The Other Jefferson Davis

The U.S. Capitol as we know it today would never have existed without Jefferson Davis. In many ways, it is his building.

HUMANITIES, September/October 2012, Volume 33, Number 5

Jefferson Davis, love him or hate him, was an unusual man. During a long and frequently cataclysmic life, his favorite job, according to his wife Varina, was serving as a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1847 to 1851 and again from 1857 to 1861. During these relatively peaceful days, Davis made his reputation as an outspoken and eloquent advocate of slavery and states’ rights, shining up the résumé that would later make him president of the Confederacy—the role that has defined his place in history.

Painting of Pocahontas in the European style.
Photo caption

A European-style portrait of Pocahontas that hangs in the U.S. Capitol.

Library of Congress photo by Carol Highsmith
Photo of a colorful and ornate mosaic adorning a vaulted ceiling in the Senate building.
Photo caption

Constantino Brumidi spent 25 years decorating the Capitol. The Senate wing’s first-floor hallways are known as the “Brumidi corridors” in honor of his ornate fresco style.

Library of Congress photo by Carol Highsmith

But anyone who studies the Washington years soon makes the acquaintance of a second, more elusive, Davis. Despite his credentials as a southern firebrand, and unlike most of his Senate colleagues, Davis nurtured a transcendent vision of the United States as a great nation far more substantial than the sum of its fractious, disunited parts. This was no small thing. Examination of the congressional record during the 1850s reveals a collection of individuals who regarded the federal government primarily as a nuisance to be tolerated only to the extent that it provided money for new lighthouses, river harbors, and post offices. The only national issue worthy of debate—albeit incessant debate—was slavery, but even that had a frequently provincial cast. Slavery, most southerners thought, was none of the federal government’s business. And except for outright abolitionists, many northerners had no quarrel with slavery in the states where it already existed. They just did not want it to spread.

States’ rights was bread and butter for any southern Democrat, and Davis could argue the case as well as anyone. But throughout the 1850s—a time of growing polarization, bitterness, and, finally, desperation—Davis also championed nationhood. He articulated his vision in many ways. He advocated increasing the size of the country’s tiny (almost 14,000 soldiers) army and de-emphasizing volunteers and militia. He was on the board of regents of the new Smithsonian Institution, which he saw as a national center for learning. He regularly invited visiting scholars and scientists—what Varina called “savans”—to his home to discuss new ideas of national import. In 1857, with tensions over slavery escalating to crisis, he wrote to President James Buchanan about the need to improve liberal arts education at West Point. Leadership “to maintain the honor of our flag,” he wrote, “requires a man above sectional prejudices, and intellectually superior to fanaticism.”

But Davis’s most lasting legacy as a nation-builder, both figuratively and literally, was as a prime mover in the mammoth project to expand the United States Capitol from a small, cramped, statehouse-like building with an attractive central rotunda into a sprawling, magisterial seat of government with separate, marble-faced wings for the Senate and House, and a soaring new dome made of cast iron. The U.S. Capitol, as we know it today, would never have existed without Jefferson Davis. In many ways, it is his building.

There were good practical reasons to enlarge or, as it was called then, “extend” the Capitol. The United States had won an enormous tract of land in the Mexican War in 1848, the same year gold was discovered in California. By 1850, California had moved to the front of a long line of territories seeking statehood. There would be more senators and more House members. Congress needed more space.

And new chambers. The House (today’s Statuary Hall) had acoustics so poor that several students of Congress blamed the chamber’s chronically abusive and bellicose ambience not on actual political divisions, but on the apoplectic frustration of members forced to scream to be heard by colleagues standing less than ten feet away. As for the Senate, the chamber was too hot in summer, too cold in winter, and in dire need of extra gallery seats for the immense audiences who thronged the debates for a chance to see Clay, Webster, Benton, Houston, Douglas, Davis, and other luminaries at work. In an era of one-term, nondescript, and frequently dreadful presidents, senators were the big celebrities of national politics.

Davis, however, had another simple, yet transcendent, reason to enlarge the Capitol: A great nation needed a great seat of government, not a glorified statehouse. During the 1850 debate to obtain an initial appropriation of $200,000 for the project, one senator scoffed at the price tag. Such a paltry sum, even in 1850 dollars, was simply an excuse to start something whose cost would easily eclipse anything the Senate could then imagine. This was true, and Davis started to minimize the project to make it more palatable, then suddenly stopped. What if it did cost more? he asked: “If this Union continues together, and this continues to be the seat of Government, I have no idea that any plan which may now be suggested will finally answer all the wants of the country.” Eventually, he said, “I think it likely” that Congress may have to “cover the whole square with buildings.”

Davis won the money on that day, but only by a vote of 24–21. Then, throughout the 1850s, both as a senator and as the mid-decade secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, he kept the project alive and eventually made it thrive, even though his national vision increasingly contradicted his own loyalties to Mississippi. In the end, of course, he chose Mississippi and the Confederacy, but one could speculate that were it not for blood ties, he could perhaps have gone the other way.

To anyone seeking the origin of Davis’s uncommon nationalism, the protagonist is not much help. This is the fault, however, not of Davis, but of the Union Army, which raided and torched his Mississippi plantation in 1863, destroying most of his personal correspondence. This event has left a substantial doughnut hole in the archive. We know a considerable amount about what other people thought of Davis, but very little of what Davis thought—at least privately—about other people.

Fortunately, the Jefferson Davis Project, headquartered at Rice University in Houston, has gone a long way toward filling this gap. The Davis Project is the official compiler of Davis’s papers. After forty-eight years and thirteen volumes, the work led by Lynda Crist is coming to an end. Volume 14, the last, will be submitted to the Louisiana State University Press next year.

Prior to their work, most of what was known about the pre-Civil War Davis had been published as part of a ten-volume set of mostly official papers—campaign speeches, floor debates, congressional reports, and the like—and a single volume of private correspondence that had escaped destruction. The Davis Project broadened this core collection substantially by mining federal government records, newspaper archives, and caches of private documents and personal papers of those who knew Davis.

What emerges is the portrait of a man who, in many respects, could be described as a national citizen long before he became a Mississippian. He was the youngest of ten children of a backwoods Mississippi cotton planter. He spent most of his childhood away from home in boarding schools, finally ending up at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he almost got thrown out three times before graduating in the bottom third of his class in 1828. He was not much of a scholar and, as a newly minted officer, not much of a soldier.

All evidence suggests that during the next seven years, which he spent riding the western frontier from outposts in Michigan and Oklahoma, he did little to grow up. The only thing he clearly cared about was Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Col. Zachary Taylor, his commanding officer at Ft. Crawford, in Michigan Territory. But Taylor did not want his daughter, “Knox,” to marry a soldier, and one can hardly blame him in Davis’s case. Davis’s friends described him as a hell-raiser with a hair-trigger temper. One disagreement with Taylor made Davis so furious that he contemplated challenging Taylor to a duel. He backed off when a friend pointed out that if he wanted so badly to marry Knox, shooting at dad would not help. In 1835, Davis resigned his commission and immediately married Knox. Taylor neither opposed the marriage nor attended.

Less than three months later, however, Davis and Knox both fell ill with malaria. Davis recovered, but Knox did not. A widower at 27, Davis went home to Mississippi to become a planter under the tutelage of his oldest brother Joseph.

There is no surviving record of Davis’s thoughts or feelings at what was probably the defining moment of his life. His professional accomplishments up to that time were negligible, and he had lost the only thing he had ever wanted, just months after obtaining it. He must have been devastated.

It was probably during these early years when the seeds of his nationalism were sown. He had attended school in Mississippi, Kentucky, and New York, built forts in the snowy reaches of the northern plains, and suffered hunger and thirst as a dragoon in forced marches across Oklahoma Territory. Until he went “home,” after Knox’s death, he had never had a firm anchor in Mississippi. Instead, as a wandering student and a wandering soldier, he had probably seen as much of the United States as anyone his age anywhere in the country.

Relatively little is known about the years between 1835 and 1840, but it seems that Davis became something of a recluse, even as he was building his plantation, growing cotton, buying slaves, and discussing philosophy and politics with his brother Joe. But by the time he emerged in 1840 as a delegate to the state Democratic convention, Davis had become a Mississippian, a politician, and an adult. His old reputation was soon forgotten. The new Davis was smart, conscientious, well-read and well-spoken. The sardonic wit was still there, but the sense of fun was gone. He was intensely loyal to a very few friends, but he made enemies easily and held grudges. His temper had not improved.

He worked to help win Mississippi for James K. Polk in 1844, married Varina Howell in February 1845, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives a few months later. He did not stay long, however, resigning in mid-1846 to command a regiment of Mississippi volunteers and join his former father-in-law—now Gen. Zachary Taylor—who was commanding U.S. troops in northern Mexico.

And this was the final piece of Davis’s nationalism. He went off to the Mexican War mostly for the excitement and to advance his political career, a motive he did not try to hide. In a letter to his sister Lucinda, he suggested that “if occasion offers it may be that I will return with a reputation.” The strategy worked. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Buena Vista, and parlayed a hero’s welcome at home into a U.S. Senate seat. He was an immediate star—tall and lean, ice-blue eyes, ramrod-straight and walking at first with a cane while he recovered from shrapnel wounds to his foot.

He quickly made his mark as an eloquent defender of slavery, but at the same time, below the surface, his nationalism was taking shape. The catalyst for this maturation was probably Zachary Taylor. Before the Mexican War, Davis and Taylor had barely known each other, and what little evidence exists suggests that their relationship had grown from mutual dislike to tolerance, then to moderate cordiality and had stopped there.

But during the war and especially afterward, the two men developed a deep mutual trust and confidence. The record of this relationship has survived today in a series of letters in which Taylor, both during and immediately after the Mexican War, consulted with Davis on a profound, personal level about his hopes and misgivings as he decided whether to run for president in 1848.

Taylor held nothing back, and what he had to say would have buried him politically if it had seen the light of day. Taylor was one of the biggest slaveholders in the country, but he told Davis he favored admitting California to the Union as a free state, and was sure that Congress would never allow another slave state. Taylor had made his peace with these views, which were anathema to Davis and most southerners. Further, Taylor was a war hero himself, and potentially a very formidable presidential candidate—and he was a Whig. Davis’s Democrats, meanwhile, were struggling with Michigan’s frumpy Lewis Cass as their standard-bearer. Davis had no political reason to like Taylor and every reason to oppose him, but he never breathed a word. Taylor was duly elected, and never veered from what he had told Davis. Had he not died suddenly of illness after only fourteen months in office, Taylor may have precipitated a showdown over slavery eleven years before it finally happened. Like Davis, he was an unusual man. Unlike Davis, he has been all but forgotten by historians.

Davis taught Taylor politics, and although only the general’s side of the correspondence has survived, it is probably safe to say that Taylor taught Davis nationalism. Taylor was a career military officer and had had many more years than Davis to travel the breadth of the United States and see its potentialIt seems likely that Taylor transmitted these views to his former son-in-law, who, with a briefer biography but one remarkably like his own, would quite reasonably have incorporated Taylor’s life lessons into his subsequent political persona. This could be why Davis, the indifferent young officer, became the U.S. Army’s staunchest political advocate during the 1850s. He came to regard the army as a force for unity in the country, and sought out the Armed Forces Committee chairmanship during both his Senate stints, which were sandwiched around his years as secretary of war.

Davis won the initial Capitol appropriation, but abandoned Washington after the Mississippi Democratic party begged him to come home and run for governor. Hampered by illness and a late start, Davis lost a close election and spent a year on his plantation. He returned to Washington to join Pierce in March 1853.

Davis found the Capitol project underfunded and in disarray, with several eager power brokers looking to take it over as a patronage plum. Whoever controlled the project had several hundred jobs to dispense. Aside from the federal government itself, the Capitol extension was the biggest employer in the District.

The secretary of the Department of the Interior, nominally in charge of the Capitol, asked Davis to send him a U.S. Army engineer to superintend construction. Davis liked this idea so much that he induced Pierce to transfer the Capitol from Interior to his own department. Then he named U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Capt. Montgomery C. Meigs as engineer-in-charge. This was the perfect solution to keep the congressional dogs at bay. Any sniper looking to pick off Meigs and take control would have to contend with an implacable and vindictive Davis. Not a happy prospect.

For the next four years, Davis flicked aside all challenges and kept the money flowing. He, Meigs, and architect Thomas U. Walter assumed the new building would have to last a millennium. They stinted on nothing. Walter imagined and designed a soaring cast-iron dome to replace the leaky, wooden fire hazard that preceded it. Meigs made the marble façade twice as thick, ordered window frames of iron instead of wood, bought special English tiles for the floors, and hired Italian immigrant Constantino Brumidi to paint frescoes for the ceilings and walls and to decorate the rooms in an ornate, spectacular “high style.” When congressional skeptics complained that the décor was too sumptuous for a homespun, no-nonsense country like the United States, Davis ignored them. When Meigs and Walter needed more money, Davis got it for them.

Only once did parochialism intrude on Davis’s vision. When it came time to choose the design for a statue to stand atop the new dome, sculptor Thomas Crawford created an ethereal female figure, exquisite in every respect except that she wore a felt “liberty cap,” the symbol from classical antiquity of a manumitted slave. Davis did not like liberty caps, having told Meigs in a memo that the cap “is the sign of a freedman,” while “we were always free, not freedmen, not slaves just released.” Meigs suggested Crawford think of something else. The end result, standing atop the dome today, is Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, an unusual blend of Roman goddess and Indian princess crowned by an “eagle” headdress which looks like a rooster with its mouth open. This, too, is part of Davis’s legacy.

Davis lost absolute power over the Capitol when Pierce left office in 1857. Back in the Senate for the last four pre-war years, he fought several battles for the project, but its survival was no longer in doubt. With war approaching, the rest of Congress finally began to see Davis’s point of view. The new Capitol became a potent symbol, both nostalgic—what might have been; and hopeful—what the United States might become, if only it survived. “I shall never hesitate, whenever a proper appropriation is called for the completion or the embellishment of the Capitol of my country, to vote for it with pleasure,” Georgia Rep. Joshua Hill said during House debate to fund Capitol construction in 1860. “I desire to make this Capitol the seat of a national constitutional government of the American people for a thousand years to come.”

Davis resigned his Senate seat and left Washington on January 21, 1861. On December 2, 1863, five months after Gettysburg, Freedom was mounted atop the Capitol Dome, and at the end of 1865, Brumidi finished the Apotheosis of Washington, the fresco in the ceiling of the Rotunda. Davis was in a military prison by then.

Indicted for treason, but never tried, Davis was freed after two years. He tried a few business ventures without success, then finished his days as a figure revered in the South for his dignity and refusal to disavow the rightness of his cause. He never returned to Washington, and never saw the completed Capitol, the living symbol of the national vision he had abandoned.