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Jefferson Davis on the South’s Inalienable Birthright

The following public address by Jefferson Davis before the Mississippi Legislature on March 10, 1884 may have been his last; he admonishes his listeners to teach their children to honor and revere their fathers who died in the cause of political liberty freedom, and the consent of the governed. Davis crossed over the river to rest under the shade of the trees on December 6, 1889.

Bernhard Thuersam www.Circa1865.com

 

 Jefferson Davis on the South’s Inalienable Birthright

“Friends and Brethren of Mississippi:

Reared on the soil of Mississippi, the ambition of my boyhood was to do something which would redound to the honor and welfare of the State. The weight of many years admonishes me that my day for actual services has passed, yet the desire remains undiminished to see the people of Mississippi prosperous and happy, and her fame no unlike the past, but gradually growing wider and brighter as the years roll away.

It has been said that I should apply to the United States for a pardon; but repentance must precede the right of pardon, and I have not repented.

Remembering as I must all which has been suffered, all which has been lost, disappointed hopes and crushed aspirations, yet I deliberately say: If it were to do over again, I would do just as I did in 1861.

No one is the arbiter of his own fate. The people of the Confederate States did more in proportion to their numbers and means than was ever achieved by any in the world’s history. Fate decreed that they should be unsuccessful in the effort to maintain their claim to resume the grants made to the federal government.

Our people have accepted the decree; it therefore behooves them, as they may, to promote the general welfare of the Union, to show the world that that hereafter as heretofore the patriotism of our people is not measured by lines of latitude and longitude, but is as broad as the obligations they have assumed and embraces the whole of our ocean-bound domain.

Let them leave to their children and their children’s children the good example of never swerving from the path of duty, and preferring to return good for evil rather than to cherish the unmanly feeling of revenge.

But never teach your children to desecrate the memory of the dead by admitting that their brothers were wrong in their effort to maintain the sovereignty, freedom and independence which was their inalienable birthright.

Remembering that the coming generations are the children of the heroic mothers whose devotion to our cause in its darkest hour sustained the strong and strengthened the weak, I cannot believe that the cause for which our sacrifices were made can ever be lost, but rather hope that those who now deny the justice of our asserted claims will learn from experience that the fathers [built] wisely and the constitution should be construed according to the commentaries of the men who made it.

It having been previously understood that I would no attempt to do more than return my thanks, which are far deeper than it would be possible for me to express, I will now, Senators and Representatives, and to you, ladies and gentlemen, who have honored my by your attendance, bid you an affectionate, and, it may be, a last farewell.”

(The Davis Memorial Volume; or Our Dead President, Jefferson Davis, and the World’s Tribute to His Memory, J. Wm. Jones, B.F. Johnson & Company, Publishers, 1890, excerpt, pp. 450-451)

Jefferson Davis, Ardent Unionist

The author below points out that all of Jefferson Davis’ Congressional speeches featured a “strong and outspoken national feeling,” while New England politicians whipped up sectional animosity at every turn. This was seen as well in the war with Mexico as Davis spoke often of the national devotion and heroism of American soldiers in that conflict, though a prominent Northern politician bespoke for the American army, “a welcome with bloody hands to hospitable graves.” Massachusetts refused military honors to Captain George Lincoln, killed at Buena Vista and son of an ex-governor of that State.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Jefferson Davis, Ardent Unionist

“On the 29th of December [1845], Mr. Davis spoke in a very earnest and impressive manner upon Native Americanism, which he strongly opposed . . . in opposition to [federal] appropriations for improvement of rivers and harbors; upon the Oregon question, and in favor of a resolution of thanks to General [Zachary] Taylor and his army.

On February 6, 1846, the House [of Representatives] . . . having under consideration the joint resolution of notice to the British Government concerning the abrogation of the Convention . . . respecting the territory of Oregon, [was addressed by Mr. Davis]:

“Sir, why has the south been assailed in this discussion? Has it been with the hope of sowing dissentions between us and our Western friends? Thus far, I think, it has failed. Why the frequent reference to the conduct of the South on the Texas question?

Sir, those who have made reflections on the South as having sustained Texas annexation from sectional views have been of those who opposed that great measure and are most eager for this. The suspicion is but natural in them.

But, sir, let me tell them that this doctrine of political balance between different portions of the Union is not Southern doctrine. We, sir, advocated the annexation of Texas from high national considerations. Nor sir, do we wish to divide the territory of Oregon; we would preserve it for the extension of our Union. It is, as the representative of a high-spirited and patriotic people, that I am called on to resist this war clamor.

[If war with Britain ensues] . . . Mississippi will come. And whether the question be one of Northern or Southern, of Eastern or Western aggression, we will not stop to count the cost, but act as becomes the descendants of those who, in the war of the Revolution, engaged in unequal strife to aid our brethren of the North in redressing their injuries . . .

With many of the officers now serving on the Rio Grande he had enjoyed a personal acquaintance, and hesitated not to say that all which skill, and courage, and patriotism could perform, [and] might be expected from them.

“Those soldiers, to whom so many [in New England] have applied depreciatory epithets, upon whom it has been so often said no reliance could be placed, they too will be found, in every emergency renewing such feats as have recently graced our arms, bearing the American flag to honorable triumphs, or falling beneath its folds, as devotees to our common cause, to die a soldier’s death.”

(The Life of Jefferson Davis, Frank H. Alfriend, National Publishing Co., 1868, excerpts, pp. 38-40; 45-46)

 

Origins of the Conflict: The Tallmadge Amendment

The words “disunion” and “civil war” were heard in the halls of Congress in early 1819 as Representative James Tallmadge of New York introduced his amendment to restrict slavery in the proposed State of Missouri. Though Tallmadge thought the action would help end slavery within a generation, Howell Cobb of Georgia said he had kindled a fire “which only seas of blood could extinguish.” The Missouri Compromise of 1820 did not include the amendment, but did prohibit slavery above the 36-30 parallel of the Louisiana Purchase, the southern boundary of Missouri.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Origins of the Conflict: The Tallmadge Amendment

“In 1812 the Territory of Orleans became the State of Louisiana, but meantime the District of Louisiana had been repeatedly reorganized [and by 1819] . . . the population of Missouri closely approximated sixty thousand which, according to precedents set in the Old Northwest, made a territory eligible for Statehood.

Successive Missouri legislatures petitioned Congress on the subject, and in 1819 the House Committee on Territories reported favorably a bill enabling Missouri . . . to draw up a constitution and make ready for Statehood.

It was at this juncture that Representative James Tallmadge of New York raised the question of setting limits to the expansion of slavery in the Louisiana Purchase. He proposed to amend the bill reported from committee by providing that the further introduction of slavery into Missouri should be forbidden, and that all children born of slave parents after the admission of the State should be free upon reaching the age of twenty-five years.

Until the introduction of the Tallmadge amendment, the slavery question had played little part in national politics. The problem of how slaves should be counted when apportioning representatives in Congress or assessing direct taxes on the States had been satisfactorily settled in the federal convention by the three-fifths compromise. Also, an earlier Congress had exercised its constitutional authority to pass a fugitive slave act, and the administration of this measure had so far provoked little criticism.

Moreover, slavery had long been regarded as a dying institution. The founders of the American nation had almost unanimously so considered it, Southerners no less than Northerners. Many of them were eager to speed the day when slavery should cease to exist throughout the whole country.

Washington emancipated his slaves by his will; Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin were prominent in the work of emancipation societies; Thomas Jefferson’s anti-slavery views were written into the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Almost by common consent the slave trade was forbidden in 1808, the earliest possible date under the Constitution.

Hostility to slavery during these early days of the republic was firmly grounded on the fact that the institution had ceased to be economically profitable. For this reason, even before the American Revolution, many of the colonies would have taken some anti slavery action had not the British government been so insistent on protecting the profits of British merchants engaged in the slave trade.

As soon as independence became a fact, one State after another took action against slavery . . . [but] the chief obstacle to abolition in the South, where slaves were far more numerous than in the North, was the perplexity felt about what to do with the freed slaves, but Southern emancipation societies were deeply concerned about this problem and were hopeful of finding a solution.

The discovery that cotton could be grown profitably by means of slave labor [with the cotton gin of Massachusetts inventor Eli Whitney, and] served to revive the institution of slavery just at the time when it had seemed destined to disappear.

(The Federal Union, History of the United States to 1865, John D. Hicks, Houghton Mifflin, 1948, excerpts, pp. 354-356)

Return to Original Principles

Below, Jefferson anticpates the constitutional crisis of the late 1850s and the need for the States to “arrest the march of government” which had been threatening its creators with military action since the days of Andrew Jackson. As he instructs, the solution to the crisis was a convening of the States to modify their agreement, not the agent warring upon a free people.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Return to Original Principles

“The [Supreme Court] judges are practicing on the Constitution by inferences, analogies, and sophisms, as they would on an ordinary law. They do not seem aware that it is not even a constitution, formed by a single authority, and subject to a single superintendence and control; but that it is a compact of many independent powers, every single one of which claims an equal right to understand it, and to require its observance.

However strong the cord of compact may be, there is a point of tension at which it will break. A few such doctrinal decisions . . . may induce [two or three large States] to join in arresting the march of government, and in arousing the co-States to pay some attention to what is passing, to bring back the compact to its original principles, or to modify it legitimately by the express consent of the parties themselves, and not by the usurpation of their created agents.

They imagine they can lead us into a consolidated government, while their road leads directly to its dissolution. (Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1825; The Jefferson Cyclopedia, Funk & Wagnalls, 1900, page 191)

Jefferson on Free Speech and Delegated Powers

Jefferson’s great admiration for Washington allayed his fears that the presidency might become monarchical – a fear that John Adams made real. Though Jefferson wrote that the true barriers of our liberty are our State governments, and that all States could not be restrained by one man and any force he could possess – he didn’t foresee Lincoln.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Jefferson on Free Speech and Delegated Powers

“With respect to the Sedition Act, which he detested more and condemned first, he took the ground that this sort of definition of crime fell within none of the delegated powers, and that this sort of action was specifically prohibited to Congress by the First Amendment. Though he did not say so here, he completely repudiated the doctrine that the federal courts already had common-law jurisdiction over seditious libel.

He regarded the doctrine . . . as an “audacious, barefaced and sweeping pretension.” Also, in view of the fact that freedom of speech and the press are guarded against congressional action in the same amendment with freedom of religion, he held that whoever violated one of them threw down the sanctuary covering the others. It should be noted . . . that he did not here deny to States the right to judge how far “the licentiousness of speech and of the press may be abridged without lessening their useful freedom.” This is certainly not to say that he set State rights above human rights . . . [but] he was not warning against possible misuse of State power, and to him it was federal power that represented the clear and present danger.

In the first of his resolutions [Kentucky] Jefferson categorically took the position that whenever the general government assumed powers not delegated to it by the compact, its acts were “unauthoritive, void and of no force.” Denying that there was a “common judge” (of federal usurpation), he concluded that each party to the compact had “an equal right to judge for itself, as well as infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.

Some deletion (of Jefferson’s words in the written Kentucky Resolutions) was in order anyway, since the draft was prolix and repetitious…(and) after saying that in cases of the abuse of delegated, a change in the members of the general government by the people was the “constitutional remedy,” he made this assertion:

“where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy; that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact . . . to nullify on their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits: without this right they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment over them . . .”

(Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty, Dumas Malone, Little, Brown and Company, 1962, pp. 403-405)

 

War Clouds in Late 1832

President Andrew Jackson, in early November 1832, sent a spy to South Carolina to monitor the nullification forces in South Carolina, and “transferred several military companies to Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney” in preparation for war against the State. Though using these measures to elevate his prestige, Jackson also urged Congress to lower the existing tariff and “attacked the protective system for the first time.” He had come to the view that like the national bank he opposed for making “the rich richer and the potent more powerful,” the Northern protective tariffs accomplished the same.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

War Clouds in Late 1832

“[Governor Robert Y.] Hayne’s [inaugural] speech was nothing short of a full-blown statement of State supremacy . . .”Fellow citizens, This is Our Own – Our Native Land,” declared Hayne.

“It is the soil of CAROLINA which has been enriched by the precious blood of our ancestors, shed in defense of those rights and liberties, which we are bound, by every tie divine and human, to transmit unimpaired to our posterity. It is here that we have been cherished in youth and sustained in manhood . . . here repose the honored bones of our Fathers . . . here, when our earthly pilgrimage is over, we hope to sink to rest, on the bosom of our common mother. Bound to our country by such sacred, and endearing ties – let others desert her, if they can, let them revile her, if they will – let them give aid and countenance to her enemies, if they may – but for us, we will STAND OR FALL WITH CAROLINA.”

The [South Carolina] legislature gave Governor Hayne authority to accept military volunteers, to draft any Carolinian between eighteen and forty-five (including unionists), and to call out the State militia. The legislators approved a $200,000 appropriation for purchasing arms and authorized Hayne to draw and additional $200,000 from a contingent fund.

On December 26 Hayne issued his proclamation asking for volunteers; by the beginning of 1833 the governor and his district commanders were raising, equipping and training an army. Soldiers constantly drilled in the streets, and for a season Carolina uniforms and blue cockades were standard fare in churches and at tea parties. Over 25,000 men – more than had voted for nullification in the first place – volunteered to defend South Carolina against Jackson’s armies.

[Former Governor James Hamilton’s military preparations] had a chance to win an immediate victory over the two badly exposed federal forts. Fort Moultrie had been built on Sullivan’s Island, and since South Carolina owned part of the island, Hamilton’s volunteers could lay siege to the fort. Castle Pinckney, erected on an island only a mile out from Gadsden Wharf, could be battered down by the nullifiers’ heavy cannon.

The necessity for a strategy of defense, however, weakened the possibility of quick victory. The governor, commanding his army with commendable restraint and caution, also knew that a concentration of troops might precipitate a needless war. Hayne insisted that volunteers train at home . . . [but with] the entire army in the uplands, Charleston would be vulnerable to a concentrated federal attack.

Hayne attempted to solve the dilemma with his mounted-minutemen plan. The governor asked each district to appoint a small cavalry unit which could race to Charleston on a moment’s notice. “If in each district only one hundred such men could be secured,” wrote Hayne, “we would have the means of throwing 2,500 of the elite of the whole State upon a given point in three or four days.”

(Prelude to Civil War, The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836, William W. Freehling, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 264-266; 275-277)

Trying to Save the Union

North Carolina’s James C. Dobbin served as a delegate to the convention at Baltimore to nominate Democratic candidates for president and vice-president in 1856. He was elected chairman of the North Carolina delegation and saw Franklin Pierce as the best choice to maintain sectional harmony in the Union.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Trying To Save the Union

“It was apprehended that the convention would adjourn in confusion, and without any nomination. At this crisis Mr. Dobbin arose, and in a modest, unobstrusive manner, and with matchless eloquence, spoke as follows:

“Mr. President: Pardon me for obtruding one word before North Carolina casts her vote. We came to pander to no factions artifices here, to enlist under no man’s banner at the hazard of principle; to embark in no crusade to prostrate any aspirant for the sake of sectional or personal triumph. We came here to select one of the army of noble spirits in our ranks to be our leader and champion in the glorious struggle for the great principles of democracy.

Again, and again, have we tendered the banner to the North, Save our happy Union, guard well the rights of the States, say we, and you can have the honor of the standard bearer. Zealously and sincerely have we presented the name of [President James] Buchanan, the noble son of the Key Stone State, around whom the affections of our hearts have so long clustered.

We have turned to the Empire State, New York, and sought to honor one of her distinguished sons. We now feel that in the midst of discord and destruction, the olive branch, if tendered once more, cannot be refused. We feel the hour now has come when the spirit of strife must be banished, and the mild, gentler and holier spirit of patriotism reign in its stead!

Come then, Mr. President, let us go to the altar and make sacrifices for our beloved country. We now propose, with other friends, the name of one who was in the field just long enough to prove himself a gallant soldier, and who was long enough in the councils of the nation to demonstrate that he is a statesman of the strong mind and honest heart; who has exhibited in the career of legislation, that he knew the rights of the South, while he respected those of the North, as well as of the East and the West; whose principles of democracy are as solid and enduring as the granite hills of his own New Hampshire native land — General Franklin Pierce.

“Come, friends and brothers, let us strike hands now; now for harmony and conciliation, and save our cherished principles and our beloved country.”

(Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina and Eminent North Carolinians, John H. Wheeler, www.docsouth.unc.edu)

Nothing Less Than a War of Conquest

Lincoln, controlled by a disjointed Republican party, was unable to recognize that he was waging war upon free Americans who followed the very words of Jefferson’s Declaration. Former Governor William A. Graham, in his Hillsboro, North Carolina speech of April 27, 1861 and nearly a month before his State seceded, explains the logical and peaceful course Lincoln could have taken to defuse the crisis and thereby saved the lives of a million Americans, the Constitution and as well as the Union he claimed to be saving.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Nothing Less Than a War of Conquest

“We are in the midst of great events. For months past our political skies have been dark and lowering. The country has stood in anxious suspense on the perilous edge of civil war. It is well known that I among others, have insisted, that the election of Mr. Lincoln . . . obnoxious as were his own avowals of sentiment in relation to slavery in the South, and still more obnoxious as was the spirit of hostility to us, which animated the mass of his party followers, was not a sufficient cause for a dismemberment of this Government, and the destruction of the Union . . .

The seven States, however, stretching from our Southern frontier to the confines of Mexico, one by one in rapid succession have declared themselves separated from the Government of the United States, and formed a new confederation.

They found in the election which had taken place sufficient cause of occasion, in their estimation, for this hitherto untried course of proceeding, and levied armies to defend it by force. The authorities of the United States denied the right of secession claimed by these States, and the danger became great of a collision of arms.

The issue was made, but evaded under the administration of [President James] Buchanan. Its solution by Mr. Lincoln has been a matter of anxious contemplation to the people of the country since his accession to power. Whatever may be the true construction of the Constitution, or the President’s idea of his duty to enforce the laws, a wise statesmanship cannot close its eyes to the facts.

It is impossible to treat so extensive a revolution like a petty rebellion; for if suppressed by force, it would be at the expense of desolation and ruin to the country. He should have dealt with it . . . [and] yielded to the necessities by which he was surrounded, and adjusted by arrangement what he found impossible to control by force, or if possible, only at a sacrifice to the nation itself never to be repaired.

Had Mr. Lincoln risen to the height of the great occasion, promptly withdrawn his troops from fortifications which he could not defend; convened Congress in extra session; recommended and procured the passage of a law, or amendment to the Constitution, acknowledging the independence of the seceded States . . . he might yet have maintained a Union of twenty-seven contented States . . . And after an experiment of a few years, there might, and in my opinion probably would have been, a re-annexation of the seceded States themselves.

But instead of this bold and magnanimous policy, his action has been vacillating. His inaugural address in equivocal, interpreted by some, on its first appearance as portending force, assurances are thrown out that his intentions are only peaceful. And when the public mind in all the eight [Southern States] that had not seceded, was settling down in the conviction that the forts were to be evacuated and repose was to be allowed, so favorable to conciliation and harmony, a Proclamation suddenly bursts upon the country announcing a determination on coercion, and calling for a militia force so great as to endanger the safety of more than the seceded States.

Careless of any terms of conciliation, or adjustments of differences with the border States, he resolves, but not till after his own adherents have been demoralized by his hesitation and professions of peace, on the application of force to maintain the authority of the Government in the States which have withdrawn, and requires us to cooperate as instruments in their subjugation.

The sober sense of the people of North Carolina had met this question, and for themselves have settled it. Ardent in their attachment to the Constitution and the Union, they had condemned separate State secession as rash and precipitate . . . as long as there was hope of an adjustment of sectional differences, they were unwilling to part with the Government . . . But the President gives to the question new alternatives.

These are, on the one hand, to join with him in a war of conquest, for it is nothing less, against our brethren of the seceding States, or, on the other, resistance to and throwing off the obligations of the Federal Constitution. Of the two, we do not hesitate to accept the latter.

And withal, we cannot exclude from our contemplation the idea, that when [the seceded States] shall be subdued upon the issues involved in the contest, our turn will come next; our only exemption above theirs being, like the victims of Cyclops, we shall be last to be devoured.”

(The Papers of William A. Graham, Volume V, 1857-1863, J.G. Hamilton, Max Williams, editors, NCAH, 1973, excerpts, pp. 244-247)

To hold that African slavery was central to the South’s move to independence is far too simplistic and superficial; one could better conclude that the political partnership of two vastly different people and regions begun during the Revolution had fully unraveled after 80-some years. The constant agitation of violent slave insurrection in the South by fanatic abolitionists led to Southern secession, and the secession of the South caused the North to initiate war, invade and conquer the South, and then treat it as a subject economic colony.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Unionism and Secession in the South

One further caveat in thinking about Southern Unionism. Virtually all historians, including this one, are agreed today on the centrality of slavery in explaining the road to secession. Yet if we would understand the nature of Southern Unionism we cannot stop there in accounting for the abandonment of Unionist by sufficient Southerners to create the Confederacy. Human motivation and loyalties are more complex than that. A concern about the future of slavery was more often in the background than in the forefront of Southerners’ thinking about the Union.

Certainly it is difficult to show a clear causal line between direct involvement with slavery and attitudes toward secession. For one thing, too many unconditional Unionists . . . were slaveholders. For such persons the ownership of slaves was not sufficient reason for supporting secession. For another, most of the Southerners who made up the Confederacy were not directly connected with slavery at all. The majority of white Southerners, after all, did not own a single slave. Their concern for the institution of slavery could at best have been only an indirect motive for supporting secession and later the Confederacy.

It makes much more sense to see slavery as a shaper of Southern civilization and values than as an interest. The anxiety about the future of slavery was there because the future of the South was intimately tied up with the institution. But the role of slavery in moving individual Southerners from Unionism to secession was neither simple nor obvious. Precisely at what point an individual Southerner decided that he or she could no longer support the Union when it came into conflict with region depended upon many things, not only upon his or her immediate relationship to slavery.”

(The Other South, Southern Dissenters in the Nineteenth Century, Carl N. Degler, Harper & Row, 1974, page 122)

 

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