Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 212-213
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After his masterful monograph on the founding of the Confederate government at Montgomery in 1861, his carefully prepared edition of Robert Barnwell Rhett's Civil War memoirs, and his publication of a full biography of Rhett (the first in seventy years), the writing machine known as William C. Davis provides a dazzling overview of the entire era of the Confederate experience through the lives of two of its founders, Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens. Davis skillfully traces the public lives and personal friendships of these two giants of Georgia politics and offers them as metaphors for their short-lived country, persuasively arguing that both represented forces of construction and of destruction in Southern politics, before, during, and after the Civil War.
Davis clearly delineates the fundamental failings of each man, as well as their respective claims to leadership and to fame. They differed from each other as much as possible physically and in their perceptions of themselves—Stephens the self-described "half finished thing," and Toombs deserving a critic's appellation "the great I am." Yet from early in their lives they found themselves closely drawn to each other, Davis reasonably states, in part by seeing the other as his complement: Stephens as thoughtful and deliberate, Toombs as boisterous [End Page 212] and impetuous. Each shared ambition, intolerance, and vengeance that provided their drive to succeed in the boisterous sea of antebellum politics and that found their marks on their various foes, including at times each other, and most conspicuously, of course, on Jefferson Davis. The author judiciously points out the admirable qualities of both without ever failing to remain detached on matters as critical as their dedication to perpetuating slavery, the "absurdity" of their and the South's "thirty year fight against the tyranny of a simple majority," Toombs's alcoholism and Stephens's penchant for literally hiding from trouble at his home, Liberty Hall (93).
As he has done so often before, Davis demonstrates his skillful analysis and fluid narrative style both for politics and the battlefield. He clearly explains how the reluctant Stephens and the impetuous Toombs combined to help shape the provisional government in Montgomery, their diverse strengths blending together in an effort that also renewed their friendship, recently strained severely by Stephens' late unionism. In chapter seven the thoughtful, frail Stephen takes his distant seat in Georgia—avoiding his limited duties as vice president for month after month—as Toombs takes to the battlefield. The checkered military career of this Georgian serves as a metaphor within a metaphor for his role in his section's history, alternately noble and selfish, brave and irresponsible, thoughtful and impulsive.
Both Georgians, of course, combined their forces in the most persistent and ferocious battle of their lives—the battle they waged against Jefferson Davis. Fearing a concentration of power in the Confederate presidency that rivaled or exceeded what they thought they had left behind through secession, their common personal dislike of Davis fueled the most ignoble, petty, and destructive act of their long public careers. In defeat their anger at Davis only grew, as both tried to rewrite Confederate history and to reassert their own political authority in a reconstructed South that had, for the most part, left these men in the past. In the end, with slavery, the Confederacy, and their public lives all gone, the greatest possession of each, as Davis tenderly reveals, was their deep and abiding love and respect for one another.
How much is new here? Davis makes no effort to replace Thomas E. Schott's thorough Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography (1988), nor has he uncovered enough new primary source material to offer a complete and comprehensive biography of the affable, exacerbating Toombs. There is no blockbuster thesis in this book, only subtle, nuanced arguments about various topics and two individuals...