January 21, 1861: Jefferson Davis’ farewell to the Senate

Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis, his state having seceded, says goodbye to the Senate.

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 separation from 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 as 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 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 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 their 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 obligation by the nullification of the law. Such is not my theory. Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are, indeed, antagonistic principles. Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified when the agent has violated his constitutional obligations, and a State, assuming to judge for itself, denies the right of the agent thus to act, and appeals to the other states of the Union for a decision; but, when the States themselves and when the people of the States have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application.

A great man who now reposes with his fathers, and who has often been arraigned for want of fealty to the Union, advocated the doctrine of nullification because it preserved the Union. It was because of his deep-seated attachment to the Union — his determination to find some remedy for existing ills short of a severance of the ties which bound South Carolina to the other States — that Mr. Calhoun advocated the doctrine of nullification, which he proclaimed to be peaceful, to be within the limits of State power, not to disturb the Union, but only to be a means of bringing the agent before the tribunal of the States for their judgement.

Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the states are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it. I hope the time may come again when a better comprehension of the theory of our Government, and the inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent any one from denying that each State is a sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made to any agent whomsoever.

I, therefore, say I concur in the action of the people of Mississippi, believing it to be necessary and proper, and should have been bound by their action if my belief had been otherwise; and this brings me to the important point which I wish, on this last occasion, to present to the Senate. It is by this confounding of nullification and secession that the name of a great man whose ashes now mingle with his mother earth has been invoked to justify coercion against a seceded State. The phrase, “to execute the laws,” was an expression which General Jackson applied to the case of a State refusing to obey the laws while yet a member of the Union. That is not the case which is now presented. The laws are to be executed over the United States, and upon the people of the United States. They have no relation to any foreign country. It is a perversion of terms — at least, it is a great mis-apprehension of the case — which cites that expression for application to a State which has withdrawn from the Union. You may make war on a foreign state. If it be the purpose of gentlemen, they may make war against a State which has withdrawn from the Union; but there are no laws of the United States to be executed within the limits of a seceded State. A State, finding herself in the condition in which Mississippi has judged she is — in which her safety requires that she should provide for the maintenance of her rights out of the Union — surrenders all the benefits (and they are known to be many), deprives herself of the advantages (and they are known to be great), severs all the ties of affection (and they are close and enduring), which have bound her to the Union; and thus divesting herself of every benefit — taking upon herself every burden — she claims to be exempt from any power to execute the laws of the United States within her limits.

I well remember an occasion when Massachusetts was arraigned before the bar of the Senate, and when the doctrine of coercion was rife, and to be applied against her, because of the rescue of a fugitive slave in Boston. My opinion then was the same that it is now. Not in a spirit of egotism, but to show that I am not influenced in my opinions because the case is my own, I refer to that time and that occasion as containing the opinion which I then entertained, and on which my present conduct is based. I then said that if Massachusetts — following her purpose through a stated line of conduct — chose to take the last step, which separates her from the Union, it is her right to go, and I will neither vote one dollar nor one man to coerce her back; but I will say to her, Godspeed, in memory of the kind associations which once existed between her and the other States.

It has been a conviction of pressing necessity — it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us — which has brought Mississippi to her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races. That Declaration is to be construed by the circumstances and purposes for which it was made. The communities were declaring their independence; the people of those communities were asserting that no man was born — to use the language of Mr. Jefferson — booted and spurred, to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal — meaning the men of the political community; that there was no divine right to rule; that no man inherited the right to govern; that there were no classes by which power and place descended to families; but that all stations were equally within the grasp of each member of the body politic. These were the great principles they announced; these were the purposes for which they made their declaration; these were the ends to which their enunciation was directed. They have no reference to the slave; else, how happened it that among the items of arraignment against George III was that he endeavored to do just what the North has been endeavoring of late to do, to stir up insurrection among our slaves? Had the Declaration announced that the negroes were free and equal, how was the prince to be arraigned for raising up insurrection among them? And how was this to be enumerated among the high crimes which caused the colonies to sever their connection with the mother-country? When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable; for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the equality of footing with white men — not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three-fifths. So stands the compact which binds us together.

Then, Senators, we recur to the principles upon which our Government was founded; and when you deny them, and when you deny us the right to withdraw from a Government which, thus perverted, threatens to be destructive of our rights, we but tread in the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence and take the hazard. 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 duty to transmit unshorn to our children.

I find in myself perhaps a type of the general feeling of my constituents towards yours. I am sure I feel no hostility toward 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 feel, is the feeling of the people whom I represent toward those whom you represent. I, therefore, feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they hope, for peaceable 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 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 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 the heat of discussion, I have inflicted. I go hence unencumbered by the remembrance of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any injury offered.

Mr. President 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.

Equality is only for “voting” men. A bit circular, perhaps.

This entry was posted in Causes of the war, Jefferson Davis, Mississippi, Secession. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to January 21, 1861: Jefferson Davis’ farewell to the Senate

  1. Chris Moore says:

    That may be all well and good, but this is the primary complaint -“…it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us…” At this point in our history, no overt action had been taken by Congress against any of the plantation economy’s interests. All of the seceding Senators and Congressmen had sworn “by Oath or Affirmation” to support the Constitution and implicitly, the compact between the States that the Constitution defines.

    Davis really hated that this was happening, but, “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 their Convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted.” So, he counseled Mississippians that if the national election didn’t go the way they wanted, they should break up the Union. So much for that inconvenient oath.

    Jefferson didn’t mean “all men are created equal” he meant, all “the men of the political community”, but being such a poor wordsmith he misspoke. These guys were pissed and divorce was the only remedy they would countenance at this stage. The election of Lincoln offended their romantic sense of honor somehow. We can do this thing peacefully, “if you so will it.” Otherwise get ready, “we will invoke the God of our fathers… putting our trust in God and in our firm hearts and strong arms, we will vindicate the right as best we may.” I believe the “gauntlet” is being thrown down.

    • Agathman says:

      Davis is making the same argument as most of the secessionists, that the failure of the Federal Government to adequately enforce the fugitive slave law was tantamount to an overt act against slavery in the existing states. Note that he carefully qualifies the right of nullification as only justified when the law in question is unconstitutional, so that, while Massachusetts could have seceded rather than return fugitives, he would hold that it could not refuse to obey (constitutional) federal law while remaining in the union.

      He does ignore the stated views of both Lincoln and Seward, that the Federal Government should enforce the fugitive slave law strictly. Given that assurance, his rationale for secession comes down to the fact that he disagrees with the political philosophy of the Republicans.

      Oh, and he’s factually incorrect when he says that “There was a time when none denied” the right to secession. Madison emphatically denied it at the time of the ratification of the constitution — see my post: http://gathkinsons.net/sesqui/?p=1386.

  2. Pingback: January 22, 1861: Have senators resigned? | Seven Score and Ten

  3. Mark says:

    Quoting Jefferson Davis on the Constitution is like quoting Charles Manson on the law about murder — each has their own agenda.

    Davis spent the rest of his life, virtually every moment of every day, trying to justify his corrupt, vile, and cruel attempts to enslave even more millions, to sell even more children, to burn to death even more men who resisted slavery.

    Davis claimed that God ordained slavery, and that slavery was a “Divine Gift”. SLavery, he claimed, was “the cornerstone” of our confederacy. The South had long assumed, he said that liberty meant the right to own other humans, to force them to do your work, under pain of torture or death, that slave children had no more rights to be with their parents than a calf has a right to be with it’s mother.

    Slaves were not even human, in the eyes of the South. Davis helped to write the Dred Scott decision, some said, which specifically stated that blacks were so inferior, that not only could no white man reasonably expect slaves were human for purposes of the Declaration of Independence, but they were so inferior that no state, and no Congress could even GIVE blacks the rights of human.

    This was Jeff Davis. A man whose wealth came from one thing — slaves. A man whose power came from one thing — slavery.

    Davis himself wrote that the “intolerable grievance” that caused the Civil War was NOT any tariff, NOT personal liberty laws. No, the intolerable grievance, according to Davis himself, was that people in the North (he meant Lincoln) dared to even SPEAK out against the Dred Scott decision.

    Let me repeat that, because it’s what Jefferson Davis wrote, in cool reflection, years later. The “intolerable grievance” was that someone SPOKE OUT against the Dred Scott decision.

    The Dred Scott decision has been white washed into absurdity now, we teach our children it was about blacks and “citizenship”. Utter nonsense. It was about black people not even being human in the eyes of the law. In other words, blacks were on the same level as pigs, or piles of lumber. They had no more rights than any piece of property. And Dred Scott decision went much further — blacks could not GET any rights by any state action, by any act of Congress.

    It was the decision of crazed madmen, it was the most flagrant and obnoxious decision in US history, corrupt and vile. But that someone dared to even SPEAK OUT against it, was “the intolerable grievance” according to Jefferson Davis himself.

    Jefferson Davis was a sociopath, a man of great oratory and writing skill, ,who could fool stupid people and lead evil people.

    The fitting capture of Davis — in a dress — shows his real nature. Yes, he was wearing a dress when captured, an no, that’s not a story made up by Northern press. His own wife all but admitted it was a dress, and said she told the Union soldiers Davis “was my mother”. If she all but admitted it, Jefferson Davis own aide readily admitted it.

    But it was not the dress that showed Davis was a coward. The real embarrassment of that day was not his dress — it was that Davis was running away from his wife and children, leaving them behind, when trouble came. Davis claimed he was running to get a gun that was with the horses, but guns were nearby and plentiful, he did not not need to run 200 feet to a horse. He needed to run 200 feet to escape on a horse.

    Jeff Davis was a personal coward, and it’s time the truth be known about him. It’s time we quit this nonsensical farce about Davis — or Lee for that matter — as honorable brave men. Neither were either.


    • Bob Evans says:

      Your conclusion demonstrates your ignorance concerning the real matter at hand which Mr. Davis was addressing. While I do not concur with the idea of slavery, it was nonetheless a fact of life and thusly stated and rightfully quoted by the Senator. At issue, as it remains today, is the sovereignty of states rights. No doubt slavery, as it existed then, would surely run its course in the United States and cease. The War Between the States was not a Civil War sir but a battle for state rights. Still today we see the effects in “Big Government” which again threatens our very existence. No, Robert E. Lee and President Davis were neither cowards nor traitors but men who realized that there was much more at stake than slavery. Your liberal education has blinded you.

  4. Mark says:

    States rights? You think states rights was the cause of the war?

    Jefferson Davis said it was about the SPREAD OF SLAVERY. Are you deaf and dumb? Read his book — he said it. Jefferson Davis said the “intolerable grievance” was the resistance against the SPREAD of slavery into the territories.

    Jeff Davis said that. Was he wrong? Your Jeff Davis said that. In his own BOOK! That he wrote, and he edited, and HE approved. Too complicated for you?

    And that right to SPREAD SLAVERY — was against, repeat, AGAINST, states rights. Kansas had just voted 98% against slavery, 2% for slavery. So if “states rights” meant a tinker’s darn, Southern leaders would have said “Oh, the overwhelming number of people out there don’t want slavery — never mind”

    But what did the Southern leaders DO when Kansas voted 98% -2% against slavery . Did they respect that states rights or soverienty? HELLO NO. They sent killers and thugs out there, much like the Taliban sends their killers out, to scare people. But it didn’t work. The men in Kansas beat the living tar out of the killers sent by Southern leaders.

    So THEN what did Southern leaders do? No longer could pretend they cared spit about states rights. Instead, the seceded and wrote their Five Ultimatums — Five things they demanded, under threat of war. Go read them. FIVE ULTIMATUMS, Richmond Newspaper March 23 1861. Go on, READ THEM.

    Have you read them? HELLO NO you haven’t read them, so let me tell you what they were. All five — not just one, two, three, or four — were about the spread of slavery. See that word “SPREAD”?

    Not one of the Ultimatums, not two, not three, not four — but all five of the Ultimatums were about the SPREAD of slavery, and all five were very much against the rights of any state to decide. In fact, it specifically demanded that states “respect and defend” slavery — never mind what the people want, never mind what the state government wants, slavery MUST be spread and defended..

    That was not from some historian later, that was your SOUTHERN LEADERS shouting as loudly and as proudly as they could. That was official and unofficial admission that the spread of slavery — against state’s wishes- was the issue.

    And always has been.

    Plus, JEfferson Davis himself said the issue was the spread of slavery in his own book. Was he wrong? So you have your President, and the ULtimatums, both saying the issue was the SPREAD of slavery.

    As the personal cowardice of Lee and Davis, you can’t know if they were running away in a dress — as Davis did — because he was afraid, or it was just a clever disguise. What he wore makes little difference. What he DID when the Union soldiers came close speaks much louder. Yes, he had on a dress — his own wife admitted as much.

    His own wife told the soldiers Jeff Davis was her MOTHER. That’s right, Jeff Davis wife said “It’s my mother”. How do we know she said this? She wrote this in a letter, which still exists, and you can see it yourself — she said “I called out ‘It’s my mother”.

    Let me repeat that, His own wife, wrote a letter, where she admits that she called out “Its my mother”. One more time — “IT’s MY MOTHER”. That is in her letter, what she said herself “It’s my mother”.

    Naturally, the cowards in the South will not even deal with this basic fact. His wfie writes a letter telling of his capture, and she admits that she called out “It’s my mother”

    Plus there are 100 other facts that support he was dressed as a woman. When Southern apologist address this, naturally, they won’t even deal with his own wife’s description.

    But it wasn’t the dress — it was his cowardice. What did he do — never mind what he wore, what did Davis DO? He ran! He left his wife and child when the bullets were flying and RAN, leaving them to fend for themselves! Easily the biggest act of cowardice in US history. What he wore makes no difference , tho he wore a dress. What he DID was pure cowardice, leaving his wife and children behind.

    He later tried to say he was running to get a gun that was on his horse — but there were guns nearby in the camp, he need not run some distance away for one.

    The South was led by cowards for a vile cause — the spread of slavery. Period. The facts show it. Only your false, deceptive, myths say otherwise. The facts speak loudly. You were led by cowards. They got hundreds of thousands of brave men killed, but they ran like cowards.

    Deal with it.

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