Jefferson Davis Makes His Case
April 29, 1861. On the same day that Maryland’s state legislature voted against secession, Jefferson Davis addressed the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama, and outlined the reasons for secession.
“We seek no conquest,” he said, “no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the state with which we were lately confederated; all we ask is to be left alone.”
Davis’s speech is interesting today for several reasons, including his views on the relation between the states and the federal government, on why the Civil War happened, and on racial inequality and slavery.
The Relation Between the States and the Federal Government
Davis argued that the US Constitution, like the Articles of Confederation before it, was “a compact between states” and not “a national government, set up above and over the States. He argued that “An organization created by the States to secure the blessings of liberty and independence against foreign aggression has been gradually perverted into a machine for their control in their domestic affairs. The creature has been exalted above its creators; the principals have been made subordinate to the agent appointed by themselves.”
Why the Civil War Came
Davis then described how circumstances changed over time, particularly with regard to slavery, and why the war came:
“. . . the Northern population was increasing . . . in a greater ratio than the population of the South. By degrees, as the Northern States gained preponderance in the National Congress, self-interest taught their people to yield ready assent to any plausible advocacy of their right as a majority to govern the minority without control. They learned to listen with impatience to the suggestion of any constitutional impediment to the exercise of their will, and so utterly have the principles of the Constitution been corrupted in the Northern mind that, in the inaugural address delivered by President Lincoln in March last, he asserts as an axiom . . . that the theory of the Constitution requires that in all cases the majority shall govern; and in another memorable instance the same Chief Magistrate did not hesitate to liken the relations between a State and the United States to those which exist between a county and the State in which it is situated and by which it was created. This is the lamentable and fundamental error on which rests the policy that has culminated in his declaration of war against these Confederate States. In addition to the long-continued and deep-seated resentment felt by the Southern States at the persistent abuse of the powers they had delegated to the Congress, for the purpose of enriching the manufacturing and shipping classes of the North at the expense of the South, there has existed for nearly half a century another subject of discord [ — slavery]. . . .
“The climate and soil of the Northern States soon proved unpropitious to the continuanceof slave labor, whilst the converse was the case at the South. . . . the Northern States consulted their own interests by selling their slaves to the South and prohibiting slavery within their limits. . . . [T]he dogmas of [abolitionist] organizations soon obtained control of the Legislatures of many of the Northern States, and laws were passed providing for the punishment. . . of citizens of the Southern States who should dare to ask aid of the officers of the law for the recovery of their property. Emboldened by success, the theater of agitation and aggression against the clearly expressed constitutional rights of the Southern States was transferred to the Congress; . . . Finally a great party was organized for the purpose of obtaining the administration of the Government, with the avowed object of using its power for the total exclusion of the slave States from all participation in the benefits of the public domain acquired by all the States in common [the western territories]. . . ; of surrounding them entirely by States in which slavery should be prohibited; of thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars. This party, thus organized, succeeded in the month of November last in the election of its candidate for the Presidency of the United States.”
On Racial Inequality and Slavery
Davis then offered his take on race and slavery:
“In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the well-being and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of the wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people; towns and cities had sprung into existence, and had rapidly increased in wealth and population under the social system of the South; . . .”
Davis concluded, “[W]ith a firm reliance on that Divine Power which covers with its protection the just cause, we will continue to struggle for our inherent right to freedom, independence, and self-government.”
SOURCE: Confederate States of America — Message to Congress April 29, 1861 (Ratification of the Constitution)