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Jefferson Davis, American
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William J. Cooper, Jr., is Boyd Professor of History at Louisiana State University. In addition to numerous articles, essays, and reviews, he is the author of The Conservative Regime: South Carolina, 1877-1890; The South and the Politics of Slavery, 1828-1856; and Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860, as well as coauthor of The American South: A History. He lives in Baton Rouge.

Reviews

Much has been written about Jefferson Davis, claims Cooper (The American South, etc.), professor of history at Louisiana State University, and most of it is negative. Instead of viewing Davis strictly through a modern lens, Cooper has set out to understand Davis as "a man of his time who had a significant impact on his time, and thus on history" and to "not condemn him for not being a man of my time." Davis was born in Kentucky in 1808 and attended Transylvania University in Lexington. In 1824, he left the South for West Point, graduated in 1828 with a commission as Brevet Second Lieutenant and went on to a noteworthy career as a hero of the Mexican War and an able statesman. Davis served as secretary of war under President Pierce and then as a U.S. senator from Mississippi. Indeed, Cooper notes, many thought Davis would be president one day. Always believing himself a firm supporter of the Constitution and a true patriot, Davis trusted in the sovereign rights of states ("he looked to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John C. Calhoun as the great explicators of states' rights and strict construction, of the proper understanding of the nation and the Constitution"), which included the right to own slaves if a state so chose. Although Davis did not initially favor secession, he believed the Confederacy's goals to be consistent with the America he honored, and was proud to serve as the president of the Confederacy. Previous accounts of Davis's life have argued that he was basically an incompetent leader; some even have suggested that the failure of the Confederacy was, at the core, Davis's fault. But here Davis appears much like any other leader, possessing both strengths and weaknesses. In the already cluttered field of Civil War history, Cooper's is the definitive biography; readers will be particularly pleased to discover the compelling power of his narrative. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Cooper, whose earlier books showed how Southerners reconciled liberty and slavery, casts Jefferson Davis as the "true patriot," who left the Union with sadness but also the conviction that the South stood as heir to the Founding Fathers because the antislavery North had violated the sacred promise of letting slaveholders take their "property" where they would without interference. Cooper's Davis entrusted considerable authority to individual slaves but never doubted the racial superiority of whites, and he worked for national expansion but insisted on Southern "rights." Throughout, says Cooper, Davis never doubted his own ability or purpose, whether at West Point, in the Mexican War, as Secretary of War, or as president of the Confederacy. Cooper (The American South: A History) finds Davis a more flexible and intelligent war leader than have most historians, but he also stresses his unbending belief in the constitutional rightness of secession. Cooper's great achievement is that he never loses the man to the age. Along with William Davis's more critical biography, Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (LJ 11/15/91), Cooper's sympathetic reading of Jefferson Davis's life and work gives the man his due. If every Southern historian needs to "get right" with Davis to find out what made the Confederacy, readers can hardly do better than getting hold of Cooper's book to understand why so many men were willing to die for Dixie.DRandall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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