For 150 years, historians have evaluated the presidential performance of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Lincoln usually wins in a walk.
The Lincoln-Davis Experience Qualifications
On paper, however, it would seem that Jefferson Davis had the huge advantage. Born within a year of Lincoln, and also removed from his home state of Kentucky as a child, he was the tenth child of a middle class family. He was educated at Transylvania University (more of a high school), and then sent to West Point. He had served with honor before becoming a Mississippi planter. His much older brother (by twenty-three years) was a bona fide millionaire, and Davis’ lifelong mentor. The Davis plantation would thrive, making him one of the wealthiest men in the state.
Davis served in Congress for a term before re-entering the military during the War with Mexico, displaying the leadership and distinction befitting a West Point graduate. The war over, he then served in the Senate, followed by four years as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, and then back in the Senate again. All in all, he spent a solid fifteen years prominently placed on the national stage before the Civil War.
Lincoln’s qualifications on paper were slim. His education was notable only for its lack – perhaps as little as one year of formal schooling. Whatever Abraham Lincoln learned he learned on his own. He became a self-taught lawyer and served a single term in Congress years prior to the Civil War. He had achieved a middle-class status only after years of hard work; any mentoring he received was not financial.
By resume, Davis would leave Lincoln in the dust.
The Lincoln-Davis Leadership Qualifications
Prior to the Civil War, both Lincoln and Davis had remarkably centrist attitudes. Lincoln was not an abolitionist, and said so many times. Davis was not a secessionist and said so many times. They both felt strongly for the Union, although Davis believed it was constitutionally possible for a state to secede. Lincoln was against slavery, but he believed it should be contained where it was. (Davis, known to be a particularly kind master, believed it was essential to the southern economy.)
Davis was a mellifluous speaker in the classical oratory style. He tried to be a voice of reason, and usually distanced himself from the rabble-rousing “secesh” rantings of other southern politicians. Little of what he said, however, was memorable. During the turbulent 1850s, Davis was considered to be the best presidential candidate the Democrats had to offer – except for being a southerner.
Thus when the South did secede, and when it elected a temporary President, Jefferson Davis was generally unopposed. Everyone looked up to him. A year later, when it elected a permanent President, Davis was still generally unopposed.
Lincoln’s leadership qualities were subtle, and to a large extent hidden. He was a stump speaker, rather than an orator. It is said that his voice was fairly high pitched for such a tall man. His contemporaries, particularly his fellow politicians, believed him to be little more than average as a speaker. He did not pontificate. His reasoning was deep; his way with words elegant and often sparkled with humor. What he said was usually memorable.
One tends to forget that Lincoln was a dark horse in 1860. All his Republican rivals were far better known, with many years on the national stage. Lincoln’s political influence was limited primarily to his home state of Illinois – western and unimportant. But safe. The presidential ballots were split every which way, and Lincoln won by plurality, rather than majority. When he arrived in Washington, he was still an unknown quantity.
In pre-Civil War leadership, Davis would hold the edge. He had been a national political figure much longer. His military experience, both on the field and behind the Secretary of War desk, was second to none. Everybody knew him and respected him.
The Lincoln-Davis Bottom Line
Both were undoubtedly men of character. Davis’ confederate oath was also “registered in heaven” and just as binding to him as Lincoln’s was. They were honest, and in another time and under other circumstances, Jefferson Davis might have made a decent president of the United States.
The balance, however, lies in those intangible qualities: the ones that no one notices until they are tested. Lincoln’s fifty years of self-education had provided him with a capacity for broad conceptual thinking, and the ability to learn from all sources. He could and would change his mind, if he saw the error. He could and would be able to work with most people. He would grow during his four years. It would be because of his rare and elusive qualities rather than paper credentials that he ranks as our foremost president.
Davis, perhaps from a lifetime of being in command, was not flexible. He would remain rigid in his philosophies and attitudes throughout his life. He had favorites, and he had implacable enemies. He would never change. His leadership was flawed, and he pales in comparison.
Lincoln, of course, would become the martyr, but he did not have the martyr’s character. It is Davis who truly had the martyr qualifications.
- DAVIS, VARINA – Jefferson Davis, Ex-President of the Confederate States of America: A Memoir by his Wife, 1890
- DAVIS, W.C. – The Man and his Hour, HarperCollins, 1991
- DONALD, David Herbert – Lincoln, Simon and Schuster, 1995