Jefferson Davis – from Mississippi – resigned from the United States Senate in January 1861 and was chosen President of the Confederacy by
the Provisional Congress and inaugurated in Montgomery, Alabama on February 18, 1861 (see picture). He was then officially elected President of the Confederacy in November of that year for a term of six years. His inauguration was in Richmond, Virginia, February 22, 1862 – that is 150 years ago today.
It is interesting to read through his speech and note some of the themes. One cannot help but immediately ponder that the inauguration was on the date of George Washington’s birthday. It was common for the Confederates to assert an affinity with the Founders’ generation and efforts, and that is exactly how Davis began his speech:
Fellow Citizens: On this, the birthday of the man most identified with the establishment of American independence, and beneath the monument erected to commemorate his heroic virtues and those of his compatriots, we have assembled to usher into existence the permanent government of the Confederate States. Through this instrumentality, and under the favor of a benign Providence, we hope to perpetuate the principles of our revolutionary fathers.
It is with difficulty that some folks today struggle to understand what in the world would make the Southern cause seem so just in their minds – to have such a passionate allegiance to principles that, by modern standards, seem odious and riddled with injustice. This was not at all how the Confederates viewed their situation – feeling genuinely that they stood in line with principles of justice and rightful constitutional government. Davis summarizes some of these thoughts:
The experiment instituted by our revolutionary fathers, of a voluntary union of sovereign States, for purposes specified in solemn compact, had been prevented by those who, feeling they had the power and forgetting the right, were determined to respect no law but their own will. The government had ceased to answer the ends for which it was ordained and established. To save ourselves from a revolution which, in its silent but rapid progress, was about to place us under a despotism of numbers, and to preserve, in the spirit as well as the form, the system of government we believed to be peculiarly fitted to our condition and full of promise for mankind, we determined to make a new association, composed of States homogenous in interest, policy and feeling.
Of special interest and notice was to see my state of Maryland especially spoken of in the address. Resident within these words is the context for the feelings of the Army of Northern Virginia marching into Maryland in September of this year of 1862 – coming as friends to liberate fellow Southern kinfolk from Union oppression.
Our Confederacy has grown from six to thirteen States, and Maryland, already united to us by hallowed memories and material interests, will, I believe, when able to speak with united voice, connect her destiny with the South.
Davis addresses both the successes of the early War, and yet also inferentially the recent setbacks at Forts Henry and Donelson – defeats that opened the interior to Union control.
After a series of successes and victories which covered our arms with glory, we have recently met with serious disasters; but in the heart of this people, who are resolved to be free, these disasters tend but to stimulate to increased resistance. … Battles have been fought and sieges conducted, and although the contest has not ended, and did for the moment go against us, the final result in our favor is not doubtful.
It is a wonderful speech – yet another evidence of the many extraordinary examples of writing and speaking from a period where some of the most gloriously-constructed documents and speeches in the English language have come. And Jefferson Davis ends on a breath-taking note of dependence upon divine providence. As I read this, I think of the great words of Lincoln at his 2nd inaugural, where he spoke of the irony as to how the North and South “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other … The prayers of both could not be answered.”
Davis concludes: “… fully realizing the inadequacy of human power to guide and sustain, my hope is reverently fixed on Him whose favor is vouchsafed to the cause which is just. With humble gratitude and adoration, acknowledging the Providence which has so visibly protected the Confederacy during its brief but eventful career, to Thee, O God, I trustingly commit myself, and prayerfully invoke Thy blessing on my country and its cause.”