President of the Confederate States Writes a Historic, Lengthy and Bitter Letter to His Wife, Varina
by DAVIS, JEFFERSON
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DAVIS, JEFFERSON. (1808-1889). American secretary of war and president of the Confederate States. ALS. ("Jeff. Davis"). 4pp. 4to. Washington, D.C., January 3 and 4, 1848. To "My Wife," VARINA BANKS HOWELL DAVIS (1826-1906).
"After long expectation and painful anxiety I have just received your letter of the 19th of December, and have realized as much of pain from it, as you could have anticipated. Your suspicions and threats are equally unjust and unnecessary. I have not, that I am aware of, under the pressure of 'grave and important matters' ever shown myself unmindful of your comfort or your welfare, nor disposed to withhold pardon from you until 'too late to save from suffering,' nor exhibited a willingness that any one should take from you your 'rights as a woman and a wife,' nor sought to test your ability to love one who degraded you which you say 'would not render me better, and I should cease to lose one who did so.' You had an opportunity when I came to you crippled, so as to be confined to the house, to quarrel with me as much as would have satisfied any ordinary person, and I might have expected that you would have spared me from querulous letters, during my absence.
You proposed to me that I should invite Sister Amanda to live with us, and I planned a house for that purpose. Now it becomes in your mind a source of 'misery' to live as you proposed; and an injury to you that the house was planned by me. I omit the fact that several plans were submitted to you before one was decided on. I also recollect that you several times told me how unwilling Sister Amanda was to receive as a home any place which she could not transmit to her children, but it did not occur to me that you were the unwilling party, in carrying out a plan proposed by yourself and adopted by me mainly from considerations connected with yourself.
You have been generally sick and unable to take care of the household affairs, often bitter to me because of the irregularities of your servants, and I gladly availed myself of an opportunity to secure for you relief from domestic labors, and a kind companion to watch over and nurse you when I should be absent, and you sick. It was not a plan by which you were to 'retire from the rest of the world' or by which you were to be deprived of an opportunity to visit according to your inclination, and thus submissively ask my advice about what you had done.
I have no relation who is capable of a mercenary motive, none who has contemplated our marriage through the medium of pecuniary interest, and I regret that your heart should have suggested such as the feelings of my sister. You inform me that you have not stated your case to your own family; since writing your letter you have enjoyed by your visit more favorable opportunity to do so, and I have no objection to your taking that course. My will has been that my death should have you secured in half the income of the property left by me. You are at liberty to anticipate that event, and those terms or an equivalent in any form you prefer, shall be yours. By no act of mine shall you feel yourself bound to a degrading condition, until you cease to love the one who has brought you to it.
4th Jany. 1848. Let there be peace and sincerity between us. In vain have I striven to inspire you with confidence, until the conviction is forced upon me that you never trusted, that our union commenced in doubt. If by the remarks you make about my views as to your retirement from the world you design to draw me out as to your not having come here with me, I will be frank with you. I cannot expose myself to such conduct as yours when with me here. I cannot bear constant harassment, occasional reproach, and subsequent misrepresentation. I have not forgotten the old woman with rooms to let, or the multitude attracted by the servants of an angry woman.
You have written me a long letter to prevent me from believing that you have beneficially changed, to crush in me the hope which community and affection built up from materials you did not furnish. With reference to your representation of Sister Amanda's position towards you, I have to ask that I may be allowed to copy that part of your letter which states her conversation and send it to her.
I have heretofore written to you and you will be otherwise advised of the possibility of my speedy return to Missi. I do not say home 'for without hearts there is no home.' Your words connected with the kisses you placed upon the paper on which you wrote, were enough for the purpose of renewing the wounds your suspicion has so often inflicted. Henceforth I will not answer your assaults or your insults, and as heretofore will pray for and desire to promote your happiness. Yr. husband…"
Born in Natchez, Mississippi, Varina Banks Howell was the granddaughter of New Jersey Governor Richard Howell; her mother came from a wealthy family of Virginia planters. Varina was educated in Philadelphia, an experience that further served to divide her loyalties between Northern and Southern family and friends.
After returning to Mississippi, Varina met Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate, owner of Brierfield Plantation and a widower; his wife, Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of future president Zachary Taylor had died in 1835, just three months after their wedding. Varina's parents initially objected to Davis' courtship of their daughter because of their differences in age (18 years) and in politics, but after obtaining their consent, the couple planned a December 1844 wedding only to call it off for unknown reasons. They resumed their engagement the following year and married in a small ceremony in February 1845 when he was 37 and she 19. After a short honeymoon which included a visit to Davis' elderly mother and his first wife's grave, the newlyweds moved into a two room cottage on Davis' Mississippi plantation. Davis began construction on a large house, but the planned living arrangements, including his and his brother Joseph's decision to have their widowed sister Amanda (née Davis) Bradford (1800-1881) and seven of her children live with Jefferson and Varina, caused disruption in their marriage, as made clear in our letter. Exacerbating matters was the fact that during Jefferson's many long absences, Varina was placed under the supervision of her controlling brother-in-law Joseph, 42 years her senior.
In our letter, Davis alludes to being wounded ("I came to you crippled") during the February 1847 Battle of Buena Vista, in which General Zachary Taylor led an army of 5,000 men against Mexican forces. Shot in the foot during the melee, he was carried to safety by Army officer Robert Hall Chilton, later a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. Commenting on Davis' bravery during the battle, Taylor, his former father-in-law, is alleged to have declared, "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was," (The Three Kentucky Presidents: Lincoln, Taylor, Davis, Hamilton). For his service, Davis was offered a federal commission of brigadier general by President Polk, which he declined arguing that only the states have the power to appoint militia officers.
Davis had begun to serve as senator on December 5, 1847, following the death of Senator Speight on May 1. It was less than a month later, on the very day that he began our tortured letter to Varina, that Davis "made an eloquent pleas for the ten temporary regiments that President Polk wanted, to insure victory in Mexico. The army's weakness, Davis pointed out, had 'induced attacks,' one of them at Buena Vista, and had cost 'a fearful sacrifice' of blood when General Scott took Mexico City…He [Davis] could not know that peace negotiations had begun the day before, January 2, 1848," (Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart, Allen.)
Despite the marital trouble caused by disagreements over the extended Davis family and her poor health and anxiety, the outgoing and politically savvy Varina flourished in Washington where her husband served as Franklin Pierce's secretary of war from 1853 until 1857 and, from 1857-1861, as U.S. Senator from Mississippi. In the latter capacity, Davis spoke out on slavery and secession, issues that had become increasingly critical following Lincoln's election in November 1860. When Mississippi seceded from the Union in January of the following year, Davis resigned his seat and soon became the provisional (and later elected) president of the Confederate States of America and Varina became first lady.
Published in Jefferson Davis: The Essential Writings ed. Cooper. Written on a folded sheet. With some very minor light staining and fold separations, several of which have been expertly reinforced and strengthened. Boldly penned, and in otherwise very fine condition. One of only three letters (this one being the best) written by Jefferson Davis to Varina to have been sold at auction in the last 45 years.
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- President of the Confederate States Writes a Historic, Lengthy and Bitter Letter to His Wife, Varina
- DAVIS, JEFFERSON
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- Jefferson Davis, Autograph Letter Signed, Civil War, Confederate States
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