Jefferson Davis’s Dramatic Departure from the Senate
January 21, 1861. Senator Jefferson Davis’s (Mississippi) farewell and departure from the United States Senate “has to rank,” according to the Senate’s own historical materials,
“as one of the most dramatic events ever enacted in the chamber of the United States Senate. Would-be spectators arrived at the Capitol before sunrise on a frigid January morning. Those who came after 9:00 a.m., finding all gallery seats taken, frantically attempted to enter the already crowded cloakrooms and lobby adjacent to the chamber. Just days earlier, the states of Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama had joined South Carolina in deciding to secede from the Union. Rumors flew that . . . Louisiana, and Texas would soon follow.
“On January 21, 1861, a fearful capital city awaited the farewell addresses of five senators. One observer sensed “blood in the air” as the chaplain delivered his prayer at high noon. With every senator at his place, Vice President John Breckinridge postponed a vote on admitting Kansas as a free state to recognize senators from Florida and Alabama.
“When the four senators completed their farewell addresses, all eyes turned to Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis — the acknowledged leader of the South in Congress. Tall, slender, and gaunt at the age of 52, Davis had been confined to his bed for more than a week. Suffering the nearly incapacitating pain of facial neuralgia, he began his valedictory in a low voice. As he proceeded, his voice gained volume and force.
“‘I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that . . . the state of Mississippi . . . has declared her separation from the United States.’ He explained that his state acted because ‘we are about to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us.’ [He was referring to the right to own slaves, which, he argues, was assumed when the country was founded.] Davis implored his Senate colleagues to work for a continuation of peaceful relations between the United States and the departing states. Otherwise, he predicted, interference with his state’s decision would ‘bring disaster on every portion of the country.’
“Absolute silence met the conclusion of his six-minute address. Then a burst of applause and the sounds of open weeping swept the chamber. The vice president immediately rose to his feet, followed by the 58 senators and the mass of spectators as Davis and his four colleagues solemnly walked up the center aisle and out the swinging doors.
“Later, describing the ‘unutterable grief’ of that occasion, Davis said that his words had been “not my utterances but rather leaves torn from the book of fate.'”
- United States Senate Archive
- William C. Davis Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Davis spoke in sorrow and not in anger. His address distinguishes between a state’s right of nullification and the right of secession, asserts that all states — Northern and Southern — have the right to secede, and explains that slavery is the issue that caused Mississippi to leave the Union. (Read Davis’s Farewell Address)
The Republic of Georgia Leaves the Bill of Rights Behind
January 26, 1861. The wave of secession that appeared to sweep across the lower South states of Alabama and Georgia in January of 1861 was in fact vigorously contested by many non-slave holding citizens particularly from the northern counties of both states. One of the first ordinances passed by the new Republic of Georgia, which was then unhindered by the US Constitution and the First Amendment, made further expressions of allegiance to the United States (referred to as “the late United States of America” 1) or opposition to secessionist policies, treasonous offenses:
“… if any person or persons, owing allegiance to the State of Georgia, shall adhere to her enemies giving them aid and comfort within the said State or elsewhere … such person or persons shall be adjudged guilty of treason against the State of Georgia and shall suffer death.
Any citizen of the State of Georgia, wherever resident, who shall without the permission of said State, directly or indirectly commence, or carry on any verbal or written correspondence or intercourse with any foreign Government, or any officer or agent thereof, with any intent to influence the measure or conduct of such Government adversely to the existence or interests of said State … such citizen of Georgia shall be guilty of a felony, and on conviction, shall be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary, not less than one, nor more than three years, and by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars.
Geo. W. Crawford, President.
Attest: A. B. Lamar, Secretary.
Passed 26th of January, 1861.
— From The Confederate records of the State of Georgia, Volume 1, by Allen Daniel Candler, Georgia General Assembly, Atlanta 1909
Footnote 1: See Confederate Reckoning, Power and Politics in the Civil War South, Stephanie McCurry, Harvard University Press, 2010
Submitted by Rolf Diamant, author and superintendent of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park, Woodstock, Vermont