Jefferson Davis Resigns From the Senate

A powerful scene from the movie Tennessee Johnson (1942), the resignation of Jefferson Davis from the Senate.  The scene captures well the portentous nature of the event, as men North and South now realized that all the contentions between their sections had at last ended in a conflict that rent the nation in two.  The crisis had been building for decades and I think most men had assumed that some sort of compromise, as in the past, would eventually be worked out.  The speech of Davis was a final sign that this was not to be, and that the time for words had ended.  Here is the full text of the speech:

I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people, in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course, my functions are terminated here. It has seemed to me proper, however, that I should appear in the Senate to announce that fact to my associates, and I will say but very little more. The occasion does not invite me to go into argument; and my physical condition would not permit me to do so, if it were otherwise; and yet it seems to become me to say something on the part of the State I here represent on an occasion as solemn as this. It is known to Senators who have served with me here that I have for many years advocated, as an essential attribute of State sovereignty, the right of a State to secede from the Union. Therefore, if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, 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. I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that, if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when their Convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted.

I hope none who hear me will confound this expression of mine with the advocacy of the right of a State to remain in the Union, and to disregard its constitutional obligation by the nullification of the law. Such is not my theory. Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are, indeed, antagonistic principles. Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified when the agent has violated his constitutional obligations, and a State, assuming to judge for itself, denies the right of the agent thus to act, and appeals to the other states of the Union for a decision; but, when the States themselves and when the people of the States have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application.

A great man 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. It was because of his deep-seated attachment to the Union — his determination to find some remedy for existing ills short of a severance of the ties which bound South Carolina to the other States — that Mr. Calhoun advocated the doctrine of nullification, which he proclaimed to be peaceful, to be within the limits of State power, not to disturb the Union, but only to be a means of bringing the agent before the tribunal of the States for their judgement.

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. I hope the time may come again when a better comprehension of the theory of our Government, and the inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent any one from denying that each State is a sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made to any agent whomsoever.

I, therefore, say I concur in the action of the people of Mississippi, believing it to be necessary and proper, and should have been bound by their action if my belief had been otherwise; and this brings me to the important point which I wish, on this last occasion, to present to the Senate. It is by this confounding of nullification and secession that the name of a great man whose ashes now mingle with his mother earth has been invoked to justify coercion against a seceded State. The phrase, “to execute the laws,” was an expression which General Jackson applied to the case of a State refusing to obey the laws while yet a member of the Union. That is not the case which is now presented. The laws are to be executed over the United States, and upon the people of the United States. They have no relation to any foreign country. It is a perversion of terms — at least, it is a great misapprehension of the case — which cites that expression for application to a State which has withdrawn from the Union. You may make war on a foreign state. If it be the purpose of gentlemen, they may make war against a State which has withdrawn from the Union; but there are no laws of the United States to be executed within the limits of a seceded State. A State, finding herself in the condition in which Mississippi has judged she is — in which her safety requires that she should provide for the maintenance of her rights out of the Union — surrenders all the benefits (and they are known to be many), deprives herself of the advantages (and they are known to be great), severs all the ties of affection (and they are close and enduring), which have bound her to the Union; and thus divesting herself of every benefit — taking upon herself every burden — she claims to be exempt from any power to execute the laws of the United States within her limits.

I well remember an occasion when Massachusetts was arraigned before the bar of the Senate, and when the doctrine of coercion was rife, and to be applied against her, because of the rescue of a fugitive slave in Boston. My opinion then was the same that it is now. Not in a spirit of egotism, but to show that I am not influenced in my opinions because the case is my own, I refer to that time and that occasion as containing the opinion which I then entertained, and on which my present conduct is based. I then said that if Massachusetts — following her purpose through a stated line of conduct — 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 other States.

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 to 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 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 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 raising 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 equality of footing with white men — not even upon 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. So stands the compact which binds us together.

Then, Senators, we recur to the principles upon which our Government was founded; and when you deny them, and when you deny 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 duty to transmit unshorn to our children.

I find in myself perhaps a type of the general feeling of my constituents towards yours. 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; and such, I feel, is the feeling of the people whom I represent toward those whom you represent. I, therefore, feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they 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.

In the course of my service here, associated at different times with a variety of Senators, I see now around me some with whom I have served long; there have been points of collision, but, whatever of offense there has been to me, I leave here. I carry with me no hostile remembrance. Whatever offense I have given which has not been redressed, or for which satisfaction has not been demanded, I have, Senators, in this hour of our parting, to offer you my apology for any pain which, in the heat of discussion, I have inflicted. I go hence unencumbered by the remembrance of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any injury offered.

Mr. President and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains for me to bid you a final adieu.

Published in: on December 12, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. He only mentions the Constitution where it suits him. And quite right too, because there is no way on Earth that “a more perfect union” can be made to mean “hanging around till we find something better to do, then we split.”

    • Agreed Fabio. The film clip does convey some of the force of Davis. Even though my sympathies were all with the Union I have always had some admiration for Davis. He had much of greatness about him, although he is fated to forever stand in the shadow of Lincoln, a much greater man. Against the odds he came very close to winning independence for his people. Alhtough I think that would have been a disaster for America, and the perpetuation of the evil of slavery, I must say that I admire the unwillingness of Davis to ask for a pardon after the war, all the while giving this counsel to his fellow Southerners as he did shortly before his death:

      “The faces I see before me are those of young men; had I not known this I would not have appeared before you. Men in whose hands the destinies of our Southland lie, for love of her I break my silence, to speak to you a few words of respectful admonition. The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes and aspirations. Before you lies the future – a future full of golden promise; a future expanding national glory, before which all the world shall stand amazed. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to take your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consumammation devoutly to be wished – a reunited country.”

      • I don’t suppose you’d pick a mediocrity to lead a revolted country through a great war. But the mid-nineteenth century, for some reason, was a time when public figures tended to deserve their rank. Forgive me if I go off theme, but I have been watching the horde of horrible little mediocrities that rule public life in Britain, America, France, Italy – where at a time of great national crisis it is impossible to see a leader on either side whom one would trust with a whelk-stall, let alone with the future of the country. In the period we are speaking about, an Abraham Lincoln would debate a Stephen Douglas on his way up, then find himself opposing a Jefferson Davis (with an Alexander Stephens as VP and a Robert E. Lee as army commander) with a Stanton to run the War Office and a Chase to hold the public purse. At the same time, Britain produced a series of Tory and Whig reforming governments each of whose leading figures might well have run a country, and that is not counting the many Britons who popped up out of nowhere to effectively run nations on their own as imperial proconsuls, and often doing it well. And in my ongoing study of my own country, in spite of the fact that Italy’s talent pool was small and its condition appalling, I have been struck by how many of the leading figures, on both sides, were really impressive and admirable in so many ways – bold, constructive, thoughtful, upright, large in thought and deed; I mean on both sides – Radetzky, Pius IX, and Francis II of Naples, as well as Garibaldi, Cavour, Cattaneo and the rest. A few did not deserve their place on that tremendous stage, but most were men made for greatness. Where are they now?

      • “Where are they now?”

        In a time of the universal franchise Fabio, we get the leaders the majority want and they probably are the leaders we deserve as a society as a result. I hope that is not the sad epitaph for our time, and that Christ, in His mercy, will raise up leaders eventually who will address our problems successfully in spite of our manifest follies.

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