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Chapter 33: from plantation to Cabinet life.

After the canvass resulted against the Democratic party, we began to put our home in order; for, on our return, after a long absence, the little woman who had charge of the house told me, with friendly sympathy, “Missis, ‘tain't no use to talk; what isn't broke is crack, and what isn't crack is broke.” So, finding we had met the usual fate of absentees, we began to rehabilitate our home and grounds as best we might. My husband was very fond of cultivating trees and of seeing roses and ornamental shrubs blooming about us. We worked together in the garden the greater part of the day, and whenever he thought of it he laughed over one of our two gardeners sending an order for seeds to New Orleans, with the endorsement upon the outside of the letter: “Please send these seeds immediately, if not sooner. John O'Connor, Gardener.”

The crudities of this class of people entertained him very much; indeed, with our [475] books, our mail twice a week, the garden, the humors of the cultivators thereof, occasional visits from neighbors, and the daily ride on our fast racing horses, with races on the smooth road wherever we found one, we were very happy. There was thirty seconds difference in the speed of our horses, our races were rather even, and we enjoyed the exercise exceedingly. Nothing could be more pleasant than the dense shade through which we could ride for miles, in air redolent of the perfume of the moss, flowers, wild crabapple and plum blossoms.

Sometimes a calf was missing, and then my husband went to hunt the alligator that had probably taken it. Once he had a very remarkable success in punishing one that had killed two calves. The negroes found its hole, and Mr. Davis put a long cane down it until the creature seized it in its mouth. He then put the gun on a line with the cane and shot the alligator in the mouth. He was an immense animal, and a post-mortem examination justified the killing, for the last calf was found in part.

The land is so fertile at Brierfield and in the adjacent country that golden-rod grows large enough for a strong walking-stick, and the heads of the bloom are like banks of gold on the sides of the road. In every slough [476] the lotos covers the surface with its lemon-colored chalices, and the green leaves are nearly a foot across. We planted a little switch, or scion of live-oak, with an attenuated little root, in 1852, and now it shades ninety feet in all directions, and is over six feet in circumference. “Possession crowns endeavor” there, and that quickly.

In the midst of these pursuits, while daily congratulating ourselves on being at home, there to remain quietly, with our hearts filled by the joy of possessing our first child, a son, born June 30, 1853, and called after Mr. Davis's father, Samuel Emory Davis, Mr. Pierce wrote, urging my husband to enter his Cabinet. My entreaties, added to Mr. Davis's unwillingness to embark again in a political life, induced him to decline; but upon Mr. Pierce urging him to go, if only for the inauguration, he felt he could not refuse, but went on alone. He has told this part of his life better than another could.

“Happy in the peaceful pursuits of a planter,” wrote Mr. Davis, in his later years,

busily engaged in cares for servants, in the improvement of my land, in building, in rearing live stock, and the like occupations, the time passed pleasantly away until my retirement was interrupted by an invitation to take a place in the Cabinet of Mr. Pierce, who had [477] been elected to the Presidency of the United States in November, 1852.

Although warmly attached to Mr. Pierce personally, and entertaining the highest estimate of his character and political principles, private and personal reasons led me to decline the offer.

This was followed by an invitation to attend the ceremony of inauguration, which took place March 4, 1853. While in Washington, on this visit, I was induced by public considerations to reconsider my determination, and accept the office of Secretary of War. The public record of that period will best show how the duties of that office were performed.

I proceeded on a round of visits to our family, to show the baby to our kinsfolks, hoping soon to be at home again and dwell in happy obscurity. My husband was, however, over-persuaded by his friends, and again our home was left, but this time for many years, to the care of hirelings. James Pemberton was dead, and we were reduced to the necessity of having an overseer. To be a good overseer requires as much talent for governing men as is needful for the general of an army-divine patience and ceaseless vigilance and industry, utter self-abnegation and an inflexible will. Need I say there are [478] few good ones, and if there should be one, his ability and natural gifts remove him very soon from that sphere.

The negroes are very shrewd in their classification of men, and the best judges of a gentleman that I have seen. They weigh the character of men set over them warily, and act upon their verdict very promptly. I sent a little negro girl, about nine years old, to attend on the quite lady-like wife of one of our overseers. Rosina came back in a few days and announced her flight “from service or labor.” I interrogated her about her sudden retirement. She said: “Missis she all very well, but 'tis nottin‘ but ribbons-she don't know nottin‘, and she is a regular half-strainer” (a pretentious person), “and dey jest sets down like we niggers ‘dout washin‘ dey hans and eats same like hosses.” After some time I found out that she had been “called outen” her name-Rose, instead of Rosina.

One of the overseers told me one day, in Mr. Davis's absence, that one of the men had drawn a large knife on him, and I had better stay in the house. I went out at once to interview the negro, and found him in the kitchen with a great plate of greens and pork in his lap. He rose with a smiling good-morning, and when I asked what possessed him to draw a [479] knife on the overseer, he roared out laughing, and pulled an immense knife-handle out of his pocket, without a single blade. He said, “I skeered him good — I jes' showed him the handle. Now does you speck us ter b'lieve in them poor white trash when we people has master that fit and whipped everybody?”

We did the best we could in the matter of a care-taker for our negroes and of our interests, but every year marked a decrease in our income. Mr. Davis insisted on one point, and always carried it, viz., that the negroes should not be whipped, and that they should be kept healthy and satisfied, even if they made little crops. They took advantage of his care, and not being stimulated by affection made no exertion; but they were very affectionate to us, and felt proud of a good crop, if their industry proved strong enough to make one.

When our first child was born every negro on the plantation, great and small, came up with little gifts of eggs and chickens and a speech of thanks for the birth of a “little massa to take care of we, and be good to we,” from the year-old, open-mouthed, glossy little tot, with an egg in his fist, to the old women with a squawking hen, or a dozen large yam potatoes in their aprons. The men looked lovingly on, at a distance, but [480] the women each took a kiss. One lifted up the little rosy fingers, and said, “De Lord, honey, you ain't never gwine work-your negroes gwine do all dat for you.” And her words in part came true, for in infancy our boy received his inheritance and needs nothing now.

The truly generous temper of my husband was best exhibited toward his inferiors. Generally patient, he was always just. He literally suffered “long and was kind” to all who depended on him. To the last hour of his life the soldiers who had served under him in the regular army, as well as those who were with him in Mexico, wrote to him letters of affectionate remembrance that gave him a world of comfort.

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