Lincoln vs. Davis: A Paper Debate

For 150 years, historians have evaluated the presidential performance of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.  Historians usually side with the winners, and Lincoln wins in a walk.

The Lincoln-Davis’ Experience Qualifications

jeff davis

By the time Jefferson Davis was thirty-five, he was one of the most respected leaders of the South.

By resume, Jefferson Davis had the huge advantage.  Born within a year of Lincoln, and also from Kentucky, he was the tenth child of a middle class family.  He was educated at Transylvania College (more of a high school), and then sent to West Point.  He had served as an army officer with honor before becoming a Mississippi planter.  His much older brother (by twenty-three years) was a bona fide millionaire, and Jeff’s lifelong mentor.  His plantation would thrive, making Davis one of the wealthiest men in the state.

Davis served in Congress for a term before re-entering the military during the War with Mexico, demonstrating leadership and distinction befitting a West Point graduate.  The war over, he then served in the Senate, for four years as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, and then back in the Senate again.   All in all, he had a solid fifteen years prominently placed on the national stage before the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln’s qualifications on paper were slim.  His education was conspicuous only by its absence – perhaps as little as one year of formal schooling.  Whatever he learned was on his own.  He became a self-taught lawyer and served a single term in Congress prior to the Civil War.  He had achieved a middle-class status only after years of hard work; any mentoring he received was not financial.

On paper, Davis leaves Lincoln in the dust.

The Lincoln-Davis Leadership Qualifications

young abe

Abraham Lincoln’s accomplishments prior to his election as President in 1860, were mostly limited to his home state of Illinois. He had no national reputation.

Prior to the Civil War, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis had remarkably centrist attitudes.  Lincoln was not an abolitionist, and said so many times.  Davis was not a secessionist and said so many times.  They both felt strongly for the Union, although Davis believed it was constitutionally possible for a state to secede.  Lincoln was against slavery, but he believed it should be contained where it was; Davis (known to be a particularly kind master), believed it was essential to the southern economy.

Jefferson Davis was a mellifluous speaker in the classical oratory style.  He tried to be a voice of reason, and usually distanced himself from the rabble-rousing “secesh” rantings of other southern politicians.  Little of what he said, however, was memorable.  During the turbulent 1850s, Davis was considered the best presidential candidate the Democrats had to offer – except for being a southerner.

Thus when the South did secede, and when it elected a temporary President, Jefferson Davis was generally unopposed.  Everyone looked up to him.  A year later, when it elected a permanent President, Davis was still generally unopposed.

Abraham Lincoln’s leadership qualities were subtle, and to a large extent hidden.  He was a stump speaker, rather than an orator.  It is said that his voice was fairly high pitched for such a tall man.  His contemporaries, particularly his fellow politicians, believed him to be little more than average as a speaker.  He did not pontificate.  His reasoning was deep however, and his way with words was elegant and often sparkled with humor.  What he said and how he said it was usually memorable.

One tends to forget that Lincoln was a dark horse in 1860.  All his Republican rivals were far better known, and had many years on the national stage.  Lincoln’s political influence was limited primarily to his home state of Illinois – western and unimportant.  The presidential ballots were split every whichway, and Lincoln won by plurality, rather than majority.   When he arrived in Washington, he was still an unknown quantity.

In pre-Civil War leadership, Davis still holds the edge.  He had been a national political figure much longer.  Everybody knew him and respected him.  His military experience, both on the field and behind the Secretary of War desk, was second to none.

The Lincoln-Davis Bottom Line

csa pres

Tall, lanky, craggy-faced and bearded, Jefferson Davis sometimes bears a striking resemblance to Lincoln.

Both were undoubtedly men of character.  Davis’ confederate oath was also “registered in heaven” and just as binding to him as Lincoln’s was.  Both were honest men, and in another time and under other circumstances, Jefferson Davis might have made a decent president of the United States.


It would be his elusive personal qualities that made Abraham Lincoln our greatest president.

The balance, however, lies in the intangible qualities: the ones that no one notices until they are tested.  Lincoln’s fifty years of self-education had provided him with a capacity for broad conceptual thinking, and the ability to learn from all sources.  He could and would change his mind, if he saw the error.  He could and would be able to work with most people.  He could and would grow.   It would be because of his rare and elusive qualities rather than paper credentials that he ranks as our foremost president.

Davis, perhaps from a lifetime of being in command, was not flexible.  He would remain rigid in his philosophies and attitudes throughout his life.  He had favorites, and he had implacable enemies.   He would never change.  His leadership was flawed, and he pales in comparison.

Lincoln, of course, would become the martyr, but he did not have the martyr’s character.  It would be Davis who truly had the martyr qualifications.


  • DAVIS, VARINA – Jefferson Davis, Ex-President of the Confederate States of America: A Memoir by his Wife, 1890
  • DAVIS, W.C. – The Man and his Hour, HarperCollins, 1991
  • DONALD, David Herbert – Lincoln – Simon and Schuster, 1995

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Abraham Lincoln, American Civil War, Nifty History People and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lincoln vs. Davis: A Paper Debate

  1. energywriter says:

    Feather, I’ve read other comparisons, but none quite like this one. Great job, as always. sd

  2. DC says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this take on two great men.

  3. paul mckarns says:

    simple elegant and true. lincoln was flexible and capable of learning . his life was one of continual personal growth. davis had a tremendous intellect but was incapable of personal growth and was
    arrogant and look down on others that had a differing opinion from his.

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