BRIAN LAMB, HOST: William Cooper Jr., why the book titled "Jefferson Davis" comma "American"?
Professor WILLIAM J. COOPER Jr., AUTHOR, "JEFFERSON DAVIS, AMERICAN": Because I think that `American' is the best way to understand Jefferson Davis. Davis always thought of himself as an American. He thought of himself as a son of the revolution both ideological and biological. His father had been a Revolutionary soldier. He looked at the Declaration and the Constitution as the true marks of the good American society. He believed in the things that most Americans of his time did--progress, economic growth, geographic development of the country. He believed in all those things, just as most other Americans did. And he never stopped believing in them. In fact, with the Confederate States of America--of course, he is most famous for being president of the Confederacy, but he thought that the Confederate States was the last best hope for what he believed the United States was, America was, before--in his judgment, it had been subverted by the Republican Party in the late 1850s.
Now, of course, one of the things in his Americanism was a belief in slavery, in racial slavery. He didn't see any contradiction between America and slavery. Slavery had come through the Revolution intact. Slavery was protected by the Constitution. Davis believed that. Most all other Americans, South and North, believed that. The United States Supreme Court emphatically affirmed that. And Davis looked at heroes of the nation--Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, slave owners all. And so he didn't understand why there had to be a separation over slavery. He rejected the notion that the country couldn't continue half slave and half free--to use Lincoln's phrase--`because it had been like that from the beginning,' and he thought it could continue like that for a long time.
LAMB: When did he live?
Prof. COOPER: He lived from 1808 until 1889, a long time.
LAMB: Making him how old when he died?
Prof. COOPER: He was 81 1/2.
LAMB: How many times was he married?
Prof. COOPER: Twice.
LAMB: First wife?
Prof. COOPER: First wife was named Sarah Knox Taylor, and she was the daughter of the man who became General Zachary Taylor. He was a colonel when Davis met Knox, as she was known. They were only married for three months. He and she both contracted malaria, a virulent case of malaria. He survived, she didn't. But he treasured her memory. Even late in his life, he--he said that he kept a packet of her letters tied in a bundle in his house in Mississippi, but they were lost during the war. He never saw them after that. But even in his--the last two years of his life, he still wrote very fondly about her.
LAMB: Second wife?
Prof. COOPER: Second wife was named Varina Howell, and she was a woman considerably younger than Jefferson Davis--18 years younger for that matter. He married her in 1845. When he married Varina--of course, twice her age, he could have been her father--he looked upon her as almost a reincarnation of Knox. She was young, she was vivacious, he was madly in love with her, but their marriage was not all roses. There was some difficulties in their marriage because Varina was not a little girl for very long and she wanted to be taken as a serious woman and that posed difficulties for Jefferson, and particularly for his oldest brother, Joseph, who was a surrogate father to him.
LAMB: How many children did he have?
Prof. COOPER: Davis and Varina had a total of six children. The lives of their children, especially the boys, were very sad. The first boy died in infancy. The second boy--the--the s--well, four of them--all four ch—sons died before Davis. The next one who was during the Civil War, who died of an accident. Then a boy died in 18--in the early 1870s of diphtheria. And his oldest son, Jeff Jr., died in 1878 of yellow fever, and he was only 21.
LAMB: Where was he born?
Prof. COOPER: Jefferson Davis?
Prof. COOPER: He was born in Kentucky, in south central Kentucky not far above the Tennessee line and not that far from where Abraham Lincoln was born.
LAMB: Where was he living most of his life?
Prof. COOPER: He lived most of his life in Mississippi. His father was a man who followed--who tried to find the American Dream following the frontier. He started off in Georgia, moved to Kentucky in the 1790s. Early in the 19th century, shortly after Davis' birth in 1818, moved on west. Stopped for a moment in Louisiana, and then ended up in the southwestern corner of Mississippi, Wilkinson County, near the little town of Woodville, and that was where Davis' boyhood home was. And he--he moved from--after school and the Army, he came back to Mississippi, he lived near his brother, Joseph, on their plantations up near the town of Vicksburg, right on the river.
LAMB: You say in your book he was a wealthy man.
Prof. COOPER: He was a wealthy man, for his time, absolutely. It's impossible to chart his income precisely, but he was making in the neighborhood of $35,000 to $40,000 a year from his plantation. In the late 1850s, of course, there are no income taxes and it's difficult to say dollar for dollar, but that's considerably more than $35,000 now. At the time, the average income for a worker in Mississippi, a white worker, was like $250. So he was a wealthy man for his time.
LAMB: How many slaves did he own?
Prof. COOPER: He owned just over 100 slaves in 1860. He had started with one. In the 1830s, he had one slave, a man he inherited from his father, and this slave was a fascinating character with and for Davis. His name was James Pemberton. He followed Davis in the Army. He was Davis' body servant, as they were called, when Davis was in the Army in the 1830s as a professional soldier. When he went back to Mississippi to begin farming, James Pemberton started farming with him, helped him open up his plantation and became his first overseer. And Davis was one of the few planters who used a slave overseer. And Pemberton remained his overseer until 1850, when he died. After the Pemberton's death, Davis never had any success with overseers. He went through them almost annually after 1850, all white men, but he never found one who worked work as well for him as Pemberton did.
LAMB: What did Mr. Pemberton do as his--What was the term you used?—a body...
Prof. COOPER: Body servant.
LAMB: ...body servant.
Prof. COOPER: Well, he would be in our days now, a valet, cook, take...
LAMB: While he was in the Army?
Prof. COOPER: ...yeah--take care of the horses. And at that time, the Army provided on a salary schedule. I mean, he got money to pay for James Pemberton's maintenance. But you could have a servant or a slave--a slave could be your servant in the professional Army and...
LAMB: You to be an officer?
Prof. COOPER: Yes.
LAMB: And did all officers have that?
Prof. COOPER: No, all officers didn't, but they could if they chose to.
LAMB: Now where did he go to school in his life?
Prof. COOPER: Well, if you want to start from the very beginning, and I'd like to start from the beginning, because I think it's fascinating, his parents were Baptists, and he grew up in the southwestern corner of Mississippi. Yet, as a little boy of eight years old, he went all the way back to Kentucky to a private school, a Catholic, a Roman Catholic private school, where he stayed for a couple of years. And then he cam--he--he left Mississippi--his mother didn't even know he was going. His father decided that he wanted the boy to have the best education he could have. He didn't think there was anything down there where he was that was--was fitting, so he sent him back up to m--to Kentucky. Mother didn't know he'd left.
He came back to Mississippi and he was in a couple of academies near Woodville until he was 16, and then he went to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, which was the first major American educational institution west of the Appalachian Mountains. It was a first-class university back in the early '20s when Davis went. And again, you could see his father had a great interest in his education. See, that was a long way to go from southwestern Mississippi to Kentucky in the--in the 18-teens. He went to Transylvania. He flourished at Transylvania. He did well academically, he did well socially. But his father died while he was there and his oldest brother, Joseph, who was 24 years older than Jefferson--Jefferson was the 10th of 10 children, and Joseph became a surrogate father for him. And Joseph wanted him to go to West Point.
Joseph was very ambitious for David and Davis said, `OK, I really don't want to go, but if you want me to go'--he was very dutiful son and brother and so he said, `I'll go.' And he went to West Point and he stayed four years, finishing in the class of 1828. But he d--he didn't get along too well in the regimented world of West Point. He had a lot of trouble. He was in serious trouble a couple of times. He had some accidents from drinking too much. He almost got thrown out of the school. But he did finish in 1828 with a commission in the Army.
LAMB: What rank was he in his class?
Prof. COOPER: He was--I don't remember the exact rank, but he was not toward the top. He was toward the bottom.
LAMB: I think I have it written down here. It was like 163 out of 208, or something like that.
Prof. COOPER: Well, that was in his conduct, 'cause there weren't that many in his class. In his class, there would have been fewer than 50 people. West Point was a very small place. We don't realize how small colleges were back then. West Point had usually no more than 250 students at one time on the post, and they were only allowed to leave once in four years. I mean, it was really a military monastery. And those boys really got to know one another in that sort of close proximity. And, of course, Davis was there with a number of people that would later become quite well known when he was president of the Confederacy.
Prof. COOPER: Robert E. Lee was a class behind him. So was Joseph E. Johnston. Albert Sidney Johnston was a couple of classes ahead of him.
LAMB: And they were, the Johnstons?
Prof. COOPER: They were--all three of those people became Confederate generals.
LAMB: Any Union generals?
Prof. COOPER: At his time, none of the ones who were famous. All the famous Union generals came after Davis' time. You know, people like Grant, Sherman, McClellan, Sheridan, they were all at West Point much after Davis' time.
LAMB: The name Jefferson Davis come from any place special?
Prof. COOPER: Yeah, it came from Thomas Jefferson. He's named for Thomas Jefferson. His farmer was an ardent Jeffersonian in politics, and he named his final child, 10th child, for Thomas Jefferson, who was the sitting president when Jefferson Davis was born.
LAMB: What different jobs did he have in his life?
Prof. COOPER: Jefferson Davis?
LAMB: Yes, mainly the political jobs for now.
Prof. COOPER: The political jobs. When he started off, his first political job, successful job, he was chosen as an elector for the state of Mississippi in 1844. Now that's different from now. Now somebody's elector it's the political plum and you get your name on the ballot. You don't do much else. But back then, you were expected to campaign. And Davis went out and campaigned throughout Mississippi in 1844, just as if he were running for office himself. And he campaigned successfully. James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, the Democrat. Then the very next year, 1845, Davis ran for Congress, and he ran on a general ticket. That is, Mississippi didn't have districts. The law permitted a state to have general tickets back then. So he had to campaign all across the state to get elected. He was elected to Congress in 1845. He resigned from Congress to go in the Mexican War. He came back from the Mexican War as a senator. From 1847--and then at age 51, he resigned to run for governor of Mississippi, was defeated. He became secretary of War in 1853 under Franklin Pierce. When Pierce's administration went out of office in 1857, Davis went back to the Senate and he was in the Senate when the union broke apart in 1860, '61 and then, of course, he became president of the Confederacy.
LAMB: For how long was he president?
Prof. COOPER: Four years. He--he was elected for six, but the Confederacy didn't last but four.
LAMB: And he's buried where?
Prof. COOPER: He is buried in Richmond, Virginia, with all members of his family. His wife and his children are all buried in Richmond, in Hollywood Cemetery.
LAMB: The--page 195, you start out here by--`On Christmas Day, 1847, the two men had an altercation that resulted in violence.'
Prof. COOPER: Well, this has to do with a man named Henry S. Foote, who was a great opponent of Jefferson Davis in Mississippi politics. Davis and Foote started off getting along pretty well. In the beginning, they were both sort of rising stars amongst Mississippi Democrats. And they campaigned together, for example, in '44 for President Polk. But thereafter, they--they fell out. It had to do with personality difficulties more than with political difficulties in the beginning. Davis felt Foote accused him of untruths and claimed that he had been a coward, and had--he and Foote had a fight and it was papered over by friends. And after that, the--they still had difficulties. Davis felt Foote was challenging his honor and his--his honor as a man, his integrity as a man, and Davis wanted to fight a duel with Foote, but he was talked out of fighting a duel by saying, that, `Look, on the one hand, Foote's not worth it. On the second hand, that you're a military man and such, and people will look upon you not favorably, because they will think you'll have an unfair advantage over Foote.'
And then politically they fell out completely in 1850 and '51 over the Compromise of 1850 and the direction of Mississippi politics. And Foote had one great moment against Davis. He beat Davis for governor in 1851, but political gods didn't shine on Foote and the political world changed shortly after that. And Foote left Mississippi, went to California, came back to Tennessee, and--and during the Civil War was he was a Confederate senator from Tennessee and still fighting Jefferson Davis.
LAMB: On that page there you say things like, `After friends separated them, Foote started to leave but at the door turned, announcing he had struck first.'
Prof. COOPER: Yeah. No, he--he was trying to say that Davis was a coward, you know, that--that--that Davis had not defended himself, that Davis was not willing to be the kind of man--Southerners valued honor d--so much. They valued honor so much. And honor had a--had a twin--twin component. You had to believe in yourself that you were a man of integrity and independence and you would stand for yourself as a man, but also you had to perceive it--it had to be perceived in the larger world. It just couldn't be internal; it had to be external. So these two come together. And so if somebody were to say to you, `Well, you are a coward, you don't do things properly,' you may know in yourself that that's not true and you say, `You're lying.' But in the world Davis lived in, the larger world had to see that as well. And so Davis had—I mean, he felt he had to act. I mean, they--this was nothing unique about Davis. This was the world in which he lived in. The concept of honor was a powerful, powerful social force in his world.
LAMB: What would be the difference between a Foote Democrat and a Davis Democrat in Mississippi?
Prof. COOPER: Well, there would have been no measurable difference except in terms of w--liking one man over another, a personal difference, until 1850. In the Compromise of 1850, which had to do chiefly with how the country was going to handle what was called the Mexican Cession, the territory gained from the Mexican War, which included all of the current Southwest plus California. And the fight was about slavery. Would slavery be permitted to go into the Mexican Cession? The nation had moved westward from the Revolution, crossed the Appalachian Mountains, crossed the Mississippi River. Slavery had moved westward all the way from the Eastern seaboard to Texas. Well, the Mexican Cession comes west of Texas.
Now there had been a law passed in 1820, the Missouri Compromise, which controlled how slavery could expand westward into the Louisiana Territory, which went all the way to Canada. But the Louisiana Territory was like a funnel. It was narrow at the bottom and broadened out to go up to Canada along the r--the Rocky Mountains was its western border.
But the Southwest was not a part of Louisiana. Now we've got all that Southwest out there. Southerners wanted to take slaves out there. They wanted the right to take slaves, not--the issue was not so much whether they would take them, but they wanted the right to take them. And the Compromise of 1850 was--there was no guarantee that Southerners could take slaves out there. In fact, it was a guarantee that they couldn't take them to California, the way it was set up. And Foote pro--supported the Compromise of 1850; Davis opposed it bitterly. They fought each other in Congress, both members of the Senate. Back in Mississippi they took opposing sides, And they fought each other for governor of Mississippi in 1851, a contest, as I said a little bit earlier, that--that Foote won.
LAMB: How did you get into all this, and how long did this take you, 700 pages?
Prof. COOPER: Well, I've been interested in Jefferson Davis a very long time. When I was a senior in college, I wrote my senior thesis on an aspect of Jefferson Davis in the Civil War. I went to graduate school, and I thought I might like to try to write about Jefferson Davis. And I was given very good advice by my major professor. He said, `Look, you're not ready to write a book about a man like Davis. Pick some part of his career. Write about Davis as secretary of War.' That--that just didn't interest me at all at that time, and so I turned away from Davis and did many other things.
LAMB: Where did you go to graduate school?
Prof. COOPER: Johns Hopkins University. And I did many other things I've wr--mainly about Southern politics before the Civil War, and Davis was always a character. And in the '80s, I decided--I worked on a book that was--I'd become an administrator at my university and I worked on a hi--general history of the South. And--and I finished that, and I said, `Well, you know, if you're ever going to do Davis, you've got to try now.' So I decided to give it a shot. And I started...
LAMB: What year?
Prof. COOPER: 1988.
LAMB: And this was what school you were administrator at?
Prof. COOPER: Louisiana State University.
LAMB: In Baton Rouge.
Prof. COOPER: Yes. And I started on this book in 1988 and it came out last fall, so it was 12 years from the time I began till the book was published.
LAMB: On the back, you have at least four people that have appeared on this program who are all historians, and--and they say things like this. David Herbert Donald, who wrote "Lincoln," says `William J. Cooper's "Jefferson Davis, American" is one of the most impressive biographies published in the last decade.' Do you know David Donald?
Prof. COOPER: Yes, I do know David Donald. He was my major professor in graduate school. I have known David for a long time.
LAMB: At Johns Hopkins or some...
Prof. COOPER: Correct.
LAMB: And--and did--did you ask him to say something that strongly—that strong?
Prof. COOPER: Well, no, I didn't--I didn't ask him to say anything. I--the--the publisher--my publisher got these comments. So I g--m--I guess all I can tell you, my publisher got these comments. I appreciate all of the--the--the comments that are on the book. But...
LAMB: Well, J--James McPherson says, `Jefferson Davis lived 77 of his 81 years as an American and only four as president of the Confederacy, yet it is for those four years he is chiefly remembered. William J. Cooper's splendid biography, the best yet, does good service in reminding us that even during his years at war with the United States, Davis professed to be fighting for American institutions and ideals as he understood them.' James McPherson says this is the best of 16.
Prof. COOPER: Well, there are at least 16, depending on how you count. Davis has been the--almost you can say the victim of many biographers. Many Davis biographers have been either very pro or very anti.
LAMB: What are you?
Prof. COOPER: I--I am neither. I try to be understanding. I--I'm not pro-Davis and I'm not anti-Davis. My goal is to try to understand Davis, but to understand him as a man of his time. I mean, he's not a man of the 21st century; he is a man of the 19th century. And I tried to understand him as a man of his time.
LAMB: How hard was this to do?
Prof. COOPER: Well, it was v--it was very hard to do, but it was--it was fascinating to do. I never lost interest in Jefferson Davis. I found Davis an absolutely fascinating man. And my interest never flagged.
LAMB: How did you go about it?
Prof. COOPER: Well, first I should say is probably couldn't have done this except for the Jefferson Davis Association, which is housed at Rice University. That's where the Jefferson--the letterpress edition, the modern edition of the Jefferson Davis papers are being published. You know, like sort of the George Washington papers and all these--they have the--they're at Rice. And the editor of the Davis papers at Rice was very generous to me. She permitted me to come there; she permitted me to make use of all the documents they have. And they have collected at Rice almost every known Davis document. So I didn't have to go to 40 libraries in the United States looking for Davis material.
LAMB: Let me--let me...
Prof. COOPER: I went to a lot of libraries looking for other materials.
LAMB: Let me stop you for a second. Why Rice? Why in Houston?
Prof. COOPER: Well, chiefly because there was a--a historian at Rice by the name of Frank Vandever, who is the dean of Davis scholars. And when Frank was at Rice, he was very interested in Davis. And when--in the '50s and the early '60s, when all these papers projects really got under way--many of them got under way--he was instrumental in setting up a project at--at Rice for Davis and finding money to--to help fund it and--and the--the university to come in and support it. So that's why I said Rice.
LAMB: As we've said, the--the strong endorsements by other historians—what do you think they saw in this that makes it the best?
Prof. COOPER: I think perhaps two things. I mean, it's based on an awful lot of research. I mean, historians respect research, and--and I have done a lot of work. Nobody told me to go back to the library. I've done a lot of work.
The second thing is I think that they see it as an even-handed attempt to understand Davis. This is not a book that says Davis was the most wonderful person who ever lived, but it's also not a book who says he's the devil incarnate. He was a man who, like other men, had strengths, had weaknesses. He lived through extraordinarily difficult times. He was a man who had enormous ambition and drive and determination. And I think that these historians see that I'm trying to deal with him on his own terms and fit him in his time.
LAMB: How often were you s--truly surprised by what you found?
Prof. COOPER: I was surprised on several occasions. I was surprised on several occasions. I was very surprised that Jefferson Davis had such difficulty with overseers. When I began this, I didn't really know very much about Davis and James Pemberton. I was in--I knew vaguely that Pemberton had been an overseer for him, but that's all I really knew.
LAMB: Define what an overseer is.
Prof. COOPER: All right. The overseer was the person on the plantation who was the--the--usually a white man, but the man between the owner and the slaves. The owner would tell the overseer, `These are the jobs that have to be done.' It's the overseer's job to--the hands-on management of the slaves to get the work done. I didn't realize that Pemberton had such a central role in Davis' plantation management.
And then upon his death, I had no idea that Davis had so much difficulty with overseers. I--that--that was not uncommon. Many Southern planters had difficulty with overseers. They had difficulty finding an overseer who--see, overseers had two tasks that were often contradictory. Owners would tell them, `Make the best crop you can,' you know, `Make me the most money you can.' But then they would say, `We don't want a slave force that's unhappy, that's angry. You know, keep the slaves as contented as you can or as—keep them as reasonably content as you can.' These--these two often clashed. And slaves understood that--that they had a relationship with the owner that the owner would respect. I mean, the slave owner would much rather have an overseer he had to fire than a bunch of slaves over here who are unhappy and not willing to work. So overseeing was a tough job, and--but slave owners had difficulty finding an overseer who could keep both those in balance.
LAMB: Why was he having so much trouble?
Prof. COOPER: All slave owners did. Davis was not unusual. But I was surprised to find that he had that difficulty, because received wisdom about his plantation was that it was sort of almost an idyll among--an idyllic place on the Southern plantation scene. I--I didn't find that to be true, but I was surprised about the overseers.
LAMB: Let me ask you about names, and I'll ask you about some more surprises. And--Hurricane.
Prof. COOPER: Hurricane was the name of his oldest brother Joseph's plantation.
LAMB: Where was it?
Prof. COOPER: It was in Warren County, Mississippi, just south of Vicksburg. It was on the Mississippi River. It was on a piece of land called Davis Bend. There was a real peninsula that jutted out in the river from Mississippi. The river made a great loop to the west around Davis Bend. That's where Joseph's plantation, Hurricane, was, and right next to it was Jefferson's plantation, Brierfield. Now it's Davis Island, because in 1867, the river cut it off, and it's just an island in the middle of the Mississippi River now.
LAMB: What's Beauvior?
Prof. COOPER: Beauvior is the last home Davis had. It's down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It's where he spent the last dozen years of his life. He moved there in 1877, at the behest of the woman who owned it, a woman named Sarah Dorsey, a woman whose family he had known--he had known her, too--in the antebellum years. She was younger than Davis, and she revered Davis. And when he went there in 1877, he really had no place else to go. He—his business career--his attempt to have a business career after the war had collapsed, and he was determined now to try to write his memoirs of the Confederacy, and Ms. Dorsey offered him a place to go. He went there, and then she agreed to sell it to him or--she didn't give it to him. She agreed to sell it on favorable terms, however, but then she died and left it to him in her will. So he inherited Beauvoir, and he lived there until he died in 1889.
LAMB: Now you say at one point that--I mean, I remember the statement, `There was no evidence that they ever had a physical relationship.'
Prof. COOPER: That's correct.
LAMB: Why would you even have to say that?
Prof. COOPER: Because a lot of people implied that they did, and people looking back at--from our point o--in history would say that a man and a woman who were living like that, that point in time--you know, living like that so close together, and she obviously revered him, that it's almost without saying that they would have one.
LAMB: Where was Varina?
Prof. COOPER: Well, when he first moved to Beauvoir, Varina was still in Europe. They had been in Europe, and she was still over there. When they'd been there together, she had taken ill. And she had a sister who lived in England, a younger sister, and she remained in England, and Davis came back and moved down with Ms. Dorsey. And Varina didn't like that at all. She was bitter and angry about it. And when she came back to this country, she announced that was she, in no way, ever going to live there.
Well, she realized that she really had no choice, that her husband had no place else to go if he wanted to write this book. And she eventually went to Beauvoir, and over time she and Sarah Dorsey reconciled, and she became a—a strong supporter of Sarah Dorsey, who had nursed Varina during a period of serious illness for Varina.
LAMB: You mentioned brother Joseph and Varina, and you--at some point in the book, you also talk about a triangle of the three of them.
Prof. COOPER: Yes, right.
LAMB: What was going on among the three of them?
Prof. COOPER: Well, the two people Jefferson Davis cherished most in the world were Joseph, his oldest brother--as I've said several times, almost his father--and his wife, Varina. Joseph was so important to Davis for so many reasons. Not only was Joseph instrumental in his going to West Point, when Davis came--resigned from the Army in 1835 and he came back to Mississippi, Joseph gave him the land that became his plantation in Brierfield. Davis did not have to pay one penny for it. Now Joseph didn't give him title to it, but he gave him the land and--and--and said, `You can have this.'
Joseph helped him with his initial purchase of slaves to get started. Joseph and he be--were very close on all kinds of matters. They talked about intellectual subjects together. They were involved in plantation matters together. They were politically active. Joseph was very politically active in the Mississippi Democratic Party, and he gave Davis entree to politics.
Well, Jefferson and Varina met when Varina was visiting Joseph, whom she called Uncle Joe. Varina--Varina's father and Joseph Davis were close. Well, Joseph Davis was old enough to be Varina's grandfather, and he looked upon her as a child. Well, when they married--when Jefferson marries Varina, Joseph still looked upon her as a child. Varina wanted to be taken as an adult woman. Joseph never really did that.
LAMB: Again, the separation in age at marriage?
Prof. COOPER: Separation--well, now--between Joseph and Varina would have been over 40 years; between Jefferson and Varina was almost 20 years.
LAMB: She was like 17.
Prof. COOPER: Yeah, 18, and he was 35, 36 when they married. So--but Joseph is another 24 years older than Jefferson. So--and--and her relationship with Joseph is very tense, and when Jefferson goes to the Mexican War, Joseph does not want the land that Jefferson is farming to end up in Varina's hands. So legal things are set up so that Varina can live on the land should Jefferson die until her death, but she can't own it, and that made her very, very angry with--with Joseph. And Jefferson, in fact, had to come back from the Mexican War on one occasion to try to deal with the real difficulty between Joseph and Varina.
LAMB: Let me read a--just a couple of paragraphs here from your book talking about the two of them, the relationship between Varina and her husband: `Jefferson was blunt, I will be frank with you,' he wrote from Washington about why he had refused to bring her with him. Even though he headed north, quote, "with body crippled, even shattered, mind depressed," unquote, he had felt compelled to go without her because his dread of constant strife was so great.' First, I want to ask you--and I--I want to wo--I'll also read a little bit more. "Body crippled, even shattered, and mind depressed"--why?
Prof. COOPER: Well, the body was crippled because of his wound in the Mexican war. In the Battle of Buena Vista, Davis was wounded in the heel, and he--it--it was never a life-threatening wound, but it caused a great deal of physical pain, and it impaired his walking for a while. He was very depressed because of the situation between his wife and his brother, in between his wife and himself. That's why he was depressed.
LAMB: Well, you say here--this is more quotes: `"I cannot bear constant harassment"--this is Jefferson Davis saying this--"occasional reproach and subsequent representation." To him, his wife's misdeeds had been numerous and serious. Her attitude about the house, her not caring for him when he was hurt, her grumbling about her servants, then becoming angry when he found a kind companion, Amanda...'
Prof. COOPER: That was--that was his sister.
LAMB: `...to take charge of the household,' on and on. What was their relationship really like?
Prof. COOPER: Well, at this point in time, the relationship was very, very tense. It had--I think, at bottom, it had to do with Joseph, because it--the--they were in close proximity to Joseph. In Brierfield, the house they lived in was a mile from the house that--that Joseph lived in. And Davis said that Varina could have a new house; the house was being constructed at this--was not--the new house wasn't built by this time, but his sister was to come and Varina, who had been complaining she had too much work to do.
Jefferson got disgusted. He said, `Look, you either behave'--and by behave, he meant, `like I want you to behave, or else.' And he left her in Mississippi. Now she loved being in Washington. She loved Washington from the time they came in 1845 to Congress, she was taken with the Capitol. She liked Washington a whole lot better than she liked Warren County, Mississippi. So to leave her at home was a real slap in her face. And Davis says that—a couple of times in--in this period that--the late '40s, that, you know, `We--we may not be able to live together.' He would never have contemplated divorce, but, you know, he said, `We just might have to be separate from one other.'
Now this lasted for a time, and Varina started reading popular self-health books of--self-help books of that time to try to be a better wife, and those books would tell a woman to be submissive and to take the station that God had given her and be happy there and that sort of thing. But over time, their relationship changed. They didn't stay in one place. By the mid-'50s, Davis and his wife had become much closer. And then during the war, they became very close companions.
I should say there was one other thing Varina--Varina had not yet had a child, and in her culture, the main job of a healthy young woman was to have a family. And she had not yet had a child, and she'd been married several years. And there's--there's not a whole lot of evidence, but there's some evidence that this did bother her, which is understandable.
LAMB: Physically, what did Jefferson Davis look like in person, do you think? How big was he?
Prof. COOPER: He was about 5'11," 6' tall. He was very spare; he never weighed more than like 145 pounds. And he--he was an erect person. He had a--a--a military posture, which he obviously got at West Point as a young man and it stayed with him. He was always very--people commented on how erect his carriage and bearing was.
LAMB: We've got a picture of him as a young man. Did he change much--it'll come up in just a second.
Prof. COOPER: Yeah.
LAMB: Did he change much between the time he was younger and when he got...
Prof. COOPER: Yes, I think you will see a change. Now this is hi--this is a--a picture of Davis probably somewhere in the mid-1830s to 1840. It's before he's married to Varina. You--you--you see, even in this picture, the thing that--what--the feature that leaps out at me is his eyes. His eyes look like they have real--they penetrate. They look like eyes that are thinking and imagining. Now as you go on in his life, you will see changes in his face.
LAMB: We have him in 1853, which would--it'll come up in a second--how old would he have been then?
Prof. COOPER: 1953, he's about 45 years old. This is when he's becoming secretary of War. You can see here--you can see that his face has aged, and yet he's got a--a visage there that is of con--confidence in himself, confidence in his own power. Again, the eyes, I think, dominate--dominate his face.
LAMB: But you say he had a--there's a problem with an eye?
Prof. COOPER: Well, the eye problem gets really bad after this. He has had some ophthalmologic difficulties before now, but in the late '50s, he has serious problems with his left eye, and a film develops over his left eye by the late '50s. This picture is probably '53, and he had a serious attack in '51, but he has not developed this film yet. And he--he will eventually, basically, lose s--sight in that eye. You know, he can't pick out distinct things in his left eye.
LAMB: This a picture I--here in the book from about 1858.
Prof. COOPER: Yes. That--that picture is taken probably after the serious eye difficulties he had in the spring of 1857, which was the most serious eye problems he had in his life. And in the aftermath of that, this film does develop. And you notice in this picture of this--you show in the book, his face is turned a bit. It's not a full-frontal face. And that picture, plus the famous Matthew Brady photograph, which is on the--the--the cover of the book, you see it's turned so the left eye is not facing the camera, and that's because of this film. And people comment on the film.
LAMB: Now neuralgia is mentioned often.
Prof. COOPER: Yeah.
LAMB: What is it, and how much of it did he have?
Prof. COOPER: Well, his neuralgia probably was a manifestation of malaria he had as a young man. He had malaria in 1835, the same disease that killed his first wife, Knox, and he had malaria for the rest of his life. Manifestations of it occurred regularly: chills, fevers--neuralgia--nerve difficulties. Davis, in many ways, was a person who was ill most of the time. Given the state of medicine in the middle of the 19th century, it's nothing short of astonishing that Davis lived long.
LAMB: But you say he smoked cigars all the time...
Prof. COOPER: All the time.
LAMB: ...and even more when he was sick.
Prof. COOPER: He did. He never stopped smoking cigars. He never stopped smoking cigars. He smoked pipes often, too, but cigars most often. Whether he never made the connection between bronchial difficulties and cigars or he didn't care, I'm not sure, but he smoked them all of his life.
LAMB: As--by the way, as these biographies go--this is 700 pages--how—how big are the others? Any of them this big?
Prof. COOPER: Well, they're--oh, yes. Oh, yes. Well, th--about 660 pages of text; the rest is notes. Oh, yes, the--there's a three-volume biography of Davis published in the mid-'50s. There's a big, fat, two-volume biography of Davis published in the 1930s. The two immediately preceding this are of this length. So there've been some fat ones.
LAMB: Where is your hometown originally?
Prof. COOPER: I grew up in Williamsburg County, South Carolina.
LAMB: And how much education do you have?
Prof. COOPER: I have a PhD.
LAMB: In what?
Prof. COOPER: History.
LAMB: Where'd you get that?
Prof. COOPER: Johns Hopkins.
LAMB: And why LSU in Baton Rouge? What got you there?
Prof. COOPER: Well, when I was looking for a job, that was the job that seemed, to me, the best opportunity that I had at that time, and so I went there, and they've been very good to me and I've stayed there.
LAMB: What is your job?
Prof. COOPER: I am a professor in the history department at LSU, Louisiana State University.
LAMB: And how long have you been there?
Prof. COOPER: Thirty-two years now, since 1968.
LAMB: Let's go back to 1860.
Prof. COOPER: Yeah.
LAMB: What is Jefferson Davis doing then?
Prof. COOPER: He's a United States senator.
LAMB: What's the atmosphere?
Prof. COOPER: The atmosphere is one of tremendous political tension. The presidential election of 1860, most Americans feel, will be tremendously important for the future of the country. The Republican Party ran first—its first candidate four years previously and almost won, and the Republicans were a sectional party. There were no Southerners in the Republican Party. The Republicans' whole strategy for winning was if you could carry the North, you didn't need the South. This was a new phenomenon in American history, and it frightened Southerners because they had always been instrumental in American political parties. They'd been at the top. And the Democratic Party was their party in 1860, but the Democrats also had tremendous strength in the North.
But Northern and Southern Democrats were divided over personalities and divided over issues in 1860, so the Democratic Party split. There was a Northern candidate and a Southern candidate. This--if three is not enough, there's a fourth candidate because people who didn't like Republicans or Democrats, mostly old Whigs, they put up a candidate. There were four people running.
LAMB: So you had Stephen Douglas...
Prof. COOPER: See, he was a Northern Democrat. Lincoln was the Republican. John C. Breckinridge as the Southern Democrat. And John Bale is a candidate of a group that call themselves the Constitutional Unionists.
LAMB: Who did Jefferson Davis support?
Prof. COOPER: He supported John C. Breckinridge. Davis was also active in the effort to try to get all the re--proponents of the Republicans to unite behind a new candidate; that is, for Bale, Douglas and Breckinridge--all three to drop out, to find somebody new and sort of neutral to come in and take the--the standard to run against the Republicans. That all failed.
LAMB: As you know, there's so much to cover and very little time, so I'm going to jump around, just so we can get to some of the stuff...
Prof. COOPER: Sure.
LAMB: ...in before the hour's over. The--what was the moment in the Senate where Jefferson Davis says, `I gotta--I gotta leave this. I gotta go back to the South'?
Prof. COOPER: Well, he--Mississippi seceded early in the month of January...
Prof. COOPER: Da--1861. Davis had fought against secession. He believed in secession. He believed it was constitutionally proper; that it was sanctioned by the Constitution. He never thought it was r--an unconstitutional act, but he never wanted it to come about. In fact, after Lincoln's election in 1860, the governor of Mississippi called together in Jackson, the capital of the state, the congressional delegation to consult with him about what he should propose to the state Legislature. Amongst those people in that meeting, Davis was the only one who was not for immediate secessation.
He went to Washington. He tried hard to find some way to--to come up with a compromise that would keep things going, at least for a while. Now, of course, his compromise always had to be with a guarantee that the South could have its constitutional rights in the territories; that is, that there was a right for Southerners to take their slave property to the territories.
LAMB: How big a deal was slave part of all this?
Prof. COOPER: The slave part was a very big deal.
LAMB: And why?
Prof. COOPER: Because--well, there were several reasons why. Slavery was absolutely central in the Southern society and economy. Slavery was central in Southern political power because the Constitution, through the 3/5ths provision, counted s--slaves--3/5ths of slaves for representation, that meant congressmen and votes in the Electoral College. It was im--slavery was important for political power. Slavery was also important to Southerners because slavery was American. There was nothing wrong with slavery, as Southerners saw it. I mean, the Constitution protected slavery. Slavery had come through from the Declaration of--through the Revolution. The American heroes--I was just going through that before--people like Jackson and Washington, were slave owners. There was nothing wrong with slavery. So they didn't look upon slavery as something bad or something that they should be ashamed of, not at all.
LAMB: So the circumstances in the United States Senate the day he stood up to say, `I'm out of here'?
Prof. COOPER: Yeah. Well, this came after he received formal notice from Mississippi th--that the state had seceded. He didn't leave just when he got the telegraphic report that Mississippi--yes, it seceded. He waited for the formal notification from the state. And then he went and he stood up in the Senate, and he said that he--the Senate was packed. People were in the Senate, and it was almost a spectator sport in this winter of crisis. The Senate was packed. He stood up and he said it was time for him to say goodbye; that his state had seceded because the Constitution and the Declaration had been subverted by the Republicans, as he saw it; that people knew his belief about secessation; that even if he didn't think Mississippi was right, he would have to go, but he thought Mississippi had the right do what it did. And then he said goodbye. He looked at people and he said, `If--you know, if I still things that I--that I have between us that we haven't settled, I settle them all now. I'm leaving.'
LAMB: Who were his best friends in the Senate then?
Prof. COOPER: His best friends in the Senate--well, several people: Clement Clay from Alabama; and one of his friends in the Senate was William Seward from New York, who was a major Republican, who was the most important national Republican, whom he expected to be the Republican candidate for president in 1860, until he was passed over for Abraham Lincoln. Davis' friendship with Seward is fascinating. It's unfortunate that there's not a lot of documentary evidence for what passed between them, but when Davis was sick in '57, when he had these terrible eye problems, Seward visited him regularly.
LAMB: Every--you say every day.
Prof. COOPER: Every day. Well, every day--visited him every day. And I think Davis believed, in 1860 when the crisis came, that maybe he and Seward could work something out because he believed that Seward was willing to make a deal. And Seward was powerful nationalist, and Seward had so much cache in the North that he thought Seward might can make a deal. But Seward wouldn't do anything without Lincoln.
LAMB: What were--again, what was the day that he resigned? Do you remember?
Prof. COOPER: I think it was the 21st of January or the 20th of January.
LAMB: How long did it take him to be elect to be the president of the Confederacy?
Prof. COOPER: About three weeks he was chosen president of the Confederacy.
Prof. COOPER: By a group of men who met in Montgomery, Alabama, in February of 1861 to create the Confederate States of America.
LAMB: And there were how many states then?
Prof. COOPER: Six states met then: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana. Texas also seceded, but the Texas delegates didn't get to Montgomery by the time Davis was selected. And the voting was by states. Each state had one vote, and Davis won that unanimously. Davis brought to that office qualifications nobody else could match.
LAMB: How did they get then from Montgomery to Richmond?
Prof. COOPER: Well, after Virginia secede--and there was a great victory for the Confederates when Virginia did secede. Virginia did not secede until after Ft. Sumter, after Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion. Then Virginia seceded. But Confederates thought Virginia was the mother of the South; that Virginia was the home of the great heroes of the American Revolution. Aside from that, Richmond, Virginia, was the most important industrial city in the Confederate states, and Montgomery was small and really wasn't big enough to handle what--the--the growth of the capital. And so in May of 1861, the capital was moved to Montgomery.
LAMB: Did they have a...
Prof. COOPER: To R--to R--from Montgomery.
LAMB: To Richmond. Did they have a White House?
Prof. COOPER: They--they did not have a White House, but a house--a—a mansion in Richmond was bought by the city of Richmond and then given to the Confederate states to use for the executive mansion.
LAMB: Did they have a Congress?
Prof. COOPER: Yes, they had a Congress. The Cong...
LAMB: A House and Senate?
Prof. COOPER: They had--they had a House and a Senate. Now let me be careful here; I don't want to mislead. In Montgomery, the--where the Provisional Congress met, there was a--a bica--only one, unicameral. But when the Provisional Congress had run its course, and then the Confederate Constitution called for the election of a Congress, that was a bicameral Congress—House and Senate, just like the United States--and it met in--in the Virginia state capital. It was where it met.
LAMB: We're g--I'm going to avoid talking a lot about the war years, only because we've discussed that a lot on this program. And I want to jump, if you don't mind, to the--near the end--they were losing--and--and how the—this country treated Jefferson Davis at the end and where he lived and all that. What--it--let me just ask you this general question: Why do you think he lost, or the country he was leading lost, in the Civil War?
Prof. COOPER: I think they lost because they were--they were beaten by a much stronger power that used everything in its command to defeat the Confederates. Now, you know, there are a lot of people who say the Confederates lost because there was disaffection in the Confederacy, and the Confederacy didn't have a will to win. And they looked to the Vietnam War when the stronger power of the United States didn't win; thus, they looked to the American Revolution, when the stronger power of Great Britain didn't win.
And the s--answer is, well, Southerners didn't want it badly enough. They don't tend to look at the Germans and the Japanese in World War II, both of whom were beaten to a pulp. I think the Southerners, the Confederates, were--were smashed. I mean, the North used everything it had, all of its overpowering force. It had--as its commander in chief, Lincoln was unrelenting, Lincoln was determined. Lincoln was not going to back away, and Lincoln found generals who would use the enormous power they had.
LAMB: Did they ever meet, by the way?
Prof. COOPER: Lincoln and Davis?
Prof. COOPER: Never met.
LAMB: And we're at the end of the Civil War. Where was Jefferson Davis?
Prof. COOPER: Well, he was on the run. He was trying very hard to get to Texas. He hoped to carry on the war in what the Confederates called the trans-Mississippi, that area west of the Mississippi River. He hoped to get there over land, or if he couldn't get there over land, at least to get to Florida and take a boat to Mexico and come up to Texas through Mexico. But he was captured by Union cavalrymen in south Georgia in May of 1861.
LAMB: What'd they do with him?
Prof. COOPER: Well, they made him a prisoner, and he was taken up to Macon and put on a train and carried from Macon to Augusta, put on a boat, carried to Savannah and eventually ended up in Fortress Monroe, which is at the confluence of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay.
LAMB: Down there at Virginia Beach.
Prof. COOPER: Vi--Virginia Beach. He was in prison there for two years, 18--May 1865 to May 1867.
LAMB: How he was treated?
Prof. COOPER: Well, initially, he was treated pretty harshly. He was brought in, they--they put irons on him. He fought that physically, the putting of irons on him, but that didn't last very long--at the most, for five days. But he was incarcerated in a casemate; that means in the--the inner walls of the--of the--of the fortress, and he had a steel door and had a sentry looking at him every second of every day. There was not one m--moment of privacy for anything whatever. That lasted until the fall, and in the fall of 1865, he was moved into an apartment fitted for him in officers quarters in a building at Fortress Monroe.
LAMB: How suspicious was Andrew Johnson of Jefferson Davis and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln?
Prof. COOPER: Well, President Johnson and many other Northern leaders believed that Davis had been involved. There had been bad blood between Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Davis long before the Civil War, and when Davis got word that Lincoln had been assassinated, he expressed the opinion that neither he nor the South would--could expect much forbearance from Andrew Johnson.
LAMB: Were they in the Senate together?
Prof. COOPER: They were in the Senate together; in the House together, too, before they were in the Senate together.
LAMB: And Andrew Johnson, from Tennessee...
Prof. COOPER: He--he was a Democrat, like Davis, but he looked upon Davis as a member of a--of the planter class, and he was not a member of the planter class and he didn't--he didn't like Davis personally.
LAMB: Was he indicted?
Prof. COOPER: Davis was indicted. He was indicted for treason. He was never brought to trial. His--the--the--his captors couldn't decide what to do. They were afraid to bring him to trial, in part, because they were afraid if a jury would--wouldn't convict him, would acquit him, then the whole Northern rational for fighting the war, the secession was constitutional, would be thrown out by a jury. They didn't want to lose. And, also, they had problems with the judges. The chief justice would sit on the circuit court in Richmond, the chief justice of the United States....
LAMB: Salmon Chase.
Prof. COOPER: ...Salmon P. Chase, and they were worried that Chase might decide for Davis. And so for the federal government--there were people inside the federal government who felt that Davis should never be brought to trial, that the war was over and that he should be let go. And so there was a conflict.
LAMB: Had there been a jury trial in Richmond and Salmon P. Chase sat—had been sitting--presiding, would there have been a jury of Southerners?
Prof. COOPER: Oh, yes. The jury would have come from Richmond. And, ironically, Davis' attorneys were very afraid of a jury trial, too. They were afraid that the jury would have on it people who were Republicans, even blacks, and they would vote to convict Davis, not on the merits of the case, but just on Davis.
LAMB: When does he get out of prison?
Prof. COOPER: May, 1867. He is paroled.
LAMB: Where does he go?
Prof. COOPER: Well, he goes to Canada. His family has been in Canada. He goes to Canada for a few months, and then, desperate to try to make a living, to try to find some way to earn money, he goes to England trying to sell interest in Canadian mines. That's why he goes to England.
LAMB: How old is he about this time?
Prof. COOPER: Well, he's approaching 60 years old. He's approaching 60.
LAMB: What's his health like?
Prof. COOPER: His health is, really, not that much worse than it's been. I mean, he had intensive medical care in the--in prison. In fact, because of claims made that he had suffered so as a prisoner, the secretary of War declared that Davis must be examined every day, and the official records has--you can look at them--the medical reports by day, and Davis is doing about like he's always did. He's a little bit older, so a little bit weaker, but he's not that much worse.
LAMB: How many children at this point?
Prof. COOPER: At this point, he has got four children, two sons and two daughters.
LAMB: And he goes to England. Anyplace else over Europe that he--that he...
Prof. COOPER: Well, he--he travels in France, he travels in Scotland, but England and--he stays mostly in England, though he does...
LAMB: What do they think of him over there?
Prof. COOPER: Well, in England, he is re--royally received. Many in the English upper classes had been pro-contrarian in their sentiments, and Davis was really lionized. But he and his wife had a serious problem because they had very little money, and Varina especially was very anxious about getting involved in a social world in which she could not move as an equal, in which she could not reciprocate. So they really didn't.
LAMB: How does he get the job in the ins--with the insurance company?
Prof. COOPER: Well, he gets the job with the insurance company because of friends who talk to him about it and put him up for it. They know he's got to find some way to make a living. He's not succeeding in England, so he comes back to this country, but he's very unsure about getting into the insurance business. He says what will people think of him becoming just an insurance man? That his status will drop, and he--his wife is concerned about that. And there's a wonderful exchange of letters between them on this matter, and Davis finally just says, `Look,' he says, `I understood how things are, but, look, I got to make a living.' He said, `I'd much rather be a college president'--and he had an offer from the Sewanee, the University of the South. He said, `But it don't pay enough money.' So he says, `I'm going to take this job.' And he says, `I'll make enough that if you don't want to come and live in Memphis with me, you can live someplace else until we can do better for ourselves.'
LAMB: How--how long did he do that?
Prof. COOPER: He did that for, basically, three years.
LAMB: And then how did he finally get back to Beauvoir?
Prof. COOPER: Well, he got back to Beau--he got to Beauvoir, not back—got there the first time because Ms. Dorsey invited him to come there, offered him a place to live. And he went there to--to write what became "Rise and Fall of the Confederate States."
LAMB: And you say he was there the last three years of his life?
Prof. COOPER: The last 12 years of his life.
LAMB: I'm sorry, the last 12 years of his life.
Prof. COOPER: Yes.
LAMB: How much money did he make off his book, and did it sell?
Prof. COOPER: Amazing--now this was--you--you asked about surprises early on, and we didn't get back to that. That's one of the things that really surprised me. I mean, that book sold over 20,000 copies, and I don't know that many of your viewers, including yourself, have ever looked at those things, but they're two fat, ponderous volumes, and they are dry, dry, dry, dry. And so I was astonished that they had sold over 20,000 copies.
LAMB: How much did he make off it?
Prof. COOPER: There's no way to know that. There's--the records don't exist to tell you that.
LAMB: Near the end of his life, what was it like?
Prof. COOPER: At the end of his life, it was--I think it was--it was very sad. At the same time, it was very positive. It was sad because he and Varina lived there at Beauvoir; Varina was not happy at Beauvoir. It was isolated; she liked being in cities. She also didn't like the heat. He was trying to farm his old plantation at Brierfield, which he had regained control of. He was having a most difficult time, no success at all, in making Brierfield run again. But at the same time, he was optimistic. He--he--he--he--he really talked about the United States and the growing power and its glory and grandeur. And he gave talks to young people, and he told them that they should revere their Confederate heritage, but they shouldn't be mired in the past. They should look to the--the future of the United States.
LAMB: What did he die of?
Prof. COOPER: Probably pneumonia. He had contracted serious bronchial difficulties, and it was probably pneumonia killed him.
LAMB: This experience, are you surprised about anything overall in the writing--this is not your first book.
Prof. COOPER: No, it's not my first book, by any means. I--well, I—I suppose that what surprises me most is that, through it all, I retained my fascination with his man. I think he's a fascinating person.
LAMB: And this cover of the book has the picture that was taken when?
Prof. COOPER: Around 1861, right before the break-up of the Union. That'sthe famous Matthew Brady photograph.
LAMB: And he with have been how old here?
Prof. COOPER: He would have been, let's see, fi--early 50s, 53.
LAMB: William Cooper Jr., author of "Jefferson Davis, American," thank you very much for joining us.
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