President of the Confederacy: His Last U.S. Senate Speech
On January 21, 1861 Jefferson Davis rose on the Senate floor to explain why the state of Mississippi decided to secede from the Union—it would be his last speech as a U.S. Senator.
After sharing some thoughts about nullification and secession and expressing his support for secession, even if a northern state decided to do so, he went on to explain:
“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 into 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 of Independence 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 made 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 stirring 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 footing of equality with white men—not even 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.
Then, Senators, we recur to the compact which binds us together; we recur to the principles upon which our Government was founded; and when you deny them, and when you deny to 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 sacred duty to transmit unshorn to our children.”
- Jefferson Davis, January 21, 1861
Jefferson Davis would go on, a short time after this speech, to become the president of the Confederate States of America.
When you hear people today defending the Confederacy and arguing that it wasn’t about the preservation of slavery, take a look at the views of the people who founded the Confederacy and determine for yourself whether or not they sought to preserve slavery.
As a note, the Confederate States also codified the institution of slavery into its constitution—protecting slavery and specifically mentioning that the institution of negro slavery was a right that could not be impaired or denied by any other law that could ever be passed.
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Smith Danita. They Can’t Pull Us Up: Harriet Tubman and Her Life. Red and Black Ink, LLC. 2016.
Richardson, James D. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy: Including Diplomatic Correspondence, 1861 - 1865. (Nashville, Tennessee, 1906). Pg. 43.
Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library. Constitution of the Confederate States; March 11, 1861. Accessed August 2017.