When Jefferson Davis was a boy, he told his father that he did not wish to go to school. The Yankee schoolmaster, although a kindly man, demanded a great deal of memory work and threatened to punish young Jeff for his failure. His father took the declaration in stride and calmly explained to his son, “Of course it is for you to elect whether you will work with head or hands; my son could not be an idler. I want more cotton-pickers and will give you work.”
Recalling the incident later in life, President Davis observed that “the heat of the sun and the physical labor, in conjunction with the implied equality with the other cotton-pickers, convinced me that school was the lesser evil.”
The elder Davis, far from being a scholar, was a frontiersman and a soldier in the Revolution, but he had come up in the world far enough that his eldest son, Joseph, was able to study law and make his mark in the world. Joseph Davis was one of the men who drafted Mississippi’s constitution. It was partly Joe’s doing that young Jefferson was given so many opportunities for study—with the Dominicans in Kentucky, at the Wilkinson County Academy, at Transylvania University (which Felicity Allen, in her magisterial biography, correctly describes as “the finest college west of the Appalachians”), before going on to West Point.
The father’s lesson was clear to everyone,...