Jefferson Davis in 1860 on the Threshhold of Civil War: Secession Would Be A Justifiable Consequence of Northern Actions, But There Is Still Time to Avert an Impending War

A quotation from his May 17, 1860, speech on the Senate floor: "That the affection, the mutual desire for the mutual good, which existed among our Fathers, may be weakened in succeeding generations by the denial of right and by hostile demonstrations, until the equality guaranteed but not secured within the Union, may be sought for without it; must be evident to even a careless observer of our race. It is time to be up and doing. There is yet time to remove the causes of dissension and alienation, which are now distracting, and have for years past divided the country."

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Undoubtedly the most significant Davis piece we have ever carried, containing as it does the carrot and the stick – peace or war

At the onset of the 1860 election year, the United States was at a breaking point as a result of the long crisis over slavery. The Compromise of 1850...

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Jefferson Davis in 1860 on the Threshhold of Civil War: Secession Would Be A Justifiable Consequence of Northern Actions, But There Is Still Time to Avert an Impending War

A quotation from his May 17, 1860, speech on the Senate floor: "That the affection, the mutual desire for the mutual good, which existed among our Fathers, may be weakened in succeeding generations by the denial of right and by hostile demonstrations, until the equality guaranteed but not secured within the Union, may be sought for without it; must be evident to even a careless observer of our race. It is time to be up and doing. There is yet time to remove the causes of dissension and alienation, which are now distracting, and have for years past divided the country."

Undoubtedly the most significant Davis piece we have ever carried, containing as it does the carrot and the stick – peace or war

At the onset of the 1860 election year, the United States was at a breaking point as a result of the long crisis over slavery. The Compromise of 1850 had proven too narrowly based to solve the problems, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, promoted by Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, had taken a different approach – the question of whether the territories would be slave or free would be left to the settlers under Douglas’s principle of Popular Sovereignty. Presumably, the more northern territories would oppose slavery while the more southern ones would permit it. But the act failed in its purpose. It gave rise to the Republican Party determined to keep slavery from territories. In 1855 and 1856, pro and anti-slavery activists flooded into Kansas with the intention of influencing the popular-sovereignty rule of the territory. Kansas became home to no fewer than four state constitutions, some pro-slavery and some anti-slavery. The issue ended up in the halls of Congress. In 1860, Kansas was still not a state, and southerners, who expected the admission of Kansas as a slave state, were fed up. In the meantime, the Dred Scott case and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry fanned the flames of disunity.

On February 2, 1860, Jefferson Davis submitted a set of resolutions to the Senate, which he called “On the Relations of States.” it summarized the position of the South, pulling no punches. The first resolved, “That in the adoption of the Federal Constitution, the States adopting the same acted severally as free and independent sovereignties, delegating a portion of their powers to be exercised by the Federal Government for the increased security of each…and that any intermeddling by any one or more States, or by a combination of their citizens, with the domestic institutions of the others, on any pretext, whether political, moral, or religious, with the view to their disturbance or subversion, is in violation of the Constitution, insulting to the States so interfered with, endangers their domestic peace and tranquillity…and, by necessary consequence, serves to weaken and destroy the Union itself.” The second resolved “That negro slavery, as it exists in fifteen States of this Union, composes an important portion of their domestic institutions, inherited from their ancestors, and existing at the adoption of the Constitution, by which it is recognized…” Any attempts to overthrow it “are a manifest breach of faith…” The third pledged to “resist all attempts to discriminate either in relation to person or property, so as, in the Territories–which are the common possession of the United States–to give advantages to the citizens of one State which are not equally secured to those of every other State.” Slaveowners would not be excluded from the territories, in other words. On this line, the fourth resolved “That neither Congress, nor a Territorial Legislature…possess the power to annul or impair the constitutional right of any citizen of the United States to take his slaver property into the common Territories.” The lastly, fugitive slave laws “have unquestionable claim to the respect and observance of all who enjoy the benefits of our compact of Union; and that the acts of State Legislatures to defeat the purpose, or nullify the requirements of that provision, and the laws made in pursuance of it, are hostile in character, subversive of the Constitution, revolutionary in their effect, and if persisted in, must sooner or later lead the States injured by such breach of the compact to exercise their judgment as to the proper mode and measure of redress.” In other words, failure to enforce these laws would justify secession.

Two months later, the Democratic National Convention convened in Charleston, South Carolina. When the delegates failed to adopt an explicitly pro-slavery platform, the Convention dissolved. Rival Southern and Northern Conventions were set to reconvene in June 1860, each nominating their own presidential candidate. Stephen A. Douglas was the leading candidate to win the nomination in the North, and his rhetoric on slavery hardened to better win votes there.

May 15 and 16, 1860, Douglas answered Davis’s resolutions in a speech to the Senate entitled: “Non-Interference by Congress With Slavery In The Territories.” He stuck with Popular Sovereignty (that the South thought had failed in Kansas), and suggested that one day the South itself might reject slavery, a suggestion which southerners saw as insulting. “Why cannot we live together in peace on the terms that have bound and held us together so long? Why cannot we agree on this great principle of non-intervention by the Federal Government with the local and domestic affairs of the Territories excluding slavery and all other irritating questions and leaving the people to govern themselves so far as the Constitution of the United States imposes no limitation to their authority? Upon that principle there can be peace. Upon that principle you can have slavery in the South as long as you want it and abolish it whenever you are tired of it…On that principle there can be peace and harmony and fraternity between the North and the South the East and the West…so that the Constitution may be maintained inviolate and the Union last forever.” In other words, Davis’s position could lead to disunion. As he spoke these words on the Senate floor, Abraham Lincoln was being nominated for president by the Republicans in Chicago.

On May 17, Davis spoke to the Senate in reply to Douglas, lamenting the Kansas-Nebraska solution, and showing that he was still hoping for a national reconciliation but hardly counting on one. “Mr. President,…Mississippi was and is ready to make every concession which it becomes her to make to the welfare and the safety of Union. If on a former occasion she hoped too much from fraternity, the responsibility for her disappointment rests upon those who failed to fulfill her expectations. She still clings to the Government as our fathers formed it. She is ready today and tomorrow as in her past and though brief yet brilliant history to maintain that Government in all its power and to vindicate its honor with all the means she possesses…That had a division in relation to the measures enacted in 1850 is that the Southern rights men became the minority in the election which resulted is true, but no figure of speech could warrant the Senator [Douglas] in speaking of them as subdued, as coming to him or body else for quarter. I deemed it offensive when it was uttered and the scorn with which I repelled it at the instant time has softened to contempt. Our flag was never borne from the field…” He went on to say that he would support the Democratic Party under certain circumstances: “The best hope for the perpetuity of our institutions depends upon the cooperation, the harmony, the zealous action of the Democratic Party.”

Davis went on to essentially threaten that the preservation of the union was conditional. “That the affection, the mutual desire for the mutual good, which existed among our Fathers, may be weakened in succeeding generations by the denial of right and by hostile demonstrations, until the equality guaranteed but not secured within the Union, may be sought for without it; must be evident to even a careless observer of our race. It is time to be up and doing. There is yet time to remove the causes of dissension and alienation, which are now distracting, and have for years past divided the country.”

He concluded: “I desire no divided flag for the Democratic party. Our principles are national, they belong to every State in the Union and though elections may be lost by their assertion they constitute the only foundation on which we can maintain power, on which we can again rise to the dignity the Democracy once possessed. Does not the Senator from Illinois see in the sectional character of the vote he received that his opinions are not acceptable to every portion of the country? Is not the fact the resolutions adopted by seventeen States on which the greatest reliance must be placed for Democratic support are in opposition to the dogma to which he still clings a warning that if he persists and succeeds in forcing his theory upon the Democratic Party its days are numbered. We ask only for the Constitution.”

Autograph Quotation Signed, no place, no date, addressed to the Ladies of the Fair at Bangor, being a principal quotation from that speech of May 17. “That the affection, the mutual desire for the mutual good, which existed among our Fathers, may be weakened in succeeding generations by the denial of right and by hostile demonstrations, until the equality guaranteed but not secured within the Union, may be sought for without it; must be evident to even a careless observer of our race. It is time to be up and doing. There is yet time to remove the causes of dissension and alienation, which are now distracting, and have for years past divided the country.” Davis included this quotation in his epoch work, “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government”, published in 1881.

Davis visited the state of Maine twice in his life, in 1853 and 1858. He was befriended by people in the state, and knew people in places including Portland and Bangor. One friend was a professor of sacred rhetoric at the Bangor Theological Seminary, about whom he wrote warmly upon the professor’s death after the Civil War. State and local fairs were common in Maine then, as they are now. We speculate that this was written in 1860, likely during the summer when the fairs are held. The recipient was likely a friend or the acquaintance of a friend in Maine, and the reason it was asked for would, presumably, be to have something from this prominent politician to sell at the fair to raise funds. The thought that this quotation might have been sought by Mainers after the Civil War, when Davis was the arch foe, would seem far fetched.

This is undoubtedly the most significant Davis piece we have ever carried, containing as it does the carrot and the stick – secession would be the natural consequence of Northern actions, but there was still time to avert an impending war. But not enough time, as it turned out.

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