Jefferson Davis’ Inaugural Address as Elected President of the Confederacy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States and was quickly followed by others. They formed the Confederate States of America, with a system of government based upon that of the United States. After a period under a provisional constitution, a permanent one was adopted. Jefferson Davis, who had been provisional president, was selected as president. At the capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Davis gave his second inaugural speech. While the war had started favorably for the Confederate States, the first several weeks of 1862 found the North was winning all the battles. The optimism which some had had at the beginning of the war had faded away. Davis needed to keep the states united and determined in the task of defeating the Northern armies and achieving independence for the South.

Summary Overview

December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States and was quickly followed by others. They formed the Confederate States of America, with a system of government based upon that of the United States. After a period under a provisional constitution, a permanent one was adopted. Jefferson Davis, who had been provisional president, was selected as president. At the capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Davis gave his second inaugural speech. While the war had started favorably for the Confederate States, the first several weeks of 1862 found the North was winning all the battles. The optimism which some had had at the beginning of the war had faded away. Davis needed to keep the states united and determined in the task of defeating the Northern armies and achieving independence for the South.

Defining Moment

Although November, 1861, had seen the first formal elections for the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis had run as the incumbent, having served as the provisional president since February of that year. Thus, as he gave what is known as his Second Inaugural Speech , Davis fully understood the events which had brought him to that place. As he began what was supposed to be a six-year term, he knew many of the trials which he and his Confederate colleagues would face if he was to serve the entire term. In his first inaugural speech, he had set out his vision and hopes for the future of the new alliance of Southern states. The hopes reflected in that speech had not come to pass, as President Lincoln and the United States government refused to allow the South to secede.

Slavery, the issue which had divided the United States prior to the Civil War, was not mentioned in this speech. It was a given for the Confederates that slavery would be allowed. It was also not an issue which would gain friends for the South in Europe. What needed the focus in early 1862 was the unity which the ongoing war demanded. In order to try to gain support from European nations, Davis needed to point to the actions which President Lincoln had taken which might seem objectionable in Europe, as well as in the Confederacy. This speech marked the formal beginning of the Confederate States of America, and as such needed to be uplifting as well as realistic. If the South was to be successful in the effort to create its own country, it needed to be ready to sacrifice much in the common cause. Davis had this opportunity to raise the level of enthusiasm in order to gain the support which would be needed to endure the ongoing conflict with the North.

Author Biography

Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, and died December 6, 1889. He was born in Kentucky, the tenth child of Samuel and Jane Cook Davis. While he was a child, his family moved to Mississippi where they had a cotton plantation. Growing up, he attended three different schools prior to entering the United States Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1828. During his first posting, he met and married Sarah Taylor, in 1835, daughter of his commander, Zachery Taylor. He resigned his commission to marry her and moved to a plantation in Mississippi given him by an older brother. His wife died three months after they married, and Davis married a second time ten years later. He and his second wife had six children.

Davis entered politics in 1840, attending various state and national conventions. In 1845, he was elected to the House of Representatives, resigning in 1846 to form a Mississippi regiment for the Mexican-American War. He, and his regiment, better armed than most American forces, served with distinction during the war. After the war he was appointed to the U.S. Senate from Mississippi, serving from 1847 to 1851. He then lost an election to be governor of Mississippi. When Franklin Pierce was elected president, he appointed Davis as Secretary of War. He did more than most in this position, being involved in public works programs, expansion of the railroads, and the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico. He was elected to the Senate in 1857 and served until resigning in 1861.

Although the second choice of most, he was selected president of the Confederate States because, if necessary, he was willing to initiate war against the United States. He was re-elected in 1861, beginning his first regular term as president in February, 1862. Having been a field commander and the Secretary of War, Davis was very involved in the war effort, with mixed results. He was unable to fully unify the Southern states, which made the chances of successful secession worse than they might have been. At the end of the war he was arrested, but never tried for treason. Initially, after the war he was ignored by most. However, he lived long enough for many whites in the South to once again see him as a great leader in their cause during the years prior to his death.

Document Analysis

As Jefferson Davis addressed the crowd gathered in Richmond, he needed not only to inspire those gathered that day but also to communicate with others in the South, and possible allies in Europe. As would be expected in the midst of a war, he denigrated the actions and policies of the Union, while lifting up the Confederate States of America as a country which all others should emulate. From the inception of the Confederacy, the Confederates had identified themselves with the leaders of the American Revolution. With Virginia being the home to many of the Founding Fathers, this was somewhat easy to do. Throughout this speech, Davis made use of the image of the oppression of the South by the North, implying that it was parallel to the British and American conflict just prior to the American Revolution. The underlying message in this speech was that just as the colonists were thought to have been no match to the British, until the revolution actually happened, similarly the South would surprise everyone by its ability to defeat the North.

Davis’s introductory paragraphs began with a reference to George Washington, through reference to his birthday and the monument to him at the location of the speech. The reference to him and “the establishment of American independence” and the formation of “the Permanent Government of the Confederate States” in the same sentence demonstrated his view of what was happening. Invoking God, Davis believed that what was happening in 1862 was a continuation of what had occurred in 1776, which he saw as being divinely blessed. After a few words of thanks for the honor of being president, Davis then moved into the heart of his speech.

He began with a presentation of his view of the grievance which had caused the South to secede. He stated that the North had been passing legislation for its welfare, not for the welfare of the country as a whole. He claimed this had “culminated in a warfare on the domestic institutions of the Southern States.” Although the two regions had different economic interests, the major point of contention between the North and South was slavery. This was especially true if one were referring to “domestic institutions.” In point of fact, the last piece of legislation which was passed by Congress was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which expanded the area open to slavery. While Abraham Lincoln had spoken vigorously against slavery, he was not president when the first several states seceded. It was true that the Republican Party was very much a part of the North, since in the election of 1860 it was not on the ballot of ten of the Southern States. As would be expected, given his social views, Lincoln was elected without a single electoral vote from a slave state. Thus, some of the objections Southern leaders had toward the Union were the actions they anticipated from Lincoln. In actuality, if the South had stayed in the Union, and the Northern and Southern Democrats had been able to work together, they would have had enough votes in Congress to have blocked any radical legislation Lincoln might have initiated. Thus, the initial point which Davis emphasized was not necessarily based on historical fact. However, what Davis, and other Southern leaders, believed was the foundation for their actions.

After referring to the inequities of the former system, Davis went on to demonstrate the differences between what was occurring in the North and in the South. He made it clear that the leaders in the North had no “sense of justice.” The “malignity and barbarity” of the way the North pursued the war were itemized by Davis. These items, while they might be interpreted differently by Union supporters, were factual. However, by beginning by mentioning “civil and religious liberty,” Davis was again bringing to his audience’s mind the reasons the American Revolution was fought. The, according to Davis, were being ignored in the North. Lincoln did suspend the writ of habeas corpus, even though Chief Justice Taney had ruled that this unilateral act by the executive branch was unconstitutional, even in a time of war. The leaders of Maryland were imprisoned when they failed to stop the anti-Union riots in Baltimore. The military did patrol certain areas of the North when elections had been held. Freedom of speech was limited, in that some people were incarcerated for making statements which were construed as being supportive of the Confederates. Thus, Davis made it clear that from his perspective, not only had the Union’s leaders pushed the South into secession, they were now destroying what was left of the country by unconstitutional acts.

Unlike what was happening in the North, Davis asserted that in the Confederacy, “there has been no act on our part to impair personal liberty or the freedom of speech, of thought, or of the press.” Under both the provisional and permanent constitutions of the Confederacy, Davis stated that everything was as if “a war of invasion had not disturbed the land.” The differences between the two areas, as described by Davis, demonstrated the fact that the Northern leaders would have destroyed the South, just as they were at that time destroying the North. For Davis, it reaffirmed the correctness of the decision for the South to have seceded.

Going back to the Founding Fathers, Davis again argued that they had established a “voluntary Union of sovereign States.” Thus, with the election of Lincoln, the Northern leaders were ready to ignore the “solemn compact” which had been made at the founding of the United States. Davis asserted that without secession, there would have been an uprising by the people, so the South tried to peacefully withdraw from the Union. He states that while the South did not object to the system of government established by the Founding Fathers, they did object to the way it was being implemented by the leaders from the North. As such they created a country “composed of States homogeneous in interest, in policy, and in feeling.” To him, the North caused the war because they would not participate in talks with representatives of the Confederate States. Of course, the North would have said that there was no such legal entity as the Confederate States, just people fomenting an illegal rebellion.

Davis then went on to list some of the accomplishments since February, 1861, when the provisional government had been implemented. A relatively effective government had been put in place, including holding elections. The Confederate States had more than doubled in number, with hopes that Maryland would ultimately add a fourteenth state. The willingness of men to volunteer for the army and to fight the North was as great as could be expected, according to Davis. The scope of the war dwarfed anything which had happened in North American history. Davis anticipated that success in battle would ebb and flow, but ultimately the South would be victorious. He anticipated that the debt the North was creating in building their army would sink it. (He ignored the fact that the South was going into debt as fast as the North.) According to Davis, it was to be understood that during a war everyone would have to make some sacrifices. However, he believed that the value of separation from the North was so great, that it was worth any sacrifices which were necessary.

He believed that the unity and patriotism which the war was creating was beneficial to the country. It is worth noting that in this speech, and generally throughout the statements of most Confederate leaders the word ‘nation’ was never used. To them, this denoted a country with a strong central government, such as had been the case in the United States. The confederate system they hoped to create gave the states more rights and powers than had been the case in the federal system of the United States. He thought that the people of the South would be “taught the value of our liberties by the price which we pay for them.” Just as the struggle against the British had made the colonies more unified, Davis anticipated the same happening in the Confederacy.

Putting a good spin on a bad situation, Davis stated that a benefit from the Union blockade of Southern ports was that the South was becoming more “self-supporting.” He thought that being able to produce a variety of goods would be beneficial to the South. The fact that no other country had come to their aid meant, for Davis, that when they won the war they would be more widely respected by other “nations of the earth.” It would give the Confederacy more freedom to undertake the policies they desired, rather than having to do what an ally might want them to do. It would also, according to Davis, give them the ability to trade their agricultural goods with anyone on the most advantageous terms available. He believed a trading nation, such as the Confederacy would be, would not be a threat to anyone else, because it would depend upon other countries for commerce. Once again, he referred to the delegation which had been sent to Washington, but with which Lincoln had refused to negotiate.

In Davis’ mind, holding a nation together by force was never justified. After mentioning “our colonial ancestors” and their successful struggle, he verbally attacked the North once more. He used the phrase the “tyranny of an unbridled majority” as a “form of despotism.” The North’s use of its political power, according to Davis, gave the South no choice but to follow the example of the colonists in their struggle for freedom. A few defeats, he said, did not mean the end of the struggle. According to Davis, these would only strength the resolve of the people. Thus the South must “emulate that heroic devotion” of the people of the Revolutionary War, implying that the results for the South would be the same as for the colonists. He closed with a statement and request that the “patriotism and courage of the people” might be blessed by God, and that he did “prayerfully invoke thy blessing on my country and its cause.”

In this speech, Davis made it clear that for him there was only one possible outcome. The South must be successful. To him, this was clear not only because of the confidence he had in the Southern men who stepped forward to fight the battles, but also because he saw the North as beginning to fall apart from the effects of the struggle. In his mind, the North was all but dead, in that, if Lincoln continued to do things the way he had been doing them, a sizeable part of the North would start to object to the sacrifices they were being asked to make, in addition to the unconstitutional steps being taken by the Federal government. On the other hand, Davis said that the “voluntary association” of the Confederacy, while peaceful in nature, would have the strength to deal with the forces which were “waging war along a frontier of thousands of miles.”

Essential Themes

To a certain extent, the significance of this speech faded quickly, because the South lost the Civil War. However, while the speech was one weapon in the total struggle between the North and South, it was more than that. It represented a political philosophy which has never completely faded in the United States. Slavery ended in 1865, with the Thirteenth Amendment. Other aspects of the “domestic institutions” practiced in the antebellum South have also disappeared. Many Confederate leaders, and some historians, said the Civil War was all about states’ rights. That was certainly a factor in the conflict, but the desired ‘right’ which was at the core of the conflict was the right to own slaves. The issue of the proper relationship between the national government and the state governments continues to be debated. Even though from the end of the Reconstruction era until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the national government had not used force on a sizeable scale to insure that states implemented federal law, debate over states’ rights never disappeared. The excesses on both sides during the period around the Civil War have never returned, but where the line should be drawn has been at the heart of many congressional debates and judicial rulings. The “peaceful remedy” which Davis sought has been the norm. However, in opposition to the sentiment of this speech, the outcome of the process has been a clear denial of the validity of hiding behind the legal concept of states’ right when trying to deny basic human rights to various groups of people or to blatantly go against national law. Thus, while sectionalism and states’ rights are still a part of American politics, the lesson from the failure of the Confederate effort to secede has been that any problems from these differences must be dealt with within the American political system.

  • Cooper, William J. Jr. Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2008. Print.
  • Crist, Lynda Lasswell. The Papers of Jefferson Davis. Houston: Rice University, 2011. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • 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.
  • Dodd, William E. and Dunbar Rowland. Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches. Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923. Print.
  • Hattaway, Herman. Jefferson Davis, Confederate President. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2002. Print.
Categories: History