American Statesman, Soldier, Senator, Secretary of War, President
A West Point graduate, Davis distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War as a colonel of the Mississippi Rifles volunteer regiment, and was the United States Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Both before and after his time in the Pierce Administration, he served as a US Senator from Mississippi. As senator he argued against secession but believed each State was sovereign and had an unquestionable and constitutional right to secede from the voluntary Union of the Founders, just as they had seceded from England seeking political liberty. Davis resigned from the Senate in January 1861 after receiving word that his State of Mississippi had voted to leave the voluntary Union. Davis explained his actions saying:
"[To] me the sovereignty of the State was paramount to the sovereignty of the Union. And I held my seat in the Senate until Mississippi seceded and called upon me to follow and defend her. Then I sorrowfully resigned the position in which my State had placed me and in which I could no longer represent her, and accepted the new work. I was on my way to Montgomery when I received, much to my regret, the message that I had been elected provisional President of the Confederate States of America."
Davis was a great and patriotic American who tried to save the old constitutional republic from abolitionist revolutionaries, and who left the old union with the old constitution intact to form a "more perfect Union" and with the consent of the governed. He contended that he would rather be out of the Union with the Constitution than to be in the Union without the Constitution. Davis remarked in July 1864:
"I tried in all my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for 12 years, I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind; it would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came, and now it must go on till the last man of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize the musket and fight our battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self-government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence, and that, or extermination, we will have....Slavery never was an essential element. It was the only means of bringing other conflicting elements to an earlier culmination. It fired the musket which was already capped and loaded. There are essential differences between the North and the South that will, however this war may end, make them two nations."
Reminded during the war of the destruction of his Mississippi plantations by occupying Northern troops, we dismissed it as the cost of war, yet confessed that he pitied his poor Negroes, who had been driven off by those troops and abandoned to misery or ruin. He resisted arming the slaves as they were not trained as soldiers, were needed to raise food for the armies in the field, and he would not use them as mercenaries and cannon-fodder as Lincoln was doing to avoid conscripting unwilling white Northerners.
At the end of the War, when a fellow traveler remarked that the cause of the Confederates was lost. Davis replied:
"It appears so. But the principle for which we contended is bound to reassert itself, though it may be at another time and in another form."
We may be experiencing his prediction now in the midst of State sovereignty resolutions and 10th Amendment reaffirmations across the country. In 1881, Davis was critical of the Gilded Age corruption and ignorance of the United States Constitution and remarked:
"Of what value then are paper constitutions and oaths binding officers to their preservation, if there is not intelligence enough in the people to discern the violations; and virtue enough to resist the violators?"
Davis was guilty of no treason and demanded a fair trial in order to argue the constitutionality of the South's actions in 1860-1861. This was denied by his tormenters, the reason was revealed by Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, in 1867. Chase admitted that:
"If you bring these leaders to trial, it will condemn the North, for by the Constitution, secession is not a rebellion. His [Jefferson Davis] capture was a mistake. His trial will be a greater one. We cannot convict him of treason."
President Davis died on December 6, 1889