's surrogate father.
Joseph was a successful attorney, politician, and planter in Mississippi by the time his young brother reached adolescence. He had helped frame Mississippi's first constitution, he possessed a wide network of friends and political acquaintances, and his law practice was among the most lucrative in the state. His plantation, Hurricane, stretched for five thousand acres in a broad loop of the Mississippi River known as Davis Bend and was worked by over three hundred slaves. Here was an eminently prosperous breadwinner to set off against the failed fortunes of Joseph's and Jefferson's father. In a particularly poignant bit of irony, Samuel Davis was working on land owned by Joseph when he died.
Joseph carried the model of the successful father/earner one step further by becoming Jefferson's economic benefactor. In 1835, he in effect gave Jefferson a twenty-three hundred acre plantation farther down Davis Bend, which Jefferson named Brierfield. Joseph's name remained on the property, however; and one is struck by the similarity between his paternalistic, proprietary supervision of his brother's property and the close, careful guidance offered by fathers over sons who lacked managerial and farming experience. More than the successful breadwinner, Joseph was Jefferson's teacher and instructor. He taught him how to run Brierfield and, on the occasions that Jefferson was away from it, undertook its management himself. He passed on tidbits of information and advice concerning land management, crop prices, seasonal preparations, and other farming miscellany. Referring for example to some necessary labor in clearing land for growing oats and corn, he wrote Jefferson not to overwork himself or his slaves during the hot summer season: "You Can judge better being on the Spot than I can, ... I will however Caution you against an error that I have too often committed ... an attempt at too much."
There was more to Joseph's supervision, however. His instructions and examples carried a broad moral dimension. He had quite definite ideas concerning the proper manner in which a Southern planter and gentleman should behave. He was something of a paternal extremist, particularly where slaves—whom he often referred to as "my people"—were concerned. Borrowing from the ideas of Robert Owen and other labor reformers, Joseph ran his large slave population with a genteel racial benevolence that earned him the reputation as the most lenient slave owner in the region. "The less people are governed, the more submissive they will be to control," Varina remembered him saying, and he followed this maxim with a remarkably placid ruling style at Hurricane. He created a mock trial system for slaves to mete out punishments to other slaves. "Corporal punishment was not permitted," according to Varina, "except upon conviction of the culprit by a jury of peers. The sentence was, even then, more often remitted than carried out." Joseph's slaves reportedly ran a "variety shop" and kept a significant portion of their wages earned from outside labor. There is some evidence that Joseph allowed these practices out of a genuine humanitarian impulse. But the truth is more accurately conveyed in Joseph's own words; this was benevolence in the name of power, generosity in the form of a somewhat looser than normal racial leash.
Joseph passed these ideas on to Jefferson, serving as his moral and intellectual instructor. He also gave his younger brother a stable family center that was lacking in Jefferson's life after Samuel Davis died. Hurricane became something of a surrogate home for Jefferson, who spent his adolescence and early youth attending a variety of academies, colleges, and eventually West Point. Brother Joe's plantation gave Jefferson a semblance of a sense of place, and if it was not exactly a haven it was at least a place he could go, and one that he visited frequently throughout his life.
Joseph was breadwinner, teacher, and conservator; he was the primary father figure in Jefferson Davis's life. They were kin, and yet a close examination reveals a relationship oriented toward national issues and politics. A primary manifestation of Joseph's breadwinner role in his brother's life was to direct Jefferson firmly toward the political milieu within which he himself moved, the Democratic party. It was Joseph who eventually propelled Jefferson into an active political career. Joseph himself stayed away from the political arena, in his lifetime holding only one office as state legislator. "In all these measures I am `but a passenger,'" he wrote Jefferson in 1838, concerning some pending state political battles, "and mean not [to] trouble myself about the Safety of the Ship."
Joseph passed along to Jefferson not only his own unrequited love of political officeholding but also his political opinions and prejudices. Varina Davis later wrote of the "years of continuous study and calm comparison of opinions with a wise and decent man like his elder brother" as the primary impetus behind Jefferson Davis's long political career. Joseph's letters were usually filled with political news and advice interwoven with family and personal matters. During a trip to Washington, D.C., in winter 1838, for example, Jefferson filled his older brother in on the doings of Congress and Joseph's hero John C. Calhoun, who, Jefferson wrote, planned to spark a debate by presenting "his resolution denying the right of the abolitionists to petition the senate." Jefferson hoped "that the discussion will be calmly conducted." Joseph responded by keeping Jefferson abreast of Mississippi's political developments and beseeched him to "send me any reports or Speeches that you may think worth the postage and any others that our members will Frank."
Joseph did more than just pass along the political news; he acquainted his brother with states' rights, proslavery constitutionalism, and Southern political principles in general. He saw to it that Jefferson was well aware of what should and should not meet with the approval of a Mississippi planter. "Since I left Mississippi I have heard nothing [but] a continual din of Politicks," he wrote to Jefferson during a business trip to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1840. Joseph had met Cassius Clay aboard a steamboat and heard the fiery abolitionist hold forth for two hours on the "wonderful effect of reducing the number of slaves in Kentucky" and similar subjects. With the knowing wink of a mentor tutoring a willing student, Joseph wrote to Jefferson, "You may readily Suppose the feelings of any Southern man on hearing Such principles in Such a place." In a political and ideological sense Joseph wanted to see to it that Jefferson Davis was brought up right.
American fathers were expected to provide a home, a physical space for their children to grow. Joseph the political father provided Jefferson the political space within which to grow: his library at Hurricane. Known simply as "the office," it was a large, book-filled room in which, as Varina put it, "the brothers sat when they were not riding their plantations, and talked of books, elementary law, of agricultural experiments [and] commented on the day's doings." Here Jefferson "read aloud to his brother the Congressional debate," and Joseph introduced him to the writings of prominent American politicians and philosophers, particularly the Founders. Joseph's plantation library was stocked with the Federalist Papers, volumes of congressional debates, and the treatises from Greece, Rome, and Europe that had formed the context of the Framers' intellectual world.
Joseph emphasized national politics, with national documents and books exuding an American point of view. Their thinking here was not particularly original. Davis imbibed from Joseph fairly standard political ideas for a Southern gentleman of his class and time. He learned to value an America that preserved local control, state sovereignty, and Southern autonomy. He revered the Constitution as a "sacred compact" and the Virginia Resolutions, with their paean to state sovereignty and localism, as final sources of political authority.
Joseph gave his brother to understand that the American nation was a thing of abstraction, of high ideals far removed from the hurly-burly of everyday politics. The office was a place to hatch ideas, read debates, and ponder political and intellectual imponderables. It was a place where Joseph and Jefferson could retreat from the fluid, complex, and dirty relativism of politics and seek certain high, timeless ideas and principles. It was a place for preservation of ideas and values, a physical space in which Joseph acted the role of father by giving himself and Jefferson a solid, objective ground upon which to think and reason.
Joseph's office was a seedbed for Jefferson Davis's nationalism and the physical space in which he constructed his seminal ideas about what it meant to be an American. The legacy of this initiation possessed several facets. Fundamentally, Joseph passed along to Jefferson a love of politics on a high intellectual plane, coupled with a distaste for party politicking. Joseph's physical withdrawal from political matters was matched by an intensification of his detached, intellectual interest in political and constitutional issues. During the long hours of conversation and reading with Jefferson in "the office," Joseph gave to his brother a sense of national politics as a matter of carefully reasoned abstractions and polite, genteel debate. "He, like his brother Jefferson, could not comprehend any one differing from him in political policy after hearing the reasons upon which his opinion was based," Varina wrote of her brother-in-law; and he "was prone to suspect insincerity on the part of the dissenter."
This was politics of the drawing room—the office—not the legislative chamber or party convention hall. Lincoln would never have been comfortable here, but it was the stuff of life for Davis. The office contained the cold, dry pages of the Congressional Globe, the julep served by one of "my people" wearing fine livery and a waxen smile, and Mr. Calhoun and states' rights laid out in logical precision. In many ways, Jefferson Davis never quite left Joseph Davis's office, imagining the national public square as a place of abstraction and deference in ways quite similar to the space and ideas his brother provided for him.
Lincoln had no equivalent of the office, and he lacked any such relationship as that of Joseph and Jefferson Davis. His family was more of a trial than a source of guidance. "You are not lazy, and still you are an idler," Lincoln irritably wrote to his haft brother—and by association his father—in 1848. "I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day's work." There is at least a grain of truth to the Lincoln myth of the serf-made man, for he never found much to learn from his family, and no one stepped forward to act the part of a surrogate father.
As a result, Lincoln sometimes downplayed the value of fatherly relationships, discouraging young men from seeking out mentors and counseling serf-reliance. He dismissed the time-honored practice of aspirant attorneys seeking the advice and counsel of older, established lawyers. He told others to follow his example by simply reading the relevant texts and drawing their own conclusions. "It is but a small matter whether you read with any body or not," Lincoln advised a young man named Isham Reavis who had asked to study law under him. "Get the books, and read and study them till, you understand them in their principle [sic] features; and that is the main thing."
On the other hand, many people observed Lincoln's fatherly bearing toward others who were not family. He reminded friends and neighbors of a kindly old patriarch, even when he was still quite young, and he acted the part of fatherly mentor for many young men. Though dismissing Reavis's request he gave him little bits of sage advice, closing with the admonition, "Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing." The same Lincoln who told young lawyers to tough it out alone was "kind and tender to all members of the bar, especially the younger ones whom he always assisted."
Lincoln was more ambivalent toward the father role than Davis, who seems to have slid rather easily into the part Joseph envisioned for him. Lincoln was not altogether certain whether he needed a father, real or otherwise. But even as he rejected the notion of legal and political patronage and put as much distance between himself and his own father as he could, he found in the national realm father figures to fill the roles of breadwinner, teacher, and conservator in his life. He turned to two men: Henry Clay and George Washington.
Lincoln's admiration for Clay dated back to his youth. "He has constantly been the most loved, the most implicitly followed by his friends, and the most dreaded by his opponents, of all living American politicians," Lincoln rhapsodized in an emotional 1851 eulogy on Clay. Thomas had died a few months previously, and Lincoln had almost no reaction at all. The contrast between this response and his lengthy, heartfelt memorial for Clay is striking, and although there is no indication that Lincoln consciously weighed the relative value of the two men, one cannot help but notice the stark dichotomy between Thomas, the bad bargain who "could never do more than bunglingly sign his own name," and Clay, "whose eloquence has not been surpassed" and who had "the effective power to move the heart of man."
Excerpted from Lincoln & Davis by Brian R. Dirck. Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Kansas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.