Most Bowdoin students have at least some knowledge of the eminent role Bowdoin played in the Civil War. Many know that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was written in a nearby house by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the wife of a Bowdoin professor, while others are familiar with war hero Joshua Chamberlain.
But comparatively few know about an honor that Bowdoin bestowed upon a Southern politician who played a decisive role in the Civil War.
Jefferson Davis received a honorary degree (LL.D.) from Bowdoin during graduation exercises on August 5, 1858. Davis, who was then Southern leader of the U.S. Senate, served as president of the Confederate States of America from of 1861 until 1865, when the South surrendered.
Davis originally traveled to Maine during the summer of 1858 on the recommendation of his physician, who prescribed a brisk Maine summer to improve Davis's deteriorating health. For most of the summer, he vacationed in Portland, where many wealthy Southerners had summer residences.
Commencement at Bowdoin occurred during Davis's stay in Maine, and the Senator decided to travel to Brunswick—a short day trip from Portland—for the ceremonies. Though the decision was made somewhat capriciously, Davis did have some connection to the College—he had been Secretary of War in the cabinet of U.S. President Franklin Pierce, a member of the Bowdoin Class of 1824. The two had remained close friends after Pierce's term ended in 1856.
Word spread quickly that Davis was attending the graduation exercises, and the Boards of Trustees and Overseers reluctantly decided to grant him an honorary degree. His close personal connection to Pierce no doubt played a role in this decision, though Davis's importance as a U.S. Senator was also a factor.
As Louis Hatch writes in "The History of Bowdoin College," "[Davis's] principles were diametrically opposed to those of the majority of the people of Maine; but when a man of his ability and prominence, from a distant state, was present at Commencement, it would have been almost a personal insult not to give him a degree."
There is no record of what Davis said at graduation—or if he even spoke at all. However, Davis must have felt a little out of his element during the festivities, because all other graduates and honorary graduates that day were from New England, 97 percent of them from Maine.
The College also awarded an honorary degree that afternoon to William Pitt Fessenden, a U.S. Senator from Maine and staunch abolitionist. Fessenden's award may well have been an attempt by the Boards of Trustees and Overseers to try to placate some of Davis's critics.
Not surprisingly, Maine newspapers were quick to decry Davis's degree. The Portland Advertiser, a Republican newspaper, called Davis's LL.D. a "prostitution of honors." Student publications on campus were similarly critical, though they struck a more satirical chord. In July of 1861, "The Bowdoin Bugle," the yearbook, quipped that if Bowdoin men in the army "hear of a stray LL.D. in their Southern rambles," they should "speedily secure him, and send him to Maine—Bowdoin has a little account to settle with him." A speaker at the 1865 Commencement, making light of the fact that Davis had been captured and imprisoned at the war's end, joked that the LL.D. might soon prove to mean "Long Let him Dangle."
The College never rescinded the honorary degree, though the Boards of Trustees and Overseers may have considered it. Hatch writes that the Boards "decided that when the degree was conferred, Mr. Davis was a fitting man to receive it and that his later conduct had no bearing on the matter, a doctorate was given for life."
Davis was grateful for the College's decision, and in 1889, he wrote a thank you letter to the College for not taking back the degree.
His brief presence at Bowdoin in 1858 also made an impression on the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization dedicated to commemorating those who fought and died for the South during the Civil War. In 1973, the group established a Jefferson Davis Award at the College. Now, the award is presented annually to a student excelling in constitutional law at the College.