Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back
Robert Penn Warren
Publish Year note: Originally published in 1980
In 1979 Robert Penn Warren returned to his native Todd Country, Kentucky, to attend ceremonies in honor of another native son, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, whose United States citizenship had just been restored, ninety years after his death, by a special act of Congress. From that nostalgic journey grew this reflective essay on the tragic career of Jefferson Davis — "not a modern man in any sense of the word but a conservative called to manage what was, in one sense, a revolution."
Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back is also a meditation by one of our most respected men of letters on the ironies of American history and the paradoxes of the modern South.
of money, and a great beast of a dog couchant to guard it. But the “peculiarly sweet voice” did its work, and one day the brooch wasn’t worn. Politics was not to make strife, however muted, in bedchamber or at breakfast table. Davis soon went to Congress, where he quickly proclaimed the doctrine of states’ rights and offered a resolution that, though it was then shelved, seems fatefully prophetic of the first shell to burst over Fort Sumter—a resolution that state troops should replace national
tooth. Davis even had the glory of a wound—in the foot, with blood welling in the boot as he continued to command; and later he had crutches on ceremonial occasions when he was received as a hero. It is reported, though not on incontrovertible authority, that after Buena Vista Old Rough and Ready grasped the hand of the hero and declared that his poor dead daughter had been a better judge of a man than he himself had been. Other honors are, however, beyond dispute. President James Polk raised
years younger than Lee, and the significance of this fact has been emphasized by historians, who have compared the number of days lost from indisposition by the two commanders. In fact, during most of the war Lee was suffering from heart trouble, diagnosed as rheumatism until his death. As for Sherman, he was forty-one when the war began. From the beginning, the North enjoyed obvious advantages, and Davis had to struggle against them. The disparity in population was tremendous; in addition, the
parties, and liberally decorated with demerits. And later, at an Indian outpost, now with a lieutenant’s commission, the irrepressible young man—this according to the report of a Potawatomi Indian chief presumably present—seized an extraordinarily handsome young squaw, who was respectably dancing a quadrille, and converted the dance into a waltz so that he might slip an arm around her lissomeness. Then, in his excitement, he detached himself from the charmer to dance alone, to “jerk and wiggle”
the point of death, neither knowing of the serious plight of the other. One night, the bridegroom, waking from his stupor, heard the distant sound of the bride’s voice singing “Fairy Bells,” a song of their courtship. He struggled toward the voice, but by the time he reached her room she had passed from her delirium into a last coma. The stubborn little Knox had had her will and her love, and this was what had come of it. One thing that may have come of it was to make Jefferson Davis great.