Teddy Roosevelt vs. Jeff Davis

One can easily imagine the outcome of an interaction between the ever-brittle Jefferson Davis and the bull-in-a-china-shop robustness of Theodore Roosevelt. While not contemporaries, Roosevelt did have occasion early in his literary career to cross pens with the elder-statesman Davis.

The occasion was an article editors had invited Roosevelt to write for the October 1885 issue of The North American Review. Roosevelt, at 26, had already waded into Republic politics, and editors asked him to comment on “The President’s Policy,” offering an assessment of Democratic President Grover Cleveland’s administration.[1]

Roosevelt was no fan. Over the course of the article, Roosevelt took aim at a number of Cleveland’s appointments, citing them as examples of various sorts of ineptitudes and inappropriatenesses. Of particular note was Secretary of the Interior Lucius Q. Lamar a “professional apologist” for former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, “who enjoys the unique distinction of being the only American with hose public character that of Benedict Arnold need not fear comparison.”

Lamar had apparently been given the post as a patronage job with not other qualification other than a letter of introduction from Davis. “Now a revolutionary patriot might have been very liberal-minded indeed, and yet would scarcely have cared to see a Cabinet officer appointed to whose good graces a letter from Benedict Arnold would have been a passport,” Roosevelt wrote.

Post-Civil War Confederates stood in a position similar to that of post-Revolution Torries. In the wake of both conflicts, Torries and Confederates “should have been treated as soon as possible like their loyal fellow-citizens,” Roosevelt wrote, with an emphasis on loyal. Men like Arnold and Davis did not qualify.

“The mass of the Northern people now feel no bitterness whatever toward the gallant ex-Confederates of the South,” Roosevelt wrote. “We readily acknowledge that they honestly thought their cause just, and we have nothing but praise for their heroic constancy and brilliant courage. Yet we feel sure that history will declare the War of the Rebellion to be both . . . the most important, and also the one in which the dividing lines between right and wrong were sharpest drawn.”

Roosevelt “heartily” welcomed back “the prodigal son,” but “strongly object[ed] to that particular variety of prodigal son who passes his time lamenting that the husks did not hold out longer, and praising the most obnoxious of the companions who led him astray.”

Davis, who was by then trying to live out a quiet retirement in Biloxi, Mississippi, took immediate exception to this characterization of himself and fired back with both barrels. “You have recently chosen to publicly associate the name of Benedict Arnold with that of Jefferson Davis, as the only American with whom the traitor Arnold need not fear comparison,” he wrote on September 29, 1885.

You must be ignorant of American history if you do not know that the career of those characters might be aptly chosen for contrast, but not for similitude, and if so ignorant, the instinct of a gentleman, had you possessed it, must have caused you to make inquiry before uttering an accusation so libelous and false. I write you directly to repel the unproved outrage, but with too low an estimate of you to expect an honorable retraction of your slander. Yours, etc.[2]

Roosevelt did reply, though, sending a hand-written note that referred to himself in formal third person (as Davis’s letter had done).

[H]e would indeed be surprised to find that his views of the character of Mr. Davis did not differ radically from that apparently entertaining in relation thereto by Mr. Davis himself,” Roosevelt wrote, begging leave that “he does not deem it necessary that there should be any further communication whatsoever between himself and Mr. Davis.[3]

Davis let the matter drop but fumed to his wife, Varinia, “This young fellow is bright and has been either misled by party rancor, or has only read one side of the question.”[4]

Roosevelt, though, had more to say, although doubtfully said as a direct response to Davis. In the summer of 1886, in an admiring biography he wrote of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Roosevelt criticized Davis as one of several leading politicians who “engineered and guided for their own ends” the Secession crisis, forever earning him a “place among the arch-traitors in our annals.”[5]

“The moral difference between Benedict Arnold on one hand, and Aaron Burr or Jefferson Davis on the other,” Roosevelt wrote, “is precisely the difference that obtains between a politician who sells his vote for money and one who supports a bad measure in consideration of being given some high political position.”[6]

Two decades later, Roosevelt seemed to look back on his exchange with Davis ruefully. He regretted the “acerbity which, being a young man, struck me as clever. . . .  [I]t does not strike me as in the least so now.” [7]

But as historian Carleton Putnam once pointed out, Roosevelt regretted only his own poor manners, not his actual opinion. “He was to continue to the end,” Putnam wrote, “to regard him as an ‘unhung traitor’ who stood on ‘an evil eminence of infamy’ with Benedict Arnold.”[8]


[1] Quoted selections come from Theodore Roosevelt, “The President’s Policy,” The North American Review, Vol. 141, No. 347 (Oct., 1885), 393. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25118537?seq=20.

[2] Jefferson Davis to Theodore Roosevelt, The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Lynda Lasswell Crist, editor (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2015), 14: 284.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Hart Benton (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1903), 307, 208.

[6] Ibid., 155.

[7] Carleton Putnam, Theodore Roosevelt: The Formative Years, 1858-1886 (New York: Scribner, 1958), 548.

[8] Ibid.

Jefferson Davis remained unapologetic, too. As Robert Penn Warren noted, “[I]n his old-fashioned way, he would accept no pardon, for pardon could be construed to imply wrongdoing, and wrongdoing was what, in honor and principle, he denied.” (For more, see “Robert Penn Warren’s Reflections on Jefferson Davis’s Citizenship.”)

9 Responses to Teddy Roosevelt vs. Jeff Davis

  1. It’s always a mistake to judge the character of history’s players apart from their historical context. Still, when one studies Davis as both a pre-war and post-war apologist, one sees an unrepentant, unashamed, and treasonous hypocrite who attached himself to “lost cause” lies. Unfortunately for him, his legacy is one of shame, even by his own.

    1. While a measure of fair and balanced criticism can certainly be ascribed to Davis, based on a critical reflection of the historical evidence and arguments, I do not see an ‘unrepentant, unashamed and treasonous hypocrite’ by any objective measure.

      What I do see is a man in his hour who made decisions he was convinced were right at the time, but lived to reconsider several of his actions and choices.

      And I reject outright any connection between the Confederates and ‘treason’. Disliking and disagreeing with their cause in the strongest possible terms is one thing; citing that a high number of persons of the era were of the opinion that they had committed this is being holistic and thorough with evidentiary disclosure (such as the writings of Thomas Morris Chester in the ‘Philadelphia Press’).

      But, unless one is every iota as willing to ‘hang from the same historical gallows’ the New Englanders in the War of 1812, the South Carolinians in the Nullification Crisis and Maine in the Aroostook War, then one can not put that the Confederates were guilty of treason. There is too much precedent in the path.

    2. None of my comment above in any forces anyone to render a positive historical impression of Jefferson Davis.

    3. “unrepentant, unashamed, and treasonous hypocrite” – all this because Davis and others pursued a course laid out in William Rawle’s tome, “A View of the Constitution” (1829 2d Ed.),? A rather harsh assessment of a course prescribed by the leading Constitution expert of his day.

  2. Teddy Roosevelt had lifelong angst over the fact his father did not serve in the Civil War, instead paying for a substitute. Perhaps this contributed unconsciously to young Teddy’s “poor manners” and “acerbity” regarding Jefferson Davis.

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