He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, grew up to be president and led his nation through a bitter Civil War.
No, not Abraham Lincoln.
The other guy: Jefferson Davis.
The 200th birthday of the only president of the Confederate States of America is Tuesday, and it will pass with little notice.
A few modest ceremonies and a historians’ symposium are planned this month, and there will be a festival next weekend at Davis’ hometown of Fairview in Todd County. That’s where a 351-foot concrete obelisk was built to his memory in the early 1900s by old men of the Lost Cause.
The commemorations are in stark contrast to the two-year national celebration that began in February to mark the bicentennial of Lincoln, who was born eight months later and 125 miles away, near Hodgenville in LaRue County.
Lincoln achieved mythic status after he died a martyr as the Civil War was ending. In the pantheon of American heroes, he’s right up there with George Washington.
Davis, on the other hand, is a man few now want to acknowledge, much less celebrate.
Before the Civil War, few would have predicted their fates.
Lincoln was homely and awkward. He educated himself while working as a frontier store clerk. His military career was modest. He married well by Lexington standards, but the Todds had little influence outside the Bluegrass.
After holding small political jobs, practicing law and serving in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln was elected to a single two-year term in Congress. He won the presidency in 1860 with not quite 40 percent of the vote in a four-way race that included John C. Breckinridge of Lexington. Lincoln was openly mocked, even by some in his own government. His emancipation of slaves was not a popular move.
Davis, on the other hand, was the handsome ideal of Southern manhood. He left Kentucky at an early age, as Lincoln did, but returned as the only Protestant pupil at a good Catholic school in Springfield. He studied at Transylvania, then one of the nation’s best colleges, before leaving Lexington to attend West Point.
He served twice in the military with distinction and married the daughter of his commander, the future President Zachary Taylor. She died of malaria three months after the wedding. He married well a second time, too, securing a comfortable place in Mississippi’s plantation aristocracy. He represented Mississippi in the U.S. House, served as secretary of war and was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Davis opposed secession, but when Mississippi left the union, he resigned his Senate seat and a month later was elected president of the Confederacy.
“In some ways, the elevation of Lincoln over Davis isn’t quite fair,” said Brian Dirck, a history professor at Anderson University in Indiana and author of Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865.
“Jefferson Davis was a talented man; before 1860, most people would have said he was more talented than Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “There are many people who felt (Davis) would have made a good president of the United States before the war.”
Davis did a remarkable job of holding together a confederacy founded on the principle that states’ rights supersede those of a central government. Throughout the war, he was constantly sparring with state courts and legislatures.
“I doubt anyone else could have done a better job, given the circumstances,” Dirck said.
“But here’s the thing: He lost. And by that I mean not only did he lose the war, he lost the battle for the Confederacy’s legacy, as well. After the war, he told anybody who would listen that the Confederacy was not about defending slavery, but rather the Constitution and states’ rights. He wrote a book to that effect – a really long, tedious book, I might add – and for a while people believed him.”
The Confederacy, of course, was all about slavery; the South’s wealth depended on it. Jefferson Davis led the fight for slavery and ended up as the poster boy for the most evil social institution in American history.
Davis’ view that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God … it is sanctioned in the Bible” was conventional wisdom in the South of his day, where slavery had existed for 250 years. People used Scripture then to defend slavery the way others would use it later to deny equal rights to women and gay people.
The United States is great because it is a nation of values, and high on that list of values is equal rights. We really believe that stuff about all people being created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, our entire history has involved struggles to make those words reality. In many ways, we’re still working on it.
I’ve always been fascinated by historic figures such as Jefferson Davis, the man who stood for all of the popular things and is now pitied for it.
And it makes me wonder: When people look back on us a generation or a century or two from now, who will be our Jefferson Davises? Whom will people revere, and whom will they pity?