Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A review of “Jefferson Davis: An American President”



So I recently watched a 3 ½ hour documentary about the life of Jefferson Davis, the one and only president of the Confederacy. I first ran into this after having watched documentaries about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, and wondering if there was anything decent out there about the lead Confederates. So I Googled Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, to see if there were any good documentaries about their lives. There were two documentaries about Robert E. Lee which were an hour and an hour-and-a-half respectively; but after watching both of them, neither of them turned out to be very good. The A&E one suffered from many of the same flaws as the network's other biographies, as it was poorly made and painfully brief; and the PBS one had a liberal bias bad enough to interfere with its quality. I've enjoyed many of PBS's other biographies, but their one about Robert E. Lee was disappointing, particularly in that it was also brief; and it was not so much offensive as just unsatisfying - I didn't feel like I learned anything new.



Jefferson Davis was a different story, as I soon found two movies about his life. One of them was only two hours long, and the reviews of it did not make it seem that good; but the other one was this one, which is a 3 ½ hour documentary entitled "Jefferson Davis: An American President." The title in and of itself is somewhat controversial, but that was part of what made it intriguing. The length of it seemed appropriate, and the controversies about it among the reviewers further augmented my interest; and so I decided to get a copy for Christmas. This one is much better, as I learned a lot; and it helps you to better understand the Southern side of the war.




Among the more interesting parts of it was talking about how the Confederate government was built in a wartime hurry, comparable to that faced by the Continental Congress and Articles of Confederation during the American Revolution. Brief commentary is made on the Confederate Constitution, which gave its president a six-year term - an important fact for Jefferson Davis and the war itself, because he would not have had to run for re-election until two years after Lincoln's first term was finished. Of course, he didn't have to run for re-election anyway, because the South lost the war before the six years were up; but this interesting aspect of the Confederate Constitution had an enormous effect on the war.


White House of the Confederacy

They also discuss the controversies over where to put the Confederate capital; with political concerns pushing it towards the larger state of Virginia, but military concerns dictating that it be further away from the border with the North, where attack from the Yankees was more likely. The capital was, of course, put in Richmond, Virginia with political concerns winning out; and the South would have cause to regret that their capital was in such a vulnerable position.



Shelby Foote

And now, some comments about Jefferson Davis himself: I came into this documentary with a less-than-positive view of Davis, because he is portrayed somewhat unflatteringly in Ken Burns' Civil War miniseries (an excellent miniseries, by the way). Even the Southern historian Shelby Foote, who is the star talking head in the Ken Burns drama, said that Jefferson Davis was disliked even by fellow Southerners, because of their need to blame someone for their defeat. They weren't about to blame the military leaders who had fought so hard - Robert E. Lee was something like a demigod in the Southern constellation, so they blamed the politicians; and Davis was the chief politician. So in the words of Shelby Foote, the "conspiracy" against Davis's reputation was partly launched by Southerners - or at least, that is the story given by Shelby Foote and PBS in "The Civil War." I won't comment on whether or not it's accurate, but I couldn't help but notice the discrepancy between the claims made by PBS here and those made by this Davis biography. This documentary said that Davis was mythologized by Southerners after the war; perhaps not to the degree that Robert E. Lee was, but a star in the Southern constellation nonetheless. This is something of a different claim, and I'm still uncertain which view is correct.


Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia 1865

Jefferson Davis had some loss of contact with reality near the end of the war, as his refusal to accept defeat ignored battlefield realities unfavorable to his side; and one cannot help but notice the parallels with Hitler, who similarly believed in victory when the evidence overwhelmingly showed the war was lost. This is not to say that Davis is like Hitler, but both of them did have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that they had lost the war; and it was interesting hearing about his being caught, imprisoned, and eventually released by the Andrew Johnson administration without trial. For various reasons, President Johnson did not want to put the Confederate president on trial, and Davis lived a long life after the war in freedom.


Andrew Johnson


Ulysses S. Grant writing his memoirs

The documentary benefits from having an autobiography by its subject to choose from, which is "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government." They mention the success of Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs prompting him to try and write a bestselling memoir - Grant's book is awesome, by the way - but the only part of Davis's biography considered that great by Southerners is his defense of a Southern right to secede. It's considered by some to be great constitutional scholarship, but even this wouldn't make it that interesting. The memoir was not very popular, even among Southerners, which was partly due to Davis's dry writing style - even the pro-Davis biographers in the documentary agree that Davis did not have Lincoln's gift with words. But even the driest of memoirs can give great insight into their subject; and while Davis's telling of his own story is not that interesting, this documentary's telling of his story is.


The documentary says that Jefferson Davis is unpopular today because of the unpopularity of the Confederate flag, the most potent symbol of slavery and secession. But I think it's more than this, because Robert E. Lee is still a fairly popular figure today, even among the people of the North. I think Shelby Foote is at least partially right when he says Southerners blamed him for the defeat, and I suspect Northerners looked upon him with contempt as an incompetent - "He can't be all that smart if his government bumbled the war" kind of a thing. In the words of Shelby Foote, Davis has been misunderstood today; and I think he deserves at least the measure of respect Robert E. Lee has.


Robert E. Lee

The documentary does not whitewash his favorable view of slavery, presenting his racial justifications for these beliefs (and holding slaves himself) very directly and bluntly. They do say that his views were "relatively enlightened," which I think means they weren't as bad as other Southerners of his time. In fairness to Davis, he is entitled to the same defense that WashingtonJefferson, and Madison have; which is that they grew up in a society where this was considered normal. As with the three Founding Fathers mentioned, I don't think Davis was a terrible man; but rather, a tragic figure, who defended a terrible cause and suffered the agony of defeat. I don't think he is any more to blame than his fellow Southerners; because they voted for secession, and they put him there in the Confederate White House; so any criticisms of his views on slavery and secession apply also to his fellow Southerners (or at least a majority of them), and he is no more guilty than they are.


Abraham Lincoln

PBS did an excellent job with their documentaries about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps even better than this Davis documentary; but that was because their liberal bias didn't get in the way so much when talking about these Northern figures. PBS could never have made anything this good about Jefferson Davis, or any other Confederate. This documentary has, to a large degree, changed my view of the man.


Jefferson Davis

Bottom line, if you're interested in the Civil War; this is a great documentary to see, which will give you an understanding of the Southern side, and the big effect it has had (good and bad) on the United States of America.

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Abraham Lincoln miniseries (PBS)

Ulysses S. Grant movie (PBS)

The Civil War (PBS miniseries)


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