150 Years Later: The Inauguration of Jefferson Davis

The Rebel Inaugural Address (Harper’s Weekly March 8, 1862)

On Saturday, February 22, while the Congress, Judges, and naval and military officers of the United States were assembled in the Capitol, listening to the Farewell Address of Washington, the miserable remnant of the Southern rebels were gathered in the principal square of Richmond, Virginia, listening to Mr. Jefferson Davis’s last apology for his crimes. Toward that square and to that speaker one can well imagine the ruined, heart-broken, panic-stricken, and despairing people of the South turning an eager ear, in search of consolation for the past and hope for the future.

Jefferson Davis gave them neither.

Beginning with a false statement of the causes which led to the rebellion, wholly omitting from view the chief cause, namely, the greed of slave-owners, and the truculent ambition of the Southern aristocracy; failing likewise, for the best of reasons, to assign one single cause, or enumerate one single event which could justify the plunging of a continent into savage war; misrepresenting the history of the contest with diabolical perversity; confessing, as he could not well help doing, that ‘the tide of war is against’ the rebels and that the future is pregnant with more ‘trials and difficulties,’ this pretended President can find no consolation for the unhappy people whom he and his fellow-conspirators have ruined, except in the hope that the North may now be able to pay its armies much longer, and that eventually the Powers of Europe may be tempted by the proffer of Southern produce and Southern free trade to espouse the cause of the insurgents, and convert the ‘proud people’ of the South into the bastard subjects of some foreign king!

Well may the South pronounce such a programme ‘a mockery,’ and such a government ‘a lamentable failure!’

There must have been many even among the ragged rabble of Richmond gathered round the orator who knew enough to tell him that if the South, in its poverty, can afford to carry on the war, the North, with its wealth, is not likely to fail from want of money; and that if, when the North was helpless and paralyzed, and the South flushed with victory, foreign nations abstained from meddling in the contest, they are not likely to do so now, when the gripe of a mighty government is clutched round the throat of the traitors, and their gurgling death-rattle is already audible.

There was an ominous fitness in the appearance, during the reading of ‘the inaugural,’ of that grim messenger who bore the news of the Fall of Nashville--Nashville, the prosperous city that was deemed insecure--Nashville, the centre of the vertebral artery of the rebellion. Did it not occur to Jefferson Davis that so appalling an event happening at such a moment was a warning and a judgment from that just God whose name this arch-rebel so audaciously blasphemes?

Perhaps one of the most controversial characters in American history, Jefferson Davis, with his rich political background and changing views on secessionism, continues to penetrate the historiographical scholarship of the twenty-first century. This date marks the sesquicentennial of Davis’s inauguration as President of the Confederate States of America. The Littlejohn Collection possesses the Harper’s Weekly compilation of 1862, in which the above article and political cartoon were published in reaction to the Davis inauguration, 150 years ago today.

While Davis had been an advocate for states’ rights as early as 1852, he was not always a secessionist. On October 11, 1858, Davis gave a speech in Faneuil Hall in Boston, promoting the preservation of the Union:

...[Y]ou see agitation, tending slowly and steadily to that separation of the state, which, if you have any hope connected with the liberty of mankind...if you have any sacred regard for the obligation which the acts of your fathers entailed upon you,--by each and all of these motives you are prompted to unite in an earnest effort to promote the success of that great experiment which your fathers left it to you to conclude. 1

He explained that while each state has the unequivocal right to secede, it also bears a responsibility to maintain the Union.

His hopes for a peaceful resolution, however, were dashed when South Carolina seceded from the Union December 20th of 1860. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana followed suit in the next month. Davis, who was representing Mississippi in the United States Senate at the time, resigned his post on January 21, 1861, calling it the “saddest day of my life.” 2

By February, Davis was in the running for provisional president with three others: Howell Cobb (a former Congressman, Speaker of the House, Governor, and Secretary of Treasury), Alexander Stephens (a former congressman and governor), and Robert Toombs (a former congressman).
Stephens would become Davis’s VP; Toombs became his first Secretary of State. Davis received the unanimous vote, and was inaugurated to the temporary post on February 18. In November, upon the beginning of the Civil War, Davis was elected to a term of six years, and inaugurated to that term on February 22.

(Illustration of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration that appeared in Harper’s Weekly March 9, 1861.)

Davis’s inaugural address sought to prove that the formation of the Confederate States of America--and his Presidency over them--was, under the terms of the founding documents of the United States, lawful and even prescribed. The South’s secession, he argued, “illustrates the American idea that government rests upon the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish a government whenever it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established.” This right, he claimed, is expounded in the Declaration of Independence, which declares that “When a long train of abuses and usurpations...evinces a design to reduce [a people]...it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and provide new guards for their future security.” Davis hoped--futilely--that the secession of the Southern States would not ostensibly mean war. His goal for the Confederation, he claimed, was peace and prosperity, and therefore “it is a gross abuse of language to denominate the act [of secession] rebellion or revolution.”3

(The above is a partial scan of a Confederate 50 dollar note with Jefferson Davis on the face of the bill. (Can be found in the Littlejohn Collection’s ephemera index))

The center of controversy regarding the Southern Secession is, of course, the role of slavery. Davis--understandably--makes no mention of slavery in his inaugural address, but instead leaves for posterity this nugget of truth:
“Devoted to agricultural pursuits, their chief interest is the export of a commodity required in every manufacturing country. Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is alike our interest, and that of all those to whom we would sell and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.” 4

Here Davis refers to the profitability of agriculture, on which the Southern economy was based. It is in the mutual interest of the North and the South, he explains, for the sale of goods not to be “restricted” by, presumably, the abolition of free labor--that is, slavery. He goes on to say that secession was done “solely by a desire to protect and preserve our own rights and promote our own welfare, and that there [should] be no considerable diminution in the production of the great staple which constitutes our exports, and in which the commercial world has an interest scarcely less than our own.” The North perhaps as much as the South, he argues, would have nothing to glean from the prohibition of the slave economy.5

The Union states, however, understood Davis’s words to be a “blasphemy,” which, among other faults, “[ommitted]...the chief cause [of the rebellion], namely, the greed of slave-owners, and the truculent ambition of the Southern aristocracy.”6 It is not merely an idea of contemporary historians that assigns the credit of secession to the Southern elite; rather, it was understood even during the crisis itself that the “War of Rebellion” was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” exemplified a month later, in April of 1862, when the new President signed the Confederate Congress’s Conscription Act.

(The above is an 1888 advertisement for Harter’s Iron Tonic, with an aged Jefferson Davis on the front.)

Even after the loss of his cause, Davis continued to speak for the right which, he surmised, the South had exercised in secession. He wrote in his memoir that “This overthrow of the rights of freemen and the establishment of such new relations required a complete revolution in the principle of the government of the United States, the subversion of the State governments, the subjugation of the people, and the destruction of the fraternal Union...Will it stand?...When the cause was lost, what cause was it? Not that of the South only, but the cause of constitutional government, of the supremacy of law, of the natural rights of man.” 7

The use of the term “natural rights of man” must be considered in the context of the mid-nineteenth century. It is the great irony of the Confederacy that, while heralding their own rights through secession, they sought to perpetuate the subjugation of millions. How can it be that such a blatant and deliberate abuse of human rights take place under the guise of protecting human rights? The question we would ask ourselves now is whether a state’s constitutional rights are paramount to the extent that they be justified in eclipsing the basic human rights of a minority. The seceding states didn’t ask this question, though, simply because they saw no abuse of human rights. To have rights--to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”--one had to be human. Slaves did not merit these rights because they were considered less than human.

It would be unfair to characterize this as a “Southern” school of thought, because most Northerners were not what we might call “enlightened” about human rights, either. Because the northern economy developed primarily in industry rather than agriculture, slave labor was less necessary. However, many northern states employed slave labor in the nineteenth century, as late as 1865, in the case of New Jersey. The Northern cause was, primarily, the Union’s preservation, and radical abolitionists like John Brown were rare. Even in 1860, most northern states only granted suffrage to free blacks, with some property requirements. A peculiar case is that of Massachusetts, where in 1783 its Supreme Court declared that “the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and [the Commonwealth's] Constitution,” therefore declaring all black men human and free.8 Generally, in both the North and the South, blacks were considered inferior, and undeserving of human rights. One hundred fifty years after this historic debate, the irony of Davis’s “human rights” statement is bewildering, a clear case of splitting hairs.

Davis remained President of the Confederate States of America until May 5, 1865, after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. He was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe for two years, indicted for treason, and eventually released on $100,000 bail (approximately $1,540,000 today), posted by prominent members of society, both North and South. He died Dec. 6, 1889, after writing several memoirs to commemorate his cause. Two years before before his death he declared to an audience in Meridian, Mississippi: “United you are now, and if the Union is ever to be broken [again] let the other side break it.”9

-Stephanie Walrath '12

1 “Jefferson Davis’ speech at Boston,” The Papers of Jefferson Davis, accessed February 22, 2012, http://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/Content.aspx?id=80
2 William James Cooper, Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008), 42.
3 “Jefferson Davis’ Second Inaugural Address,” The Papers of Jefferson Davis, accessed February 22, 2012, http://jeffersondavis.rice.edu/Content.aspx?id=107
4 “Jefferson Davis’ Second Inaugural Address”
5 “Jefferson Davis’ Second Inaugural Address”
6 Author unknown, “The Rebel Inaugural Address,” Harper’s Weekly 7(271), March 8, 1862: 146.
7 Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1881): 763.
8 “The Legal End of Slavery in Massachusetts,” The Massachusetts Historical Society, accessed February 22, 2012, http://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/?queryID=54
9 Author unknown, “Jeff Davis Again Advised His People Never to Try and Break the Union Again,” The Reading Eagle, May 13, 1887.

1 comment:

  1. If you think Jefferson Davis gave a rats ass about states rights, you don't know what the hell you are talking about.

    Yes, yes, that's the myth. States rights -- big states rights man. Total horse shit.

    In fact, Davis went to war to STOP states rights. HE was all for states rights -- as long as they accepted the spread of slavery. That's like saying you are all for your neighbor's right to his car, as long as he gives it to you.

    The big lie of slave owners -- other than they enslaved, raped, tortured, and sold slaves because they cared about them spiritually and were just doing what God wanted -- was that they care about states rights.

    So often have people said this crap, that it's like a mantra. People accept it stupidly because they said it.

    Did you ever hear of actions speak louder than words?

    What happened when Kansas voted 98% to 2% against slavery? Any idea? Let me tell you. Southern slave owners went bonkers, including Davis. HOW DARE they reject slavery.

    The slave owners sent thugs and killers to Kansas to force slavery down their throats --as they had forced slavery before. But Kansas people were transplants from the North, with some former Southerners who knew exactly what scum sucking pigs the slave owners were.

    Kansas men defeated the thugs sent to spread slavery. Now, that "States rights" excuse was exposed as horse shit -- as it was always horse shit. The South demanded the SPREAD of slavery or promised war.

    Oh you didn't hear that? READ THEIR NEWSPAPERS. Read Jefferson Davis speeches. Read their Constitution. Read what they said, and learn what they did.

    See the Five Southern Ultimatums, which Richmond newspapers called "THE TRUE ISSUE" What was the true issue -- according to the SOUTHERN LEADERS at the time?

    The SPREAD of slavery into Kansas --never mind that 98% of people in Kansas rejected slavery.

    Sound like states rights to you? Notice, they didn't HOPE slavery would spread. They didn't suggest slavery spread. They promised war if slavery was NOT SPREAD.

    Try to grasp that. There were five Ultimatums. Care to guess how many of those five were about the spread of slavery?

    Not one. Not two. Not three. Not four. BUT ALL FIVE. Not a single word about tariffs. Not a single word about states rights. Slavery must spread -- period.

    When LIncoln refused -- as the South knew he would -- the South attacked.

    Jefferson Davis wrote, in his own book, that the "intolerable grievance" was NOT John Brown's raid, NOT tariffs, but was the spread of slavery into Kansas. Or as he put it, our rights to property in the territories.

    So they said it loudly and proudly and repeatedly, and their actions are about the spread of slavery too.

    It's a tribute to the stupidity and sheep like quality of "scholars" who tell us about the cause of the Civil War as if it was a complex, multidimensional thing. Nonsense. It was about the SPREAD of slavery. S P R E A D.

    Google Southern Ultimatums, learn something besides cliches.