Jefferson Davis, 1808-1889

Mathew Brady Studio
Albumen silver print,
(carte de visite),1861
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC

Jefferson Davis graduated from West Point in 1828 and left the army in 1835, when he eloped with Sarah, the daughter of his commander, Zachary Taylor. He was soon widowed and spent the next ten years as a Mississippi planter. In 1845, Davis entered politics, interrupting his term in Congress to serve again under Taylor in the Mexican American War. A popular hero, he was named to the United States Senate in 1847 and then became secretary of war under Franklin Pierce in 1853. German-born abolitionist Carl Schurz recalled that Davis met every expectation of what "a grand personage the War Minister of this great Republic must be." When he returned to the Senate, Davis continued to be a strong advocate for states' rights. After 1861, Davis hoped to serve in the Confederate army, but instead became the Confederacy's first and only president. He was an imperious, opinionated, and often unpopular leader, in part because he favored a central power while his opponents continued to support states' rights. After the war ended, Davis lived as an exile in his own land, having refused to request the official pardon that would restore his citizenship.

Brady made this portrait during Davis's second term in the Senate. It became his official image as newspapers and publishers came to Brady in search of portraits of southern politicians. Brady also copied his Imperial portrait of Davis in order to make new cartes de visite for an audience anxious to see the face of the Confederate president.

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