Introduction
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Introduction “Has there ever been another his­ tori­ cal crisis of the magnitude of 1861–1865 in which so many people were so articulate?” — Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the Ameri­ can Civil War By De­ cem­ ber 20, 1860, Jefferson ­ Davis had built an impressive resume. He had taken advantage of his family’s wealth and power to pursue an admirable career at West Point. He propelled himself into the national spotlight as a hero in the Mexican-­ Ameri­ can War. He used his national fame to forge a po­ liti­ cal career that included the prestigious positions of secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce and US senator from Mississippi. He was even rumored to be a future presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. These achievements, however, were overshadowed by the events that followed De­ cem­ ber 20, 1860, when the state of South Carolina adopted an ordinance of secession. On that fateful day South Carolina helped set in motion a po­ liti­ cal and social rebellion that threatened to dismantle the United States of America. By accepting the Presidency of the Confederate States of America and holding that position through­ out the Civil War, sometimes over the objection of his po­ liti­ cal opponents,­ Jefferson ­ Davis cemented his legacy as leader of the largest and most destructive rebellion in Ameri­ can history. The thesis of this book is that as the rhe­ tori­ cal leader of the Confederacy , ­ Davis was shortsighted. Throughout his time as president of the Confederacy, ­ Davis settled for short-­ term successes at the price of creating more serious rhe­ tori­ cal problems for himself in the long run. This is not to say that he was a poor orator. It is precisely because his skills as an orator were so powerful that there is room to judge how he used them. The record tells of the inspiring speeches in which he persuaded the Confederate Congress and the pub­ lic at large to agree to controversial wartime policies. As James M. McPherson notes, at several crucial moments in the war when morale reached new lows, ­ Davis was not only attuned to the sentiment but able to step forward and deliver his pub­ lic back from 2 / Introduction the brink with rousing speeches.1 Being a great orator, however, is not synonymous with successful rhe­ tori­ cal leadership. Rhetorical leadership encapsulates all the responsibilities in articulat­ ing a vision for a nation in­ clud­ ing the core tenets of its identity, the values the nation should hold dear, the principles it should never compromise, and the goals it should seek for its future. Using the language of Benedict Anderson, rhe­ tori­ cal leadership comes forward to announce and sustain an “imagined community.”2 In the context of the Confederacy, those responsibilities fell squarely on Jefferson ­ Davis. No one else held the institutional authority to call the Confederate nation into being, to articulate its core beliefs, and, using those values, to justify the policy decisions necessary for the prosecution of the war. In some ways he benefited from the lack of predecessors. Although he declared the Confederacy to be the true heirs of the Ameri­ can Revolution, he was not constrained by what previous Confederate presidents had said. In other ways he was constrained by the dearth of rhe­ tori­ cal resources available. It is not easy to invent a nation, much less sustain that vision in the face of total war. That ­ Davis—once known as the Cicero of the Senate—possessed the skills necessary to make a persuasive pub­ lic argument is undoubted. His struggle, however, was in overlooking the long-­ term rhe­ tori­ cal work necessary to sustain a sense of Confederate nationalism, in favor of short-­ term po­ liti­ cal gains. At the war’s key moments, ­ Davis chose rhe­ tori­ cal strategies that were po­ liti­ cally expedient, while eroding the foundation of the Confederate identity; by the end the war there was little left to substantiate what the Confederacy stood for. Emory Thomas put this conclusion in grander terms when he wrote, “Had the heavens opened, the waters parted, and the Confederacy achieved independence, the postwar South would have resembled the prewar South in little more than name.”3 Of course, in many ways, the Union did not look much like the pre­ war North either. The primary difference is that when the pragmatic demands of war began to change the North, Lincoln had the vision...