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Southern Backlash to Davis's New England Tour

Southern Backlash to Davis's New England Tour
AI visualization of Jefferson Davis giving a speech in Boston's Faneuil Hall in 1858.

Doctor's orders sent Jefferson Davis north in 1858 to recuperate from one of the many protracted illnesses he suffered throughout his life. He turned out to be in surprisingly high demand as a speaker during his several months in New England and particularly enjoyed reminding Massachusetts Democrats that their commonwealth had been among the most strident supporters of state rights during the process of ratifying the U.S. Constitution.

But while Davis enjoyed a warm reception up North, reactions down South were much more hostile due to newspaper exaggerations of his undeniably pro-Union remarks. He did not, as reported, call the Union "inviolable" – a red-flag word for secessionists. As William J. Cooper writes in Jefferson Davis, American:

One disgusted fire-eater denounced “corruption & treachery of Southern Politicians (Jeff Davis in particular).” An Alabama editor castigated the speech as “a pitiable spectacle of human weakness and political tergiversation.”
The outbursts had important ramifications in Mississippi, where Davis had long upheld the states’ rights banner but also had foes eager for an opening against him. Immediately upon seeing an account of the Fourth of July address, a close political and personal friend in Vicksburg wrote telling Davis he needed to correct the report. Understanding the potential political danger, Davis responded immediately, denying that he ever said the Union could not be dissolved. He declared his record on states’ rights needed no defense. He went on to say he had not spoken from a prepared text and his words had been twisted. But he proudly stood by his positive sentiments about the Union. At the same time, he condemned politicians who refused to see the benefit of the Union and for personal grievance or arrogance wanted to destroy it. He concluded that they “trifle with a grave subject, and deserve rebuke from every reflecting citizen of the United States.” With Davis’s permission requested and granted by telegraph, the letter appeared almost immediately in the Jackson Mississippian. Three weeks later the Mississippian carried another lengthy response from Davis defending his position to a constituent.
Meanwhile Albert G. Brown moved rapidly to exploit an excellent opportunity to best Davis as a defender of the South and slavery. Speaking to his fellow Mississippians in the fall, he made his most extreme statements since 1851, telling his listeners they must give up either the Union or slavery. Like many Republicans, but unlike Davis, Brown asserted that the country could not survive part slave and part free. In his view, it was “madness” for anyone to assume the tide of abolition could be turned back. Declaring all must soon “stand in the breach as one man determined to do or die in defense of our common heritage,” Brown claimed to quote Oliver Cromwell, “Pray to the Lord, but keep your powder dry.”

Of course, it turned out soon enough that the South, in giving up the Union, was forced to give up slavery. Faced with the exigencies of war, the Confederate government intruded on the property rights of slaveholders far more than the U.S. government had ever tried to do. As defeat loomed, more and more Confederates, including Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, Robert E. Lee, and eventually Davis himself, supported enlisting slaves as soldiers and promising them freedom in exchange for their service. And in a last-ditch bid for foreign intervention, in March 1865 Davis sent Louisianian Duncan F. Kenner to the Confederacy's unofficial embassies in Britain and France with an offer to emancipate all slaves in exchange for recognition.

As Emory M. Thomas wrote in The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience:

The Confederacy was past saving by March of 1865. The Kenner mission did, however, carry to completion the internal revolution in the Confederate South. Having sacrificed other features of the "Southern way of life," the Confederacy ultimately placed slavery on the altar of independence. The Southern nation became an end in itself. Independence required the sacrifice. Faced with choosing between independence and the Southern way of life, the Confederacy chose independence. ...
The fact was that the Confederacy was prepared to let slavery perish and to fight on! For what? The new nation and its war had achieved a dynamic of its own – a dynamic which overshadowed principles and poses. In four years the Southern nation had given up that which called it into being. Independence at the last was no longer means but end. Born in revolution the Confederacy herself became revolutionized. The Confederate experience had cut the heart out of the Southern way of life. Had the heavens opened, the waters parted, and the Confederacy achieved independence, the postwar South would have resembled the prewar South in little more than name. The Confederate revolution had consumed not only its authors, but their way of life as well.

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