Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi wrote to former U.S. President Franklin Pierce, a personal friend in whose cabinet Davis had served as secretary of war. Davis wrote that it was “not a matter of choice, but of necessity” to follow his home state, which “has resolved to enter on the trial of secession,” out of the Union. Davis blamed the current administration for the sad shape of things, writing that if the “duty ‘to preserve the private property’ were rationally regarded,” the tense standoff between the South Carolinians and the Federal garrison in Charleston Harbor could have been prevented. Consequently:
“When Lincoln comes in he will have but to continue in the path of his predecessor to inaugurate a civil war, and leave a soi disant democratic administration responsible for the fact… Civil war has only horror for me, but whatever circumstances demand shall be met as a duty and I trust be so discharged that you will not be ashamed of our former connection or cease to be my friend.”
January 21st was one of the most dramatic days in the history of the U.S. Senate, as Davis joined four other senators in following their states out of the Union. On that frigid morning, spectators jammed the Senate galleries to hear the planned exit speeches of those senators. The chaplain delivered his noon prayer, and then Vice President John C. Breckinridge recognized the senators from Florida, Stephen R. Mallory and David L. Yulee. Mallory wept as he urged reason over passion, and Yulee declared that he had to leave with his state.
Breckinridge next recognized the senators from Alabama, Clement C. Clay and Benjamin Fitzpatrick. Clay noted the years of mounting tension leading up to this separation, and Fitzpatrick said his first loyalty had to be with Alabama. Mrs. Clay, who witnessed the event with other senators’ wives in the gallery, later recalled:
“The galleries of the Senate, which held, it is estimated, a thousand people, were packed, principally with women, who, trembling with excitement, awaited the announcements of the day… As each Senator, speaking for his State, concluded his solemn renunciation of allegiance to the United States, women grew hysterical and waved their handkerchiefs, encouraging them with cries of sympathy and admiration. Men wept and embraced each other mournfully… Scarcely a member of that senatorial body but was pale with the terrible significance of the hour. There was everywhere a feeling of suspense, as if visibly the pillars of the temple were being withdrawn and the great governmental structure was tottering; nor was there a patriot on either side who did not deplore and whiten before the evil that brooded so low over the nation.”
Jefferson Davis spoke last. As the unofficial southern leader in Congress, the spectators were anxious to hear what Davis had to say. He had been suffering from excruciating migraines for a week, and his doctor had doubted he could even get out of bed, much less give an emotional speech. But Davis fought through it to be there, and his wife Varina noted from the gallery that he looked about the chamber “with the reluctant look the dying cast on those upon whom they gaze for the last time.” His stirring and passionate address began:
“I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the state of Mississippi… has declared her separation from the United States… I have for many years advocated, as an essential attribute of State sovereignty, the right of a State to secede from the Union… if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation… 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.”
Davis spoke of the difference between the principles of secession and nullification, noting that John C. Calhoun, “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… 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.”
Reminding the audience that when Massachusetts threatened to secede rather than be forced to adhere to the Fugitive Slave Act, Davis declared: “I then said that if Massachusetts… 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 United States.”
Noting the Republicans’ refusal to allow southerners to bring their slaves into the western territories, Davis said: “Your votes refuse to recognize our domestic institutions, which pre-existed the formation of the Union—our property, which was guarded by the Constitution… Is there a senator on the other side who, to-day… will deny that we have equally paid in their purchases and equally bled in their acquisition in war?”
Davis addressed the “theory that all men are created free and equal,” and the Republicans’ claim that the Declaration of Independence supported “the position of the equality of the races” by arguing that the Declaration “had 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?… 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… we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the equality of footing with white men…”
Davis pointed out that southerners “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.” In closing, Davis announced:
“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… I 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… having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains for me to bid you a final adieu.”
Silence followed this six-minute address, and then came a sudden burst of loud applause. Vice President Breckinridge, members of the Senate, and the gallery spectators rose from their seats as the five southerners walked out of the Senate chamber for the last time.
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- Crocker III, H. W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008.
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- Gordon, John B., Reminisces of the Civil War. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904 (Epoch Texts, Kindle Edition), 2018.
- Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.