No ordinary man… He will go far’Jefferson Davis would be 204 today,/i>

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, June 2, 2012

The young congressman from Warren County had just completed his first speech as a member of the United States Congress. An old man, a former president and then a member of Congress, had pulled his chair closer in order to hear every word. He was John Quincy Adams, and he was not disappointed in what he heard.

“That young man, gentlemen,” he told friends, “is no ordinary man. Mind me, he will make his mark yet. He will go far.”

Adams was speaking of Mississippi representative Jefferson Davis who two years earlier had lost his first bid for public office when he ran as a last-minute candidate for the state legislature. He was taking the place of another man who dropped out of the race only four days before the voting. Davis made his pitch on Court Square, where the Old Court House now stands, on election day.

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He lost, but a Vicksburg newspaper made a prediction that he would yet make his mark on history.

And that he did. In his 81 years the West Point graduate was a military hero in the war with Mexico. He served not only in Congress but also in the Senate and was Secretary of War in the administration of President Franklin Pierce. In history he is primarily remembered as the only president of the Confederate States of America.

In that first term in public service in 1845 he set the tone for his political beliefs: the Constitution was the ultimate authority for governmental actions. He was a Democrat but he didn’t hesitate to differ with men in his own party, objecting to unwarranted extensions of presidential power. Specifically, when James K. Polk declared that war already existed in Mexico, Davis objected, reminding him that only Congress could declare war.

In his career Davis rubbed shoulders with many famous men. What were his opinions of some of them?

He wrote of John Quincy Adams, despite their political differences, as a friend who was “venerable and learned.”

Of President John Tyler, Davis admired him “for his firm adherence to principle” and wrote that, “As an extemporaneous speaker, I regard him as the Most felicitous among the orators I have known.”

Though he was friends with Henry Clay, when the Kentucky senator urged him to accept the compromise of 1850 because he thought it would bring 30 years of peace, Davis refused, stating he was “unwilling to transfer to posterity” the problems of the day.

He was a child when he met President Andrew Jackson, and years later, upon the death of Old Hickory, Davis remembered him as one who was distinguished by “a love of liberty, a hatred to tyranny, and defiance of oppression,” and that a monument to him “will rise colossal among the mighty of the earth.”

In the war with Mexico, Davis served under his father-in-law. Gen. Zachary Taylor. Though the two had had their differences, they grew to admire each other. Despite political differences, they worked well together when Taylor became president, and Davis said of the old soldier upon his death, “The world held not a better soldier.”

Of the presidents he knew, none was a closer friend than Franklin Pierce. Pierce had no desire to be president and suffered two tragedies — the loss of his children — just before he took office. Davis was so efficient in the cabinet that some thought of him as “acting president.” The friendship between the two men withstood the trying times of Civil War. Pierce was criticized for his unwavering devotion to the Confederate leader, and after the war Pierce was granted the privilege of visiting his friend in the prison cell at Fortress Monroe.

What did some say of Davis?

Union Gen. Karl Schurtz said “I was struck by the dignity of his bearing, the grace of his diction, and the rare charm of his voice.” Blackhawk called him “A good and brave young chief.” British Prime Minister Gladstone said of him that “Without money, without supplies, without resources, with industry, he made a nation,” and though that nation failed, Gen. Robert E. Lee said he knew of no one else who could have done half as well.

After the War Between the States, Davis shouldered responsibilities as the leader. He had no regrets as to the course he had taken, and he made no apologies.

And Southerners loved his memory, as they should, editorialized the New York Times on his death, because “He sacrificed all for the cause he cherished, and he alone of all the South has borne the cross of martyrdom.

“A great soul has passed,” the Northern newspaper concluded.

Today is the birthday of Jefferson Davis, a great man whose home was Warren County.

John Quincy Adams’ prediction was correct — he would make his mark, he would go far.