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The Only First Lady, Part One

Varina (By John Wood Dodge in 1849)

Varina Howell Davis was not any happier at the prospect of her husband being president than he was. Jeff Davis was no politician and she had no problem saying so. As for Varina herself, she felt unprepared for the role of a first lady, despite her years of experience in the drawing rooms of Washington; she would have a pretty hard time of it right along with Jefferson. Nevertheless, she was an extraordinary woman: whip smart, sophisticated, prepossessing, and loyal to her husband and his increasingly awful situation. The Confederates had only one first lady, and they could have done a lot worse than Varina.

Varina Anne Banks Howell was born on 7 May 1826, the second child of eleven, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Her father, William Howell, was from a distinguished family in New Jersey; his father, Richard Howell, served several terms as the Governor of New Jersey and died when William was a boy. William inherited little money and used family connections to become a clerk in the Bank of the United States. William Howell relocated to Natchez, Mississippi when new cotton plantations were being rapidly developed. There he met and married Margaret Louisa Kempe (1806–1867), born in Prince William County, Virginia. Her wealthy planter family had moved to Mississippi before 1816.

When Varina was thirteen, her father declared bankruptcy. The Howell family home, furnishings and property were seized by creditors to be sold at public auction. Her wealthy maternal relatives intervened to redeem the family's property. It was one of several sharp changes in fortune that Varina encountered in her life. She grew to adulthood in a rented house called The Briars, but the family was dependent on her mother's wealthy Kempe family to avoid poverty.

By upbringing and temperament, Varina was better prepared than most to become a public woman. She was sent to Madame Deborah Grelaud's French School, a prestigious academy for young ladies located in Philadelphia, PA. After a year, she returned to Natchez, where she was privately tutored by Judge George Winchester, a Harvard graduate and family friend. Naturally bright, Varina devoured the excellent education and became quite a well-schooled, well-read young lady. Newspapers in particular drew her interest, and it became common at The Briers to joke that young Varina knew more about the politics of the day than anyone else in the family. Those politics were staunchly Whig, the party of choice for most of the area’s landed aristocracy.

One prominent exception was Joseph Davis, a close friend of Varina’s father, and a Democrat. It was a testament to the closeness of the two households that Joseph was often referred to as "uncle" by Varina and her siblings. Her parents had even named their oldest child after him.

In 1843, at age 17, Varina was invited to spend the Christmas season at Joseph Davis's 5,000 acre Hurricane Plantation located at Davis Bend, MS, 20 miles south of Vicksburg. Davis was planning a gala housewarming with many guests and entertainers to inaugurate his lavish new mansion on the cotton plantation. During her stay, she met her host's much younger brother Jefferson Davis; twenty-three years separated Joseph and Jefferson. Thirty-five years old, Jeff Davis was a West Point graduate, former Army officer, and widower. His first wife, Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of his commanding officer Zachary Taylor while he was in the Army, had died of malaria three months after their wedding in 1835. Jefferson mourned her and had been reclusive in the ensuing eight years, working as a planter, having developed Brierfield Plantation on land his brother allowed him to use.

Varina was a grown-up, dark-haired beauty by the time she first set eyes on him and her curiosity was piqued by the stern widower with the strange eyes and mellifluous voice. He was eighteen years older than her and two years younger than her mother. Curiosity in time grew into preoccupation, then courtship, and the two were married on 26 February 1845.

Their short honeymoon included a visit to Davis's aged mother, Jane Davis, and a visit to the grave of his first wife in Louisiana. The newlyweds took up residence at Brierfield. Their first residence was a two-room cottage on the property and they started construction of a main house. Soon after their marriage, Davis's widowed and penniless sister, Amanda Davis Bradford, came to live on the Brierfield property along with her seven youngest children. Amanda's brothers decided that she should share the large house which the Davises were building, but they had not consulted Varina. It was an example of what she would later call interference from the Davis family in her life with her husband.

Almost from the beginning of their marriage, Varina found herself locked in a struggle for prominence Jefferson’s life with his older brother. Jefferson owed everything to Joseph: his land, his security, and his political prospects. He had grown up in the crook of Joseph’s sheltering arm and had become accustomed to his assured, domineering presence. Varina, as tough and proud as she was literate and incisive, bristled at her brother-in-law’s intrusions. The result was a not-so-subtle wresting match for Jefferson’s soul and it was not always pretty. To complicate matters, to her embarrassment and resentment, Varina's parents became more financially dependent on the Davises. Their youngest son, born in 1846, was named Jefferson Davis Howell in her husband's honor.

The couple had long periods of separation from early in their marriage, first as Jefferson Davis gave campaign speeches and "politicked" for himself and for other Democratic candidates in the elections of 1846. He was also gone for extended periods during the Mexican War (1846–1848), at which time Varina Davis was put under the guardianship of Joseph Davis, whom she had come to dislike intensely. Her correspondence with her husband during this time demonstrated her growing discontent, with which Jefferson was not particularly sympathetic.

Despite her intellectual maturity, Varina was not above acting out. During Jefferson’s service in the Mexican War, her pining for his company literally laid her out physically, challenging him to forgo military honor to visit her as she convalesced. He acquired a sixty-day leave and made the trip where she made a shaky recovery with him by her side. The sickness seemed born of stress from conflict with her brother-in-law, an issue that continued to fester. For his part, Joseph expressed his resentment at Varina by never giving his brother full ownership of Brierfield. These confrontations seemed to harden Varina for the life that was ideally suited to her.

The newspapers made a stir over the fact that Jeff Davis, a prominent Democrat on the verge of embarking upon a dedicated political career, had taken a Whig for a wife. To be sure, the two did have their fair share of heated political arguments, but Varina’s growing devotion to Jefferson led her to understand her role as an ally in the struggles he faced. Her opinions would remain her own, but her politics, broadly defined, became more like her husband’s.

Honoring Davis's war service, Governor Albert G. Brown of Mississippi appointed him to the vacant position of United States Senator Jesse Speight, a Democrat, who had died on1 May 1847. Jefferson took his temporary seat on 5 December and in January 1848 he was elected by the state legislature to serve the remaining two years of the term. He had unusual visibility for a freshman senator, because of his connections as the son-in-law (by his late wife) and former junior officer of President Zachary Taylor. Varina Davis enjoyed the social life of the capital and quickly established herself as one of the city's most popular (and, in her early 20s, one of the youngest) hostesses and party guests. As a senator’s wife, she blossomed in Washington, settling into capital society with an ease born of grace and confidence. At social occasions she compensated for her husband’s officious rigidity with smiling wisecracks and bookish repartee. She became renowned as a natural organizer of events and an asset to Jefferson that went beyond gregariousness. Davis the politician depended on her insight and wisdom. They were a team.

After seven childless years, in 1852 Varina gave birth to a son, Samuel. Her letters from this period express her happiness and portray Jefferson as a doting father. The Davises were devastated in 1854 when their first child died before the age of two. Varina largely withdrew from social life for a time. In 1855, she gave birth to a healthy daughter, Margaret followed by two sons, Jefferson, Jr. in 1857 and Joseph in 1859, during her husband's remaining tenure in Washington, D.C.

President Franklin Pierce, 1804-1869

During the Pierce Administration, Jefferson was appointed to the post of Secretary of War. He and President Franklin Pierce formed a personal friendship that would last for the rest of Pierce's life. Their wives developed a strong respect as well.

Weeks after his election, on 6 January 1853, the President-elect and his family were traveling from Boston by train when their car derailed and rolled down an embankment near Andover, Massachusetts. Their only remaining son, 11-year-old Benjamin, was crushed to death in the wreckage. Pierce was not able to hide the gruesome sight from his wife. Grief-stricken, Pierce entered the Presidency nervously exhausted. They both suffered; Pierce became dependent on alcohol and Jane had health problems, including depression. As a result, at the request of the Pierces, the Davises, both individually and as a couple, often served as official hosts at White House functions in place of the President and his wife.

The Pierce administration ended in 1857 with the loss of the Democratic nomination to James Buchanan. Jefferson ran again for the Senate, was elected, and re-entered it on 4 March 1857, while Pierce retired to New Hampshire.

On 20 December 1860 South Carolina adopted an ordinance of secession and Mississippi did so on 9 January 1861. Jefferson Davis had expected this but waited until he received official notification. On 21 January, the day he called "the saddest day of my life", Jefferson delivered a farewell address to the United States Senate, resigned and returned to Mississippi.

According to diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, in 1860 Varina "sadly" told a friend "The South will secede if Lincoln is made president. They will make Mr. Davis President of the Southern side. And the whole thing is bound to be a failure."


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