Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Jefferson Davis' Inaugural Speech

Jefferson Davis was a senator for Mississippi and an influential man in Congress. I was surprised to find out that he was against secession; for a couple of years before the war he spoke in Northern and Southern states on behalf of keeping the Union together. Once his state seceded in January 1861, he spoke to the Senate urging peace. Davis was more pessimistic about the prospect of a war than most of his fellow Southern leaders were; he expected it to come and he was not hopeful about the South's ability to fight. He was evidently startled when representatives of the Confederate states elected him president, and he was unsure about his ability to lead. His first act was to send a commission to Washington in hopes of avoiding war, but the commission was refused.

Davis delivered his Inaugural Address on February 18, 1861. In it, he naturally does not express his fears for the future of the South. He first speaks about the Declaration of Independence and claims its inalienable rights for the South, saying that Southerners are merely asserting their rights and repeating the actions of the Revolution now that the United States has ceased to merit their consent to be governed. Davis expresses hopes for the future of the new Confederacy, for peace and for free trade. Over and over, he repeats that the South wants a peaceful start as a new country, and that if there is a war it will be the North's fault. Otherwise, he emphasizes, nothing has changed; the Constitution stands as the governing document of the Confederacy and everything can go on as usual, if only the danger of war can be averted.

Now of course Davis had a perfectly good point about the Declaration of Independence. The majority of voting Southerners wanted to secede, and under the philosophy outlined in the Declaration, they could do so. But it's also easy to see how that idea can get very damaging very fast; if every state could leave the Union when it had a grievance, then it would not take long for the Union to fragment into a whole lot of small, weak countries--each of which would then be at economic and political disadvantage. And they would probably fight with each other as well; it would not have been difficult to end up like 19th-century Europe, with constant wars in one place or another. So I can see both Lincoln's and Davis' point of view.

Davis enlarges on the point by saying: "To increase the power, develop the resources, and promote the happiness of a confederacy, it is requisite that there should be so much of homogeneity that the welfare of every portion shall be the aim of the whole. Where this does not exist, antagonisms are engendered which must and should result in separation." Now this has been a popular idea at times, and it certainly appeals to many, especially oppressed minorities. But it also seems to me like a recipe for fragmentation, which leads to a lot of problems as well.


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