The son of the farmer Samuel Davis and his wife Jane (Cook), the younger Davis was raised a Baptist, but converted to the Episcopal church during the Civil War. He grew up on a small farm in Wilkinson County, Mississippi.When he was two, his family moved to Woodville, Miss., where his father became a planter.
He was educated at the Roman Catholic Seminary in Washington County, Kentucky, and attended Transylvania University from 1821 to 1824.
On graduation from West Point Davis was sent to frontier duty on the Wisconsin Territory. In Prairie du Chien he was a social favorite, noted for his bravery and daring horsemanship. Contemporary testimony exists that at 24 he was "gay, witty, sportful, and captivating." At the end of the Black Hawk War, the then Lieutenant Davis was put in charge of the captive Indian chieftain and conducted him down the river, where he was imprisoned in St. Louis.
While in Wisconsin Davis fell in love with Sarah Knox, daughter of his commander, Col. Zachary Taylor, later president of the United States. In June 1835 he resigned his commission to marry her. He took his bride to Mississippi to start a new life as a Delta cotton planter. Within three months she died of malarial fever. The shock and grief so affected him that for seven years he remained something of a recluse, fashioning a model plantation and reading widely in constitutional law and the classics in the nearby library of his rich eldest brother Joseph. His chief companion was his black overseer James Pemberton, his body servant in the Wisconsin wilds.
Views on Slavery. Davis was a Jeffersonian Democrat dedicated to the principle of state rights under the Constitution. He had inherited his ideas about slavery from his father and George Washington and believed that the "peculiar institution," as slavery was then frequently called, was a stepping stone to the blacks' "measurable perfectibility." His few slaves held their own court and meted out justice. He educated the best of them and some, like the Montgomery brothers, became men of consequence. He felt that in giving Christianity to the Africans and submitting them to Anglo-Saxon culture, white Americans were preparing them for eventual citizenship. He believed that slavery was a temporary necessity in developing the cotton economy of the South on which New England's textile industry depended, and that gradual emancipation would come as the blacks were prepared to meet the responsibilities of freedom. According to scores of letters from his blacks, before, during, and after the Civil War, he was held in genuine affection as well as esteem by them.
Congress and the Mexican War. In 1845 Davis married Varina Howell of Natchez, an intellectual girl of 19, and that same year was elected a representative to Congress. In Washington he made an immediate impression. But he resigned his seat in 1846 to become colonel of the First Mississippi Volunteers in the Mexican War. He served brilliantly under his father-in-law, General Zachary Taylor. At Buena Vista, Davis saved the day with an inspired V-formation against an overwhelming Mexican force under the Mexican leader Antonio LópezLopez de Santa Anna. Severely wounded, Davis returned home to a hero's welcome in 1847 and accepted appointment to a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. In 1850 he was re-elected.
Secretary of War. When Franklin Pierce became president in 1853, he made Davis his secretary of war. In this position Davis earned an unsurpassed reputation. He strengthened coastal defenses, introduced new weapons, improved the Military Academy, increased army personnel 40 percent, raised soldiers' pay 40 percent, and lifted morale generally. In view of the great westward expansion, Davis directed surveys for three railroad routes to the Pacific. He arranged the Gadsden Purchase (1853) which may have averted a second war with Mexico. Bought for $10,000,000, this purchase added 45,000 square miles (116,500 sq km) to U.S. territory including southern New Mexico and Arizona. He urged buying a strip of land in Panama to construct a railway to transfer freight and passengers between oceans.
Leader of the South. After the death of John C. Calhoun in 1850, Davis was accepted as the foremost Southerner in political life. Like Calhoun, he struggled to save the Union, according to his principles, as much as he tried to save the South. Though recognized as a strong advocate of state rights, he was esteemed by Northerners for his force and logic, his "virtue and resolution." The New York Republican publisher Horace Greeley declared (1858): "Mr. Davis is unquestionably the foremost man in the South today," and, later, that his "occasional unintentional arrogance came from his sense of great commanding power."
Approach of the Civil War. When Pierce went out of office in 1857, Davis again took his place in the Senate in the turbulent Buchanan regime (1857-1861), as antagonism between North and South grew more acrimonious. Under the strain his health temporarily gave way. In the summer of 1858 he went to Maine to recuperate. He was widely acclaimed and entertained. Bowdoin College conferred an honorary degree on him. In Faneuil Hall, Boston, he spoke on the strict construction of the Constitution and received an ovation. Everywhere he went he made friends for the South. Davis continually urged that the Union, as he conceived it, be firmly supported.
Secession. When South Carolina summarily seceded in December after Lincoln's election, Davis hoped the other cotton states would remain in the Union. He personally urged President James Buchanan to withdraw the small federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor to prevent the possibility of an armed clash. He was indeed one of the few Southerners who believed that the North would coerce the South by force of arms. A reluctant secessionist, Davis was willing at all times to support any measures for the preservation of the Union which guaranteed the strict interpretation of the constitutional rights of sovereign states. In a conference called by the governor of Mississippi in the fall of 1860 to discuss the advisability of secession, Davis declared "the issue should not be precipitated." Several members of the conference were reportedly dissatisfied with Davis' course, believing that he was entirely opposed to secession.
Imprisonment. However, Davis was captured on May 10 near Irwinsville, Ga., and taken a prisoner to Ft. Monroe, Va. There in a casemate cell he was submitted to indignities by Gen. Nelson A. Miles of Massachusetts. Heavy shackles were riveted on his ankles. Though the chains were removed because of Northern indignation, Davis was continuously irritated by a lamp burning at his bedside all night, and by the ceaseless tramp of two guards pacing his cell. After two years' imprisonment, which left his health shattered, he was released (May 1867) on $100,000 bail vouched for by prominent Northerners, including Horace Greeley and August Belmont. Davis was never tried, and as a result of President Johnson's general amnesty on Christmas Day 1868, the charges against him were dropped.
Last Years. The ex-President sought to regain his broken health in Canada, and then in England, where he was entertained by the nobility and Southern sympathizers. After three years as president of an insurance company in Memphis, he retired to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A friend bequeathed him "Beauvoir," a small estate near Biloxi. There he spent his remaining years.
For a time after the war Davis became the scapegoat for the Southern defeat. He was denigrated by his worst Southern enemies like Gen. J. E. Johnston, Gen. Beauregard, Edward Pollard of the Richmond Examiner, as well as by Northern politicians, editors, and historians. In 1881 he published his history, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate States. Like Lee, he never regained his citizenship. He eschewed politics, but he was ever known in the South as "the President," the leader of his people and of the "Lost Cause," the strict interpretation of the rights of sovereign states. Prominent men from the North and abroad visited him, as well as veterans of both sides. In late November 1889, at his old plantation "Brierfield," he was seized with a bronchial infection. Brought to New Orleans, he died on Dec. 6, 1889, at the age of 81, and was given the largest funeral the South has ever seen. Three years later his body was reinterred in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond.
"Peculiar institution" of slavery was not only expedient but also ordained by God and upheld in Holy Scripture.
Stands for preserving slavery, states' rights, and political liberty for whites. Every individual state is sovereign, even to the point of secession.
Spouse Sarah Knox Taylor.