Jefferson Davis: In His Own Words
by David Martin
Unlike his adversary in what is inaccurately called the American Civil War and is imprecisely called the War between the States, Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the North’s war to end Southern secession, was not a lawyer. Born in Kentucky like Abraham Lincoln, he was a West Point graduate and career army officer who got into politics in Mississippi, where his family had moved when he was young.
There’s quite a bit of irony here. First, his military background seemed not to have helped him very much as a war leader, especially in many of his personnel decisions; his counterpart, Lincoln, seemed to be a good deal better at it, in spite of the generally lower quality of his officer corps. It is hard, though, to think of any personnel blunder by Davis that quite compares with Lincoln’s decision to give command of the Army of the Potomac to General Ambrose Burnside after Burnside’s monumentally bad performance at the Battle of Antietam. In a review of William Watson’s Life in the Confederate Army, we see the view from below of some of Davis’s characteristically poor management choices. Davis was also out of his league against Lincoln in an important aspect of war-making in the modern era, the manipulation of public opinion, a field in which Lincoln fairly well set the standard to which all war leaders might aspire.
On the other hand, in the short opening chapter of his book, A Short History of the Confederate States of America, published a quarter century after the end of the war, Davis presents his case so well that the first impression that a reader is likely to get is that Davis must have been a trained lawyer. Here it is in its entirety:
Ignorance and credulity have enabled unscrupulous partisans so to mislead public opinion, both at home and abroad, as to create the belief that the institution of African slavery was the chief cause, instead of being a mere incident in the group of causes, which led to war. In keeping with the first misrepresentation was that of the position assigned to the belligerent parties. Thus, the North is represented as having fought for the emancipation of the African slaves, and the South for the increase and extension of the institution of African servitude as it existed in the Southern States. Therein is a twofold fallacy. First, the dominant party at the North, in 1861, through their exponent, President Lincoln, declared, in his inaugural address as follows:
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so; and I have no inclination to do so.”
This declaration was reinforced by quoting from the platform of the political convention which nominated him, an emphatic resolution in these words:
“Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depends; and we denounce the lawless invasion, by armed force, of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.”
Fitly, as to time and occasion, was the armed invasion of a State denounced as among the gravest of crimes, and so it remains, whether or not a State’s secession should be an accomplished fact. If the State were still in the Union, it was a crime against the Constitution, which did not grant power to coerce a State (indeed the convention which formed that Constitution refused to give that power); if a State had withdrawn from the Union, it was a crime against humanity and justice to make war upon a neighbor’s late associate for the exercise of that sovereign right: in either case it was a crime against the hopes of mankind in destroying the fairest prospect for the success of federative government and substituting the theory of force for that of consent.
When Mr. Lincoln endorsed that resolution and incorporated it in his inaugural the effect was like a rift in the cloud while the storm and darkness were gathering, and the words closely following were the more cheering because of the prevalent belief in his rugged honesty. Pity that the confidence should have been impaired by subsequent passages in his address, and that the past and passing acts and avowals of his party gave no reasonable expectation that he would be able to execute his declared policy!
Federation had so generally proved a failure that the world had become distrustful of it; but its success in the United States had revived the hopes of those who saw in it the best mode of securing community welfare and happiness. It was therefore most proper to denounce as among the gravest of crimes the armed invasion of any States; for their conquest would be the extinguishment of the beacon which was illuminating the world by the rays of federal liberty.
If additional evidence be needed to prove that “emancipation” was not an original purpose, it may be found not only in the inaugural, but also in the fact that President Lincoln subsequently defended the issuance of his emancipation proclamation, in 1863, on the ground of “military necessity.” Therefore, the North could not have entered upon the war to abolish Slavery. Developments in the course of the war cannot be transplanted to its beginning, and then be made to do duty as the cause.
The Southern States could not have contemplated war as a means of defending her citizens against the evasion of their duty by the Northern States in the matter of fugitives from service or labor, nor because of lawless criminals who were secretly instigated to disturb the peace and property of border residents. Equally unfounded is any accusation that the South desired to increase the number of African slaves by importation. Her whole history from the colonial times, when Southern colonies opposed the slave-trade, in which Old England and New England were engaged, refutes the base and baseless reflection. The Constitution of the Confederate States gave no years of grace to the slave-trade, but forbade it immediately, from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States and Territories of the United States, and gave to Congress the power to prohibit the introduction of slaves from the Federal States or Territories. No more need be said as to increase.
The next point is extension. This is based on the assertion of the equal right of all citizens in and to the territory belonging to the United States. This equality, it was contended, carried with it the right of such citizen, migrating to a territory, to take with him any kind of property lawfully held in the State from which he migrated. This was a claim reasonably deduced from the fact that the Territories belonged to the States in common, and the denial of it was resisted because of its unequality and was an offensive discrimination.
There could have been little, if any, pecuniary inducement to take slaves into the Northwest Territory. Persons migrating from the Southern States would probably desire to take with them their domestics, to whom they were personally attached; but the same climatic causes which had led to the transfer of African slaves from the Northeast to the South would have prevented the permanent establishment of the institution of Slavery in the States which might arise out of its Western Territories. What, then, was the objection? The transfer from a Southern State to a Western Territory would certainly not increase the number, and dispersion could only lead to comfort and harmony. If the purpose was, as some extremists asserted, to confine the institution until, by its density, slaves should become unprofitable — that is, until their labor should no longer enable the master adequately to provide for them, and want should compel emancipation — the humane man, looking at all the progressive stages of suffering and consequent crime to which this programme inevitably would tend, might ask, Is this the feast which philanthropy has spread for us?
From the importance that Davis gives to denying it, one can discern that beginning with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, in the wake of the stand-off of the aforementioned Battle of Antietam in Maryland, just as is still believed by most people today, the great justification for the war had become in the mind of the general public the ending of African slavery in the country. Davis effectively uses Lincoln’s own words in the latter’s 1861 inaugural address to show that that was not the case. William Watson, from his ample experience in the Confederate Army and from letters captured from Union soldiers, demonstrates, as well, that the soldiers from neither side saw the abolition of slavery as what they were fighting over.
What Lincoln had told us in his inaugural speech was almost unequivocally that if his war had gone as he and almost everyone in the North had expected that it would go, as a quick and easy walkover with the seceding states being forced back into the Union at gunpoint, there would have been no freeing of the slaves, not just yet, anyway. Lincoln could hardly have been clearer at the outset, as Davis points out, that that was not what the fighting was about.
Preserving the Union at All Costs
So, what was it about? The proximate answer is to be found in this line from Davis’s chapter: “Pity that the confidence should have been impaired by subsequent passages in [Lincoln’s] address.” The lines, no doubt, to which he refers are those that reach a climax with these frighteningly bellicose two paragraphs:
I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and I shall perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.
In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.
Lincoln is putting it in negative terms, “there will be no invasion [unless]…,” but what he is very clearly stating is that he will use military force against the seceding states — he will invade the South — unless they agree to terms that could not be acceptable to the new sovereign nation that they were in the process of becoming. He is proclaiming the right to hold on to all federal property that is in the territory of the seven states that had declared their secession at that point, but, even worse, he is proclaiming the right of the federal government to continue to collect taxes on imports from foreign countries into those states. Such taxes were the primary source of federal revenue at that time, and a recent large increase in those duties to protect Northern manufacturers was a major motivating factor for the secession.
The speech is a virtual declaration of war, and it is based upon a misreading of the history of the founding of the Republic. This is from Lawrence Goldstone’s 2005 book, Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits, and the Struggle for the Constitution, which we referenced in “Mencken and More on Lincoln’s Speech”:
Few countries have emerged with less enthusiasm for unity than the United States. From the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 until the delegates convened in Philadelphia twenty-two years later, most Americans bore primary allegiance to the state within which they lived, and the notion of abandoning that identity to be part of a larger whole was preposterous. (p. 22)
Not one of [the delegates to the Constitutional Convention] came to Philadelphia believing that he was there to create a new government — or reform an old one — only for the benefit of thirteen states on the Atlantic. (p. 43)
Clearly, though [South Carolina’s Charles] Pinckney, [Connecticut’s Oliver] Ellsworth, [Maryland’s Luther] Martin, and [Virginia’s George] Mason, and most of the rest of the delegates who were active in the ratification were federalists or antifederalists only by coincidence. For them, the Constitution was a national document only secondarily. The forging of a nation was a far subordinate consideration to the welfare of their particular state, although they often equated the welfare of their state with that of the nation at large. In that regard, these men had advanced their thinking very little in four months in Philadelphia. They had arrived thinking of themselves as South Carolinians or Virginians or Connecticuters, and that is how they left. (p, 188)
Davis states the matter succinctly:
If the State were still in the Union, [military force] was a crime against the Constitution, which did not grant power to coerce a State (indeed the convention which formed that Constitution refused to give that power); if a State had withdrawn from the Union, it was a crime against humanity and justice to make war upon a neighbor’s late associate for the exercise of that sovereign right: in either case it was a crime against the hopes of mankind in destroying the fairest prospect for the success of federative government and substituting the theory of force for that of consent.
Paramount Public Opinion
The seceding states had the founding principles of the country on their side, but it really came down to motivating the public to believe that taking the very extreme step of using bloodshed to restore the union was the right thing to do. Lincoln knew it all too well, which explains why I have emphasized the passage, “unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary.” Continuing to wield authority over the seceded Southern states at the point of a gun depended ultimately not on what was the right thing to do but upon what the public could be persuaded was the right thing to do.
Lincoln, in a line from one of his debates with Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, had demonstrated his firm grasp of the importance of public perception, whatever the reality of the matter might be: “In this and like communities,” he said, “public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”
Lincoln had signaled in his inaugural address that he intended to go to war to maintain sovereignty over the seceding Southern states, declaring that he had the right, even the duty, to do so. At the same time, he provided that little grudging acknowledgement that he knew that it was going to be a hard sell.
Davis could hardly have been more foolish in going for Lincoln’s bait and making things immensely easier for him in the vital public-relations sphere by opening fire on the militarily useless Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor.
Now, I think there is little doubt that had the Ft. Sumter bombardment not occurred, Lincoln would have come up with his own version of a “Gulf of Tonkin attack” or “Remember the Maine” incident to get the war started. He had made it plain that he was going to have his war, one way or another, to force the seceded states back into the fold. But any alternative that he might have come up with could have been a more obvious ploy with less of a psychological impact.
The January 6 “Insurrection”
The subject of Jefferson Davis’s wisdom in attacking Fort Sumter came up recently in an exchange I had with a fellow Southerner who supported the January 6 incursion into the Capitol building. My position was that one major way in which it was self-defeating was that it pre-empted the public debate, in the afternoon on television, that was just beginning to take place in the Senate over the validity of the electors in several challenged states, starting with Arizona. His position was that the die was cast and that ultimately the Congress was going to certify the election as valid, whatever might come out in the debate.
At that point, I made the comparison of the situation to the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter, that is, that Lincoln had already cast the die for war, but the only thing that Davis accomplished was to make it a lot easier for him. It turned out that my fellow Southerner had read more of Davis’s writings than I have and had apparently been persuaded by it that Davis had made the right decision to attack Fort Sumter because “Lincoln was going to have his war, anyway.” In making his argument, I think he was demonstrating the same tin ear for what Lincoln called “public sentiment” as his hero Jefferson Davis had and as had those who were not phonies who engaged in the incursion into the Capitol. They were insufficiently aware of how their actions could be used against them by their determined and unscrupulous adversaries.
David Martin deconstructs society’s sacred narratives.