Jefferson Davis’ Address to the Confederate Congress Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In February, 1861, Jefferson Davis had been selected to be the president of the Confederate States of America, by a committee charged with establishing a provisional government. A proposed constitution had been written and circulated to the states for adoption. When states seceded, they took control of military bases within their state. Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, on an island was thus isolated from the mainland. The North had begun to prepare for war, including sending a supply convoy to the fort. A preemptive attack allowed the South to capture the fort, and the fighting had begun. Jefferson Davis made this speech once Lincoln’s response was clear, that it truly was going to be a war. As president, Davis addressed the Confederate Congress to initiate necessary legislation.

Summary Overview

In February, 1861, Jefferson Davis had been selected to be the president of the Confederate States of America, by a committee charged with establishing a provisional government. A proposed constitution had been written and circulated to the states for adoption. When states seceded, they took control of military bases within their state. Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, on an island was thus isolated from the mainland. The North had begun to prepare for war, including sending a supply convoy to the fort. A preemptive attack allowed the South to capture the fort, and the fighting had begun. Jefferson Davis made this speech once Lincoln’s response was clear, that it truly was going to be a war. As president, Davis addressed the Confederate Congress to initiate necessary legislation.

Defining Moment

President Jefferson Davis addressed the Congress of the Confederate States of America, which he had called into special session in the capital, Montgomery, Alabama. The first shots of what is now called the Civil War had been fired at Fort Sumter. Davis believed it was necessary to get the members of the congress up to date and to pass the laws needed to insure what he anticipated to be the successful defense of his new country. However, as with many political speeches, the Confederate Congress was not the only audience. The history lesson on the events surrounding the Revolutionary War and his recounting of his version of current events were included to put a positive spin on Confederate efforts, so that whoever read an account of the speech might be inclined to support the Southern cause.

While the call to arms had gone out earlier, this style of speech was given in order to rally people throughout the South. As in many of his speeches, Davis closely identified the Southern cause with the actions of the American colonists in initiating the American Revolution. He recounted recent events, from his perspective, which demonstrated that President Lincoln would use any tactic, honorable or not, to put the South into a position of subservience. From Davis’ description of events, it is clear that he saw the South as totally justified in firing upon the fort and blocking its re-supply. He lifted up the Southern officers as individuals who met the highest standards even in a time of war, which was compared to the treachery of Union leaders. This speech, and special session, gave the Confederates the foundation they needed to begin the war effort against the North. The war and the effort to win it had begun.

Author Biography

Born in Kentucky, Jefferson Davis lived from June 3, 1808, to December 6, 1889. He was the tenth child of Samuel and Jane Cook Davis. Growing up on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, he attended private schools at the beginning of his education. Selected for the United States Military Academy, he graduated from West Point in 1828. Although assigned to a post in Wisconsin during the Black Hawk War, he missed action in the conflict because he was on leave in Mississippi. He married Sarah Taylor in 1835, but she died soon after the marriage. He married again, in 1845, to Varina Howell, and they had six children.

Davis resigned his commission in 1835, in order to marry. He moved to Mississippi, to a plantation given to him by his brother. Davis became interested in politics in 1840, finally obtaining elected office in 1845, as a member of the House of Representatives. He wanted to be a part of the Mexican-American War, so he resigned from Congress and formed a Mississippi regiment armed with rifles, rather than smooth-barreled weapons. He had major conflicts with army generals who did not approve of the new gun. His regiment performed well in the war, proving the use of the new technology. Returning to Mississippi, he filled a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate and then was re-elected. He left the Senate to serve as Secretary of War for President Pierce and then returned to the Senate in 1858.

With the secession of the Southern states, Davis resigned from the Senate and attended the meeting drawing up a provisional constitution for the Confederacy. He “campaigned” for president, on his military and political experience, as well as on his willingness to begin hostilities, if necessary. He was selected as provisional president, and then elected president by the people in November, 1861, serving until the end of the war. He made most of his civilian and military appointments based upon friendship, rather than strictly on credentials. He was also quite rigid in dealing with others. Many thought this hurt the Confederate chances for success. Although arrested for treason after the war, he was never tried. During Reconstruction, he was unpopular at first but later came to be seen by many as a great leader for the Southern cause. His funeral in New Orleans was attended by tens of thousands of people.

Document Analysis

As Jefferson Davis began his speech, it was clear that he saw the Confederate States of America as being alive. For him, it was a blending of 1776 and 1788. Just as the American colonists had been countrymen with the British, but grievances brought them to war, the people of the South had been countrymen with those in the North, but now there were such serious divisions that war was at hand. At the same time, Davis reflected on the period in 1788 when the United States was moving from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitutional system, and saw this period of transition reflected in what was happening in the South. In addition, he illustrated what he believed were steps taken by the North to suppress the South, since the American Constitution had been ratified. In recent months, Davis recalled what he perceived as treachery by President Lincoln and the Union leaders. Because of this ‘suppression’ by the North, Davis thought it was clear why the South had to secede and initiate the conflict. Davis closed out his speech with a litany of what had been taking place in the Confederate government and what needed to take place to get it into the form necessary to meet the needs of its citizens. Finally, in thanking all who had volunteered for the army, he tried to make it seem as if there would be overwhelming numbers willing to serve the Confederate cause. His confidence that right was on the side of the South and that the resources would be available to defeat the North was reflected in all three parts of the speech. From what he said, it seemed that nothing could stop the inevitable victory of the aggrieved Southern states over the North.

After an almost perfunctory reference to the successful ratification of the new constitution of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis got to the issue at hand: how to secure independence in order that this constitution would be for an independent, functioning country. He reported that a “declaration of war” was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on April 15th. The first major portion of his speech was a history lesson from the time the Founding Fathers felt forced to go to war against Great Britain to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States. Although Davis believed there were always significant differences between the Northern and Southern states, he asserted that the danger from their common enemy, the British, had pushed the colonies/states into a cooperative union with each other. Quoting from the Articles of Confederation to substantiate this, he went on to quote them further about the states’ independence, “each State retains its Sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” Davis reminded his listeners that any change to the Articles required the unanimous consent of the thirteen states.

From this point on, the positive things he had to say about the United States disappeared. He thought that beginning in 1787, the North began a concerted attempt to take total control of the nation, by undermining the economic and political strength of the South and by taking away state sovereignty. The first step in undermining the states was the difference between what the Articles said about change, versus the proposed American Constitution. The Articles said every state must agree, while the Constitution said only nine of the thirteen had to agree for it to go into effect. To Davis, this was an intentional change to undercut the strength of states which might be in the minority on an issue. The second point was that the Constitution did not contain the phrase from the Articles regarding the sovereignty and independence of each state. It was true that this was one point anti-Federalists used to argue against the Constitution, although the lack of a Bill of Rights was more important to most. The Constitution was adopted, and from Davis’ vantage point, this great loss to the strength of the states was orchestrated by those plotting against the South. Talking about the United States government, he said, that while it was supposed to support the “blessings of liberty and independence” it had been transformed “into a machine for their control in their domestic affairs.”

Looking at past decades, he interpreted events as the North’s greed as “a majority to govern the minority without control.” Unequal population growth between North and South gave the North the power to ride roughshod over the Constitution and the South, was Davis’ view. Davis totally objected to the interpretation that the national government ultimately had control over the states. In an unusual move for Davis, who normally only focused on the issue of states’ rights in his speeches, he then proceeded to mention “another subject of discord” which had been simmering for “nearly half a century.” This was slavery. Davis correctly stated that in twelve states allowed slavery when the Constitution was adopted, and took this as endorsement of the practice. He also interpreted the clause which prohibited Congress from making a law against the importation of slaves for twenty years (until 1808) as supporting slavery by allowing the importation of enough slaves for a stable and diverse slave population. David claimed that the Africans were “elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction.” He further stated his belief that the Constitution supported slavery when he said that among the specific powers granted to Congress, there was nothing about this “species of property,” a term he used for slavery. Most people have not seen in this way, rather understand that there were and are a wide variety of issues not specifically mentioned in the Constitution on which Congress has had to act for the good of the nation.

Davis asserted that when the Northern states ended slavery within their borders and had a “controlling voice in the Congress,” they began to pass legislation to hurt the South and Southern slave owners. The lack of support for laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act, demonstrated to Davis that the North was trying to take away the wealth and property of the South. Politics, in Davis’ mind, had come to the point that the people elected to Congress from the North were fanatics on the issue of slavery not seeking “domestic tranquility” but creating “bitter hatred against the citizens of sister States by violent denunciation of their institutions.” The end of that progress, for Davis, was the creation of the strongly anti-slavery Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860. Davis reminded the members of the Confederate congress, and others who would later read the speech, that the slave-based economy of the South contributed “nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States.” Davis, and most Southern leaders, believed these exports would be the reason Europe would support the South and give it the financial strength to win the war. Having listed historic grievances, Davis then proclaimed that this was why the Southern states were “resuming all their rights as sovereign and Independent States.”

The second major aspect of Davis’ speech was a chronology of recent events and of the North’s failure to act with honor or military success. Asserting that the states forming the Confederacy were more unified than those which had written and adopted the United States Constitution, Davis then turned to how this newly-created Confederacy had tried to deal honorably with the United States government, only to find themselves ignored and treated with treachery and deceit. When those meeting to form the provisional government for the South selected Davis to be the provisional president, they also instructed him to try to negotiate a peaceful separation from the United States. The three individuals chosen to represent the South arrived the day after President Lincoln was inaugurated. Davis reported that after a week they contacted the United States Secretary of State in order that negotiations for “a peaceful solution of these great questions” could be found. Davis continued his report by accurately telling the Confederate leaders that not until April 8th did they receive any response, and the message was that there would be no negotiations. The response had been dated more than three weeks prior to when the Southern emissaries received it.

As to what had happened during that time, Davis found an “absence of good faith” in the Union’s actions, as they had prepared a fleet to take supplies to Fort Sumter, in Charleston’s harbor, and then jointly to attack any forces which might be trying lay siege to the fort. Weather delayed the fleet, which allowed a message to get from the emissaries in Washington to Davis, and for him to let the commander in Charleston know what to expect. As a result, the fort was attacked, and captured by Confederate forces, while the fleet was repelled. Davis then described how honorably the Confederate commander acted toward those who had defended the fort, even allowing them to board a ship and return to the North. Thus South Carolina, and the Confederates in general, were described as acting with “chivalrous regard” toward those who had been defeated, while the Northern leaders in Washington were dishonest in their dealings with Davis’ emissaries. Lincoln’s “declaring that an insurrection has broken out” was seen by Davis as illegitimate, since only Congress had the power to declare war. However, Lincoln did not admit that the Confederacy was an independent country, so he did not seek a formal declaration of war, such as would have been necessary to initiate conflict with anther nation. Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops was also seen by Davis as a de facto declaration of war toward the South. Although Lincoln said they were acting “in aid of the process of the courts of justice,” their initial targets would be military. Davis did not believe the blockade of Southern ports, ordered by Lincoln, would be of any substance, calling it a “paper blockade.” He implied that Lincoln was insane if he thought the blockade would work, that the order must have been “published under the sudden influence of passion.”

The final section of the speech dealt with the needs of the government, both in terms of starting a whole new system of cooperative ventures among the states and in obtaining the necessary resources to prosecute the war. Topics included reports ranging from the fact that Virginia had agreed to join the Confederacy, to the post office establishing the necessary system to deliver the mail. He told his audience that the court system was almost all in place, the Treasury Department had sold bonds to people across the South to support the war, and the Navy Department nearly had their first ships ready for action. The central focus was the War Department, which oversaw the army. While referring to other reports which had been given to the congress, Davis mentioned 35,000 men already in place, with volunteers to create “an army of 100,000 men.” The fact that thousands of men were already volunteering, made Davis confident that the forces necessary would be trained and ready. He understood that for many it would be “the most severe ordeal” when they were just waiting for action. However, the fact that they were ready to “maintain their birthright of freedom and equality” would give them the strength to “resist to the direst extremity.” Davis claimed he wanted peace, and would act to end the war, if the North gave up its attempt to forcibly keep the South in the Union.

Although Davis gave an optimistic picture of the situation, since the South had chosen to be a confederation because of their problems with the federal government under the U.S. Constitution, his government did not have the power necessary to obtain all the resources it might need. Davis emphasized that the period in American history when the Articles of Confederation were in effect was a golden age. He conveniently forgot that the system would not have been changed if it had been ideal. We know that initially the Confederate Congress did give Davis the supplies which he asked for, and the states supported him as well. However, a few years later even his eloquence was unable to pull together the “sovereign states” which formed the Confederacy. Davis’ closing sentiments were the same as the sentiments by many on both sides of the struggle, he asked for God’s blessing on the Confederate cause.

Essential Themes

Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederate States of America. The strength of his leadership assisted the initial phase of their efforts to achieve independence, while later in the war he was often ill, or unable to get the several states to respond to the needs of the whole. In this speech, Davis tried to reaffirm the reason for the South’s secession and to depict the way they were going to go about their “just and holy” cause. Politically, speeches such as this and Davis’ initial successes enabled him to be elected president in the fall with no opposition. The causes outlined in this speech: states’ rights, keeping slavery legal, and equity among various regions of a country, were important to keep before the South. With the collapse of the Confederacy four years later, much of what he had said collapsed as well. The details of how he thought the Confederacy would work were only a footnote in history. It was different with two of the three causes which he brought out in the opening sections of the speech. The one which was already outdated was slavery. By 1861, slavery had been outlawed in most of the developed world and in 1865 it was outlawed in the United States as well.

However, the other two ideas addressed in this speech have remained relevant. States’ rights has long been the rallying cry for individuals and groups dissatisfied with some action, or decision, by the national government. Within the federal system of the United States, there are certain powers given to both levels of government. However, as was made clear in an early court ruling, and by the Civil War, the national government has the final say in most areas of life, including human and civil rights. Often people who do not want to abide by these rules, look to people like Jefferson Davis and proclaim the need to restore states’ rights. The problem of regional inequality has also remained important in American politics and society. The question of when inequality is the result of governmental actions and when it is the result of social factors, remains something which is continually examined. However, unlike the period just prior to the Civil War, the unity of the nation which has continued to develop over the decades, has allowed disparities to exist without them tearing apart the nation. Jefferson Davis was a Southern leader, who spoke the thoughts and ideas of his time and place. Unfortunately for him, his thoughts and ideas were on the losing side in history.

Bibliography
  • Cooper, William J. Jr. Jefferson Davis, American. New York: Knopf, 2000. Print.
  • Crist, Lynda Lasswell. The Papers of Jefferson Davis. Houston: Rice University, 2011. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Avalon Project. Confederate States of America – Message to Congress April 29, 1861. New Haven: Yale University, Lillian Goldman Law Library, 2008. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • Chadwick, Bruce. Two American Presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Secaucus: Birch Lane, 1999. Print.
  • Davis, Jefferson. The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. New York: Appleton, 1881. Print and Web (Digitized by Google). 6 Oct 2013.
  • Dirck, Brian R. Lincoln & Davis: Imagining America, 1809–1865. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2001. Print.
  • Hattaway, Herman. Jefferson Davis, Confederate President. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2002. Print.
Categories: History Content