Words That Men Live By
Pres. Jefferson Davis (1861)
WASHINGTON, D. C., Jan. 2, 1861 - Jefferson Davis, already a veteran of war and politics at the age of 52, and obviously wracked by the pains of illness, stood at his desk in the Senate today to deliver a calm speech that in other countries might have seen him dragged immediately to a dungeon.
It is the strange temper of these times, however, that it was possible for a courtly Southerner to announce calmly that his State had seceded from the Union, by his own advice and with his consent, and that accordingly he no longer would appear as its spokesman there.
"I do think that she has a justifiable cause," he said, "and I approve of her act."
After the heated debates over secession that have occurred in the past decade, Senator Davis' speech was temperate and calm in tone, but the atmosphere of its delivery was ominous in the extreme. Mississippi is the sixth state to secede, following South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana in that order.
Virginia is known to be teetering on the brink, and if and when Virginia secedes so will all the other Southern States. There is some faint hope still expressed here that Abraham Lincoln may bring about a miracle upon his Inaugural next March 4.
Likewise, there is a notable absence from Washington of the leading figures of what is becoming known generally as the Confederacy. There are few men here of the stature of Senator Davis from the Southern States.
The Senator himself, known as a strong-willed and fearless man, spoke today in the tradition of his back- ground. A graduate of West Point, veteran of the Mexican War and a former Secretary of War, his courage often is accounted greater than his judgment.
Already there are rumors that if the Confederacy is formed as a separate nation, he ranks high among those who may be chosen as its President.
The salient paragraphs of his speech follow:
I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her seperationfrom 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, and I will say but very little more. The occasion does not invite me to go into argument, and my physical condition would not permit me to do so if it were otherwise; and yet it seems to become me to say something on the part of the state I here represent, on an occasion so solemn as this.
It is known to Senators who have served with me here, that I have for many years advocated, as an essential attribute of state sovereignty, the right of a state to secede from the Union. Therefore, if I had not believed there was justifiable cause; if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still, under my theory of the government, because of my allegiance to the state of which I am a citizen, have been bound by her action. I, however, may be permitted, to say that I do think that she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act. I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that, if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when the convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted. I hope none who hear me will confound this expression of mine with the advocacy of the right of a state to remain in the Union, and to disregard its constitutional obligations by the nullification of the law. Such is not my theory. Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are indeed antagonistic principles. ...
...This is done not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even for our own pecuniary benefit; but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our sacred duty to transmit unshorn to our children.
I find in myself, perhaps, a type of the general feeling of my constituents toward yours. 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 say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well; and such, I am sure, is the feeling of the people whom I represent toward those whom you represent. I therefore feel that I but ex- press 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 them 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.
In the course of my service here, associated at different times with a great variety of Senators, I see now around me some with whom I have served long; there have been points of collision; but whatever of offense there has been to me, I leave here; I carry with me no hostile remembrance. Whatever offense I have given which has not been redressed, or for which satisfaction has not been demanded, I have, Senators, in this hour of our parting, to offer you my apology for any pain which, in heat of discussion, I have inflicted. I go hence unencumbered of the remembrance of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any in jury offeredvMr. Preident and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains for me to bid you a final adieu.
~ Postlogue ~
Jefferson Davis returned to Mississippi and to the rapid drama of events inevitably leading to the War Between the States. He was immediately appointed commander of the Mississippi militia, and within a month, at Montgomery, Alabama, was named provisional President of the Confederacy.
As winter went on into spring, and Virginia, Texas and the other Southern States seceded, his government entrenched itself. In February of 1862, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated at Richmond, Virginia, as the President of the Confederate States of America.
His administration ceased to be a happy one, long before the hopeless military outlook of the South appeared. His army generals held little regard for his military leadership, as President Lincoln also was experiencing in the Union. But in the end, whereas General Grant accepted the surrender of General Lee after LincoIn himself had chosen Grant as the general to try to end the war with victory , General Lee had to make the great decision to surrender in the face of contrary orders from Davis, his own President.
It is a notable historical contrast that while Lee went from the surrender of Appomattox Courthouse to a continuing honored career, Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for two years. He never was tried, but lived thereafter in quiet freedom.
Oddly enough, his ill health seemed to develop physical stamina rather than to shorten his life. He lived for 22 years after his release from prison in 1867 and wrote his apologia, The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy. It is probable that he never enjoyed a nobler moment in subsequent years than during the half-hour he addressed the Senate in his sundown speech.Printable version