MOOC | Confederate Politics | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1865 | 2.5.3

MOOC | Confederate Politics | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1865 | 2.5.3


>>Anyway, the president of the Confederacy, of course, was Jefferson Davis, the former senator from (there he is) former senator from Mississippi, former secretary of war. A radical, but not a total fire- eater, as the South Carolinians had been called. His vice president was Alexander Stephens from Georgia, who had no connection with him whatsoever. Davis had been a Democrat before the war. Stephens had been a Whig, until the Whig Party collapsed. Stephens opposed secession, but then went along with it when it was voted in in Georgia. They didn’t know each other. They had no personal rapport and basically couldn’t get along at all. They had taken opposite sides on every major issue of the past 20 years or so. Now, most historians see Davis as a failure as Confederate leader. He wasn’t really cut out for the position. He lacked many of the qualities, (now, this is the Potter point) you know, that Lincoln had, of leadership, whatever you think about particular policies. Lincoln was thick-skinned. He didn’t mind people criticizing him. He tried to learn. Davis was super sensitive. He couldn’t stand people criticizing him. When anyone criticized him, he just, you know, stopped listening, instead of thinking, well, maybe I can learn something here. He was rather aristocratic. He had no real public rapport with ordinary people. He had no sense of delegating authority. Because he’d been secretary of war, he thought of himself as a military, you know, as a person with great military knowledge, and he was always interfering in military strategy, I mean, down to very minor things, interfering. And, you know, the president is not supposed to worry about how different troops are disposed at a battle. You know, they’re supposed to have generals you trust to do that. He couldn’t delegate authority, in other words. He was aloof. He was unable to rally people. Now, everything that I have said here was said in a book by a guy, no relation, William C. Davis, who published some years ago a very good biography of Jefferson Davis. And he gave every one, in the introduction, he listed everything I’ve said. And then he said, this book is actually a positive view of Jefferson Davis against his critics. So you can imagine what the critics say, if what I just described was the defense of Jefferson Davis. So there is a saying in the South that to be a real Southerner, you have to, you know, admire Robert E. Lee, have a great-great-grandfather who fought with Stonewall Jackson, and hate Jefferson Davis. Of course, a lot of people just, it’s easy to blame Jefferson Davis and that’s it. It’s his fault they lost. But Davis doesn’t quite occupy the position, let’s say, that Robert E. Lee does in Southern culture. So, for example, if you go to the [Ogden Museum of Art, New Orleans], wonderful museum, here is the painting that is right at the entry there. This is a, can you see? This is emblems of Southern culture. [laughter] So on the left, we have Elvis, Jesus Christ, and Robert E. Lee. [laughter] No, that’s alright, that’s cool. But no Jefferson Davis here. Jefferson Davis is not elevated to this level. Now, the problem with blaming Jefferson Davis, for all his faults, is that it sort of assumes that a better political leader would have been able to solve all the South’s problems, you know, that these problems — it goes back to our Civil War, you know, the cause of the Civil War. Is it a blundering generation? But maybe the problems were so deeply rooted that no political genius could have solved them, you know? Maybe it’s not just — maybe his failure is a reflection of the situation he faces, rather than just, you know, a personal lack. So what kind of situations made it difficult for a political leader? Now, years and years ago, one of our great scholars here, who passed away years ago, but great scholar of the 1960s and 70s, Eric McKitrick, wrote a fascinating article, turning a kind of normal assumption on its head, that the Confederacy’s lack of a two-party political system was a serious impediment to success. The Confederate leaders were like the leaders of the American Revolution or the early Republic in that they didn’t want political parties. And they never had political parties. They thought that political parties were divisive, factionalizing. There should be just the general politics of the public good and people should not be divided into organized political parties, for unity. But as McKitrick argued, actually the lack of political parties had exactly the opposite effect. It prevented the formulation of alternative policies. In other words, you have an opposition political party, they’ve got to come forth with another policy. They can’t just say, oh, it’s no good, no good. They’ve got to say, well, what would we do? Lincoln actually benefited from criticism from Democrats. And more important, Lincoln benefited enormously from having a political party behind him. The existence of a strong political party complements the government. It makes the government function better. Lincoln used the Republican Party as a major source of public strength, public support, for the war effort. What is the alternative in politics if you don’t have political parties? The alternative is personal parties. Groups develop, loyal to a certain leader. Or maybe state by state. But they actually create more factionalism than would be the case if you had two parties. Parties nationalize things. The parties exist in all the states, right? The Republican Party unified the North in many ways. But Davis never had an organization like that. So, as I say, this is not a full explanation. But it’s an interesting insight that McKitrick put forward long ago. Instead of parties, Southern politics descends back to a kind of 18th century — if you’ve ever taken a course on 18th century English history, this is what — you know, you have significant aristocrats building up personal followings with patronage and support and getting people jobs. And politics is sort of factionalized like that. But it doesn’t really build into any significant policy questions. Or you get politics dividing along class lines, as we’ll see in a minute, with poorer whites finding themselves more and more alienated from the wealthier planters who are controlling policy. And parties create a link between different classes, which doesn’t quite work out that way in the South. In the North, party loyalty unified people, even though the conflict between Democrats and Republicans was also very intense. You can see this by comparing Davis’ cabinet with Lincoln’s cabinet. As Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out long ago, or years ago, in her book about Lincoln and his cabinet, Lincoln’s cabinet was filled with the major figures of his party. All his major rivals for the presidential nomination were in there. Seward, Chase, Bates, Cameron to begin with. Each member of Lincoln’s cabinet, some of them were more, you know, competent than others, but they represented powerful elements of the Republican Party. Davis’ cabinet was largely a bunch of non-entities. They didn’t represent anybody, except maybe some local interest group in their state. They didn’t quite rise to the level of Lincoln’s, of the people Lincoln brought around him. Because Lincoln was not afraid to surround himself with strong people. He had the self-confidence to do that. And Davis doesn’t seem to have had that. And then just compare the two vice presidents. Lincoln didn’t know Hannibal Hamlin. Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice president, he was a Democrat, an ex-Democrat from Maine. He was put on the ticket for balance, right? But it was geographical balance. It was Lincoln’s from the West, Hamlin’s from the East; Lincoln’s a former Whig, Hamlin’s a former Democrat. But on the basic issues, they agreed with each other. Whereas as I’ve said, Alexander Stephens doesn’t agree with Davis on anything. So what’s the point of having a vice president who’s completely at odds with the president on most major policy issues? He wasn’t loyal to the government he was in. So, elections in the South. They had elections. They had congressional elections in 1863, but they, as I say, they don’t give you any clues, really, about public sentiment. They’re mostly on personal lines, individual lines. Lincoln could read the election returns. And, you know, even though some people think Lincoln was a tyrant, there were elections every single year in the North. They were never canceled. They were never postponed. And the Democrats did very well, as I mentioned, in 1862, as a kind of an initial reaction against the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln could read the election returns and know something about public sentiment. Before Gallup polls and, you know, Quinnipiac polls and all this stuff, elections are the way you figured out what people were thinking. But it didn’t work that way so well in the South.

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