A War of Words The Rhetorical Leadership of Jefferson Davis

  1. Jarrod Atchison

A War of Words analyzes Jefferson Davis’s public discourse, arguing that throughout his time as president of the Confederacy, Davis settled for short-term rhetorical successes at the expense of creating more substantive and meaningful messages for himself and his constituents.


Numerous biographies of Jefferson Davis have been penned; however, until now, there had been no substantive analysis of his public discourse as president of the Confederacy. R. Jarrod Atchison’s A War of Words uses concepts from rhetorical theory and public address to help answer a question that has intrigued scholars from a variety of disciplines since the collapse of the Confederacy: what role, if any, did Davis play in the collapse of Confederate nationalism?


Most discussions of Davis and nationalism focus on the military outcomes of his controversial wartime decisions. A War of Words focuses less on military outcomes and argues instead that, in the context of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis’s rhetorical leadership should have been responsible for articulating a vision for the nation—including the core tenets of its identity, the values the nation should hold dear, the principles it should never compromise, and the goals it should set for its future. Undoubtedly, Davis possessed the skills necessary to make a persuasive public argument. It is precisely because Davis’s oratory skills were so powerful that there is room to judge how he used them. In short, being a great orator is not synonymous with successful rhetorical leadership.


Atchison posits that Davis’s initial successes constrained his rhetorical options later in the war. A War of Words concludes that, in the end, Davis’s rhetorical leadership was a failure because he was unable to articulate a coherent Confederate identity in light of the sacrifices endured by the populace in order to sustain the war effort.


  1. Jarrod Atchison is an associate professor of communications at Wake Forest University.


“A War of Words explores an under-studied aspect of Jefferson Davis’s leadership, his ability (or lack thereof) to inspire and mobilize audiences through his crafting of rhetorical appeals. This book should be valuable to students of the history of American public discourse, scholars of the Civil War era, advanced rhetorical critics, and those interested in Southern rhetoric and public address.”

—David Zarefsky, author of Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate


“Atchison does an excellent job of delving into how and why Davis’s speeches often failed to achieve their goals—and why Davis’s rhetorical aims were often off the mark and unsuccessful. Many of the author’s insights and evaluation of Davis’s rhetoric will help students of the Civil War era understand more about the context and history of the time, and, indeed, more about Davis himself.”Stuart Towns, author of Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause




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