This story is part of The Confederate Reckoning, a collaborative project of USA TODAY Network newsrooms across the South to critically examine the legacy of the Confederacy and its influence on systemic racism today.
Jefferson Davis was a man of many words. He literally wrote volumes during his lifetime, and spent the last decade of his life writing about the history of the Confederacy and an in-depth analysis of the Civil War.
But Davis (1808-1889) most notably is known for his role with the Confederate States of America, of which he was named its first — and only — president.
Davis, born in Kentucky, lived much of his life in Mississippi. He served in the U.S. House and later the Senate before leaving the United States to take the helm of the.Confederate States of America.
"He was pretty much selected president … they wanted him to be president because he had the most friends in the North," said Jay Peterson. curator at Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library.
Before leaving the U.S. Senate, Davis made an impassioned farewell speech as he talked about Mississippi and other southern states leaving the Union, that left his fellow senators in tears.
Although he did not support secession, he felt duty-bound to represent his state, which voted to secede, and the new government to which he was appointed president. However, he also believed secession was a right afforded to the states.
Susannah Ural, professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi, said Davis seemed to be a natural choice for president of the Confederacy.
He had extensive military experience and political influence, Ural said.
"He was a really respected thinker and political thinker at the time," she said. "He was a really respected political figure, and he also was really respected as the secretary of war."
Davis wrote in his book, "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government," that slavery "was not the cause of the war, but an incident."
In his preface to the book he said, "the States had never surrendered their sovereignty," and that states should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding slavery.
Davis said the federal government was usurping its authority by forcing unwanted laws on the states, first and foremost the abolition of slavery, which was an integral part of the southern states' agricultural economy.
"(Slavery is) the primary cause, but it's not the only cause," Ural said. "When you talk about states' rights, when you talk about what powers the federal government should have versus state authority, one of the central issues to states' rights was the right to slavery."
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However, she said, determining the Civil War happened because of slavery isn't entirely accurate.
"There's never one cause of a war, and things that motivate people to fight in a war change over the course of time," she said. "To boil the Civil War down to slavery is problematic, but the bigger problem was that for decades, we just kind of pushed slavery aside and didn't really talk about it."
In May 1865, Davis was captured by Union soldiers and subsequently charged with treason, a crime for which he was never prosecuted.
"He was taught secession was legal at West Point, like many other people that served in the U.S. military and Congress," he said. "And at that time, it was."
Peterson said if Davis had gone on trial for treason, he likely would have won, which could have opened the flood gates for future secession efforts.
After he was released, Davis and his wife traveled before settling at Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi, where they lived the remainder of their days.
Following Davis' death, barracks were built on the property to house Confederate veterans and widows. In 1956, Beauvoir was turned into a museum, which remains open to the public today.
Before he was elected to Congress, Davis owned Brierfield Plantation, at Davis Bend, south of Vicksburg, where he had more than 100 slaves working the land.
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Davis believed Blacks were inferior to whites, and in 1860 told the Senate slavery was "a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves."
"He fundamentally believed in the legality of slavery," Ural said. "He was of the mindset of that time that white liberty in many ways benefited from Black slavery. He didn't have any misgivings about it."
In "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government," Davis wrote that slavery was part of the founding fabric of the United States and "was recognized and protected in the fourth article of the Constitution."
Davis attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before joining the Army and distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War. He was named secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce.
As secretary of war, Davis was charged with conducting the surveys for possible routes to establish the Transcontinental Railroad.
Davis sat on the Board of Regents for the Smithsonian Institute, where he served on the building and copyright committees.
"He was instrumental in getting the funding to push that through to make that happen," Peterson said. "If it was not for Jefferson Davis, there would be no Smithsonian Institution."
He also was the architect of the expansion of the U.S. Capitol and was responsible for the installation of a water viaduct to facilitate transportation into Washington, D.C.
"People just don't realize there were many, many, many things he had done besides being president of the Confederacy," Peterson said.
Contact Lici Beveridge at 601-584-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @licibev or Facebook at facebook.com/licibeveridge.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Confederate monuments: Jefferson Davis, CSA president who didn't want to secede but wanted to keep slavery