Tuesday, June 3, 2008

200th Birthday of Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis, born 3 June 1808
President of the Confederate States of America

I rise. . .for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi. . .has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course, my functions are terminated here. It has seemed to me proper, however, that I should appear in the Senate to announce that fact to my associates. . .

. . .It is by this confounding of nullification and secession that the name of a great man
[Andrew Jackson] . . .has been invoked to justify coercion against a seceded State. The phrase, “to execute the laws,” was an expression which General Jackson applied to the case of a State refusing to obey the laws while yet a member of the Union. That is not the case which is now presented. The laws are to be executed over the United States. . .They have no relation to any foreign country. It is a perversion of terms, at least it is a great misapprehension of the case, which cites that expression for application to a State which has withdrawn from the Union. . .there are no laws of the Untied States to be executed within the limits of a seceded State. . .

I am sure I feel no hostility to you, Senators from the North. I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now saw, in the presence of my God, I wish you well; and such, I am sure, is the feeling of the people whom I represent towards those whom you represent. I therefore feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they hope, for peaceful relations with you, though we must part. They may be mutually beneficial to us in the future, as they have been in the past, if you so will it. The reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country; and if you will have it thus, we will invoke the God of our fathers, who delivered us from the power of the lion, to protect us from the ravages of the bear; and thus, putting our trust in God and in our own firm hearts and strong arms, we will vindicate the right as best we may. . .

Jefferson Davis, Farewell Address to the U.S. Senate, delivered on occasion of the secession of Mississippi, 21 January 1861. The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 7, 1861, at pp. 18-22 (LSU Press, 1992).

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis, Senator, US Secretary of War, first and only President of the Confederate States of America (1861-1865).

A graduate of West Point, a hero of the Battle of Buena Vista (22 February 1847, where he was wounded, his regiment breaking a charge of Mexican lancers) briefly a son-in-law of Zachary Taylor, Davis was already nationally well known and widely considered a great orator when he arose in the Senate to give the speech, quoted above, saying good-bye to the Senate after secession, before heading south.

Davis was, in Southern terms, a moderate in the secession crisis of 1860-61. Unusually for a Southern politician, he denied the legality of nullification, disapproved of secession (though considering it a lawful remedy), and had tried to dissuade Southern fire-eaters from breaking up the Union. But when Mississippi left the United States, Davis, hewing to the law as he understood it – left also, never looking back -- and wholeheartedly and completely dedicated his life to the service and success of the new Confederacy.

Davis believed that his talents were of more use to his country in the military, but, as he probably understood from the beginning, it was virtually inevitable that Davis -- precisely because he was widely known as a moderate, and not to have been in the forefront of the secession movement -- would be chosen as the Confederacy’s President. As President, Davis discharged his office to the best of his considerable ability, but he was too innately conservative to make a good revolutionary; too proud to compromise and negotiate with politicians ignorant of what war demanded (e.g. Alexander Stephens and Joseph Brown); too quarrelsome with some prickly personalities (e.g. Joseph E. Johnston) yet too deferential towards some of his generals (e.g. Braxton Bragg), and more apt to be impressed by a West Point credential than by results in the field.

In general, President Davis was a good war leader, and enjoyed the trust of and a good working relationship with the Confederacy’s best general, Robert E. Lee. But as to Tennessee and the campaigns along the Mississippi in 1862-63, and in Georgia in 1864, President Davis’s strategic vision and decision-making faltered and was found wanting.

Still, President Davis did all for Confederate victory that he could, and the South chose its President wisely. Davis oversaw the construction of a Confederate Army, Navy and military industry virtually from scratch. By miles and miles the most nationalist leader of a deeply individualist and rabidly states-rights nation: at the end, President Davis probably would have kept fighting even after Appomattox had he not been captured by US cavalry near Irwindale, Georgia on 10 May 1865.

Held prisoner for two years at Fort Monroe, Virginia, under sometimes degrading conditions that did no credit to the US government; the President was ultimately freed when the US government decided not to prosecute him for treason. The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, among others, doubted the ability of the government to secure and defend a conviction.

Davis lived until 1889, traveling to Europe and other places, and writing, among other works, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, a defense of the Confederacy and his administration, which proved, among other things, that Davis would have made a great lawyer.

The former Confederate President died without having his civil rights restored – primarily because he refused to apply for a pardon. To the end of his life: Davis maintained that all he had done, and that the Confederacy had done, had been within the law. Disdaining the title of rebel -- “sovereigns never rebel” he said – Davis felt that nothing he had done required a pardon, and he would have indignantly refused the posthumous pardon Trent Lott put through Congress for Jimmy Carter to sign in 1978. Still, before he died, the former President had put the past behind him: although proud of the past, he believed that it was past – that the Confederacy was part of history. And so is he, ever part of our heritage, and not forgotten by some of us. RIP.


louielouie said...

That is not the case which is now presented. The laws are to be executed over the United States. . .They have no relation to any foreign country.

the south, at least georgia, changed its tune after 1865. petitioning the US congress to set aside general shermans general field order #17. the north won the war. the south re-construction.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Having your young men killed, your cities burned and your crops stolen and the whole place occupied by invading armies does tend to change one's perspective about who and what makes the laws a mite. See Chairman Mao re power and barrels of guns.

Lots of folks say the South won reconstruction. but what the South really won was the end of reconstruction and the opportunity for the local oligarchs to impose Jim Crow.

Jim Crow was bad, but the alternative then was continued military occupation (which was very expensive for the by now war-weary North) and continued unrest.

Hard to blame the North -- after the long war -- for not wanting to indefinitely prop-up Reconstruction governments in the South. Continued Reconstruction meant the radical Republicans could keep in power nationally by relying on votes in Congress from artificial Republican state governments in the South. Allowing only freed slaves and the tiny minority of Southern Unionists (who could honestly take loyalty oaths -- such as the famous "ironclad oath") to vote did indeed ensure Republican State governments -- but this rested on keeping ex-Confederates disenfranchased at bayonet point.

This also inflated Republican numbers in Congress and their vote in presidential elections, but Northern Democrats and taxpayers were not going to support that forever.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Arrrrgghhh ! Link on the "ironclad oath" here: