The Official Inauguration of Jefferson Davis

Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander H. Stephens had been elected to their posts by delegates of the Montgomery convention the previous February on a provisional basis, pending a general election. That general election had officially elected Davis and Stephens as president and vice president in November. Under the Confederate Constitution, they were to serve one six-year term and then become ineligible for reelection.

Confederate officials selected February 22, George Washington’s Birthday, as the presidential inauguration day at the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Formal ceremonies were planned to mark the transition from the provisional to the permanent government, but the weather was so foul that Attorney General Thomas Bragg called it “one of the worst days I ever saw.” Thousands of people attended nonetheless.

Davis spent some private time in his room at the Executive Mansion that morning, praying “for the divine support I need so sorely.” He headed to the Capitol at noon and met with members of the new Confederate Congress in the Virginia Hall of Delegates. They all witnessed Stephens take the oath of office and become the first permanent vice president of the Confederacy.

The ceremony then moved outside to a canopied platform beside the statue of Washington in the Capitol Square. Davis’s wife Varina noted that her husband went to the platform like “a willing victim going to his funeral pyre.” He was escorted by his black footmen; they all wore black because, as one of them said, “This… is the way we always does in Richmond at funerals and sichlike.”

Pres. Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:

On the platform, Davis took the chief executive’s oath and kissed a Bible that had been the first Bible printed in the Confederacy. He then delivered his inaugural address. Davis declared: “Whatever of hope some may have entertained that a returning sense of justice would remove the danger with which our rights were threatened, and render it possible to preserve the Union of the Constitution, must have been dispelled by the malignity and barbarity of the Northern States in the prosecution of the existing war.” He cited as evidence:

“Bastilles filled with prisoners, arrested without civil process or indictment duly found; the writ of habeas corpus suspended by Executive mandate; a State Legislature controlled by the imprisonment of members whose avowed principles suggested to the Federal Executive that there might be another added to the list of seceded States; elections held under threats of a military power; civil officers, peaceful citizens, and gentle-women incarcerated for opinion’s sake–proclaimed the incapacity of our late associates to administer a Government as free, liberal, and humane as that established for our common use.”

Davis contrasted these Federal actions to those of his administration, stating that “through all the necessities of an unequal struggle there has been no act on our part to impair personal liberty or the freedom of speech, of thought, or of the press.”

Noting the financial troubles in the North, Davis predicted a Federal economic collapse: “The period is near at hand when our foes must sink under the immense load of debt which they have incurred, a debt which in their effort to subjugate us has already attained such fearful dimensions as will subject them to burdens which must continue to oppress them for generations to come.”

Davis expressed his view that the war was a test of what the southern people were willing to endure to defend their freedom: “It was, perhaps, in the ordination of Providence that we were to be taught the value of our liberties by the price which we pay for them.”

Trying to turn a negative into a positive, Davis cited unexpected benefits from European powers adhering to the Federal blockade:

“If the acquiescence of foreign nations in a pretended blockade has deprived us of our commerce with them, it is fast making us a self-supporting and an independent people. The blockade, if effectual and permanent, could only serve to divert our industry from the production of articles for export and employ it in supplying the commodities for domestic use.”

However, he also acknowledged the recent defeats in the Western Theater and North Carolina:

“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 a people resolved to be free these disasters tend but to stimulate to increased resistance. To show ourselves worthy of the inheritance bequeathed to us by the patriots of the Revolution, we must emulate that heroic devotion which made reverse to them but the crucible in which their patriotism was refined.”

Davis concluded: “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.”

Vice President Stephens assessed the current situation: “Our new government is now in its crisis: if it can stand and will stand the blow that will be dealt in the next eighty or ninety days, it may ride the storm in safety.” Attorney General Bragg pondered whether there would ever be another Confederate president. He wrote, “Time alone can answer–but I fear not.”


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