The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 96, July 1992 - April, 1993 Page: 300
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
1980s. Her doctoral-dissertation-become-prize-winning-book, The Pursuzt of a
Dream (Oxford University Press, 1981; Vintage paperback, 1983), centers on
the extraordinary relationship between Joseph and his entrepreneurial slave
Benjamin Montgomery, who came to own and operate the Davis Bend planta-
tions on the Mississippi south of Vicksburg for over a decade after the Civil
War. In recent years Hermann's poignant account of this relationship has
been retold a number of times in surveys of southern history; for example,
William J. Cooper, Jr., and Thomas E. Terrill make the plantations at Davis
Bend the focal point of their prologue to The American South: A Hzstory
(McGraw-Hill, 1991). With her second book, Janet Hermann has produced the
first biography of Joseph Davis, one that makes use of some newly available
manuscripts in the Natchez Trace Collection at the University of Texas at Aus-
tin's Barker Texas History Center (now part of the new Center for American
History). She is quite effective at chronicling Joseph's upward social mobility as
a lawyer-planter in Mississippi after the War of i812, until in i 86o he was one
of only nine men to own more than 300 slaves. Joseph's life appears as "a quin-
tessentially American success story" within a regional society based on planta-
tion agriculture and black slavery (p. x). Yet it seems unlikely that this second
book will receive as much attention and acclaim as did her first. Joseph Davis
does not add much to what Hermann has already told us about two of the most
arresting facets of Joseph's life: his relationships with Ben Montgomery and
with his brother Jefferson.
In part because her subject was not a major public figure, Hermann seeks to
use Joseph's life as a vehicle "to recapture the feel and texture of his time and
place" (p. xi). William C. Davis's much lengthier study of Joseph's intensely
political and highly visible brother does not purport to be a "'life and times"'
(p. xiii), but focuses squarely on Jefferson Davis as person and leader, especially
during his trying tenure at the helm of the Southern Confederacy. Nonethe-
less, the author's vigorous prose and broad knowledge of the Civil War often
succeed in bringing both Jefferson and his milieu to life. William C. Davis, no
family relation to his subject, is a prolific writer and editor of Civil War military
history who, like Allan Nevins, never bothered to get a Ph.D.
Jefferson Davzs, The Man and Hzs Hour has to be accounted the best biography
of this subject to date. The author succeeds at painting a vivid, balanced, and
persuasive psychological portrait of the Confederate president, one that points
up the strengths, shortcomings, and contradictions of his character. Jefferson
demonstrated great physical courage and an enormous capacity for desk work,
but frequently refused to make big decisions and became absorbed in petty
administrative details. Although he insisted that he did not play favorites in
making military and political appointments, he was in fact prone to myopic
and sometimes self-destructive favoritism toward friends and those loyal to
him. He seemed unable see the other side of an argument or to admit mistakes.
Such weaknesses and contradictions made Davis, in marked contrast to Lin-
coln, "unsuited by personality and character to be chief executive" (p. 695). In
his final chapter the author explicitly attributes Jefferson's failings to "one
single paramount force-insecurity" (p. 691), a personal insecurity that mani-
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 96, July 1992 - April, 1993, periodical, 1993; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101215/m1/344/: accessed December 12, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.