Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lincoln, Davis and the Beginning of the War

The presidencies of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were enveloped by a war of unprecedented scale in American history. The war consumed the lives of both men as they worked long hours and poured over even minute details of the massive struggle. Lincoln and Davis were adversaries working at cross purposes. Lincoln aimed at keeping the country intact by suppressing a rebellion while Davis sought to establish independence for the Confederacy. Obviously, the nature of this relationship merits Davis a place in talking about the memory of Lincoln. However, without looking at a dual biography of Lincoln and Davis or a more specialized work on the Civil War, Davis is largely missing from the Lincoln narrative. He is confined to a few predictable reference points in Lincoln biographies. Each of these instances is telling in how they frame Lincoln and how little they tell us about Davis.

One persistent literary image is Lincoln sinking into a chair in Richmond in what used to be Davis’ office in the Confederate White House. This is only a symbolic conquering of Davis. Lincoln’s goal was not to capture a physical capital but to force Confederate armies to surrender. In any event, Davis had escaped Richmond before its fall and was not captured until after Lincoln was assassinated. Another oft repeated Lincoln anecdote is related to the capture of Davis. In relating to General Grant that he was uninterested in having Davis in Federal possession, Lincoln told a story about an Irishman who had renounced liquor. The Irishman had ordered lemonade in a bar and let it be known that if brandy was stirred in his lemonade “unbeknownst” to himself he wouldn’t take offense. In the same way, if Davis could escape “unbeknownst” to Lincoln, he wouldn’t be upset. Again, this story tells us nothing about Davis, but shows us the familiar image of Lincoln the merciful. This image of Lincoln also plays a role in the mythmaking about how easygoing Lincoln was going to be in reuniting the country after the war if he had lived. In dealing with memory and the coming of the war in 1861, Davis’ role is important. As Davis was inaugurated first and secession started before Lincoln had official powers, he was reacting to the moves of his Southern counterpart.

Lincoln’s farewell address in Springfield happened on February 11, 1861. Jefferson Davis would be inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of America seven days later. Lincoln would have to wait another two weeks for his own inauguration. Even if we are told that Davis was inaugurated while Lincoln was making his way East, Davis’ own farewell address to the Senate on January 21, 1861, is not often analyzed in Lincoln biographies. What does Davis speech contain?

Davis tells us in that speech that, as Mississippi has seceded he is (as a citizen of that State) “bound by her action” and must also depart. He notifies the packed house that Mississippians believed that they “are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us.” About the seceding States, Davis says “we but tread in the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence, and take the hazard.” Davis is not making a pretentious claim. His father and uncles fought against the British in the American Revolution. Davis’ older brothers were with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. Davis himself had escorted the captured leader Black Hawk to Missouri during the Black Hawk War and later became a war hero at Buena Vista during the Mexican War. As the Secretary of War in the Pierce administration, Davis tried to modernize the weaponry and professionalize the fighting force Lincoln would inherit a few years later. There is no reason to believe Davis was being less than earnest about his own feelings about exercising the rights he had fought and bled for. He does not say anything about seceding to save the institution of slavery though Mississippi certainly did in its “Declaration of Causes which Induce and Justify Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.” The State Convention announced: “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.” Davis did spell out this same sentiment in speaking of Lincoln and the Republicans on January 10 (the day after Mississippi seceded). “Your platform on which you elected your candidate, denies us equality. Your votes refuse to recognize our domestic institutions which pre-existed the formation of the Union—our property which was guarded by the Constitution.” In recalling these statements, more force is given to Lincoln’s words in Springfield: “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.”

By the time Lincoln addressed his well wishers in Illinois, seven states—all of them as convinced as Mississippi that Lincoln’s election meant slavery would be attacked—were already claiming to be out of the Union. Lincoln had to be exasperated at the incredulity of these states. He was anti-slavery to be sure, but was never an abolitionist. His nascent Republican Party was not an abolitionist organization. The party platform of 1860 reflected this fact. It only mentioned slavery in relation to the territories and the party’s interest in stopping slavery from spreading to the territories—certainly an anti-slavery position but not an abolitionist one. Lincoln had tried to reassure Southerners in his Cooper Union address in February of 1860 that while his party would continue to call slavery a wrong, Republicans were not in favor of rooting out the institution in the slave States. Lincoln did not blame Southerners for thinking that slavery was right and good, “but,” he said, “thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them?” Lincoln then answered the interrogatory negatively. He was not about to yield now that seven State conventions decided to finally attempt the secession which Southerners had threatened to try for many years. As Lincoln saw it, he was the President of all the States which had cast their votes for President in 1860, even of six of the seceding States (South Carolina had no popular vote in 1860) which had refused to put his name on the ballot. While Lincoln won less than 40% of the popular vote, he had easily tallied more electoral votes than the other three candidates combined. Though he never used the phrase, Lincoln saw the Southern refusal to accept the results of the election as sour grapes (Davis in his First Inaugural noted that the States forming the Confederacy decided that the goals in the Preamble to the Constitution were not being met by as shown by their “peaceful appeal to the ballot-box”). Davis reached out to Lincoln in late February “animated by an earnest desire to unite and bind together our respective countries by friendly ties.” Lincoln would never acknowledge the existence of the Confederacy as a country, especially not in the various peace conference proposals during the war, and delivered an Inaugural Address which denounced secession but described the seven States in rebellion as “not enemies, but friends.”

Lincoln described secession as “the essence of anarchy” in his First Inaugural Address. Lincoln spoke not only of the Federal Union but of any government where a majority of its constituent society decides who will govern. In the case of the United States or in the case of the Confederacy which the Southerners sought to establish, when a minority refuses to participate in a political formation any longer because it dislikes the result of an election, the entity is destroyed if the majority which has fairly won the election lets the minority leave—such was Lincoln’s message and warning about the logic of secession. Lincoln toned down the originally drafted belligerent ending of his Inaugural: “shall it be peace or a sword?” while retaining the admonition that “You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.” The Confederate government ordered Beauregard to “reduce” Fort Sumter if it was not abandoned by Major Anderson. In the process of reducing it, the Confederacy fired the first shots, and in Lincoln’s retrospective words from the Second Inaugural Address, “the war came.” In remembering Lincoln and the start of the Civil War, we should not forget Davis. Even though Lincoln and Davis never met, they are inextricably bound together.