Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s Inaugural Address
When Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the provisional president of the newly-formed Confederate States of America in February of 1861, he told the assembled crowd: “We have resorted to the remedy of a separation [i.e., secession from the Union], and henceforth our energies must be directed to conduct our own affairs and promote the perpetuity of the confederacy we have formed. If a just perception of mutual interests shall permit us peacefully to pursue our separate political career, my most earnest desire will have been fulfilled. But, if this be denied us, and the integrity of our territory and jurisdiction be assailed, it will but remain for us to appeal to arms and invoke the blessing of Divine Providence upon a just cause as a consequence of our new condition…”
One year later, on Feb. 22, 1862, Davis was inaugurated as the president of the Confederacy, the “provisional” having been removed from his title by his election, in November 1861, to a full six-year term. Much had changed in the past year. The Confederate government had been fully established, and its capital moved to Richmond, Virginia. Southern armies had shown their might by winning the Civil War’s first clash, the Attack on Fort Sumter, as well as the war’s first major battle, the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).
However, in the two weeks preceding Davis’s 1862 inauguration, the South had suffered two major blows. A young, relatively unknown Union general, Ulysses S. Grant, had won the North’s first two major victories of the war: the Battle of Fort Henry (February 6) and the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 16). With the surrender of these two forts the South lost control of both the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, opening up the interior of the Confederacy to invasion. It appeared that the loss of the first Confederate capital city, Nashville, was imminent (in fact, the Confederate army evacuated Nashville the day after Davis’s inaugural, on Feb. 23, 1862).
After the South’s promising start to the war, misfortune was striking the Confederacy—and the crowd listening to Davis’s inaugural speech was well aware of it. Not shirking this reality, their new president twice acknowledged the South’s recent setbacks. Early in his speech, he admitted “the contest has…for the moment [gone] against us,” and later added: “After a series of successes and victories which covered our arms with glory, we have recently met with serious disasters…”
The new president had not come to deliver a message of doom and gloom, however. Noting that his inauguration coincided with the birth date of George Washington, Davis’s inaugural speech highlighted the parallels between the Revolution fought by the Founding Fathers and the revolution represented by the Confederacy. His remarks drew great cheers from his audience, and his words were spread by the Southern newspapers.
One such paper was the Daily True Delta of New Orleans, Louisiana—an important Confederate city that would itself fall to Union forces just two months after Davis’s inauguration. This copy of Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address was published by the Daily True Delta on Feb. 23, 1862:
Telegraphed to the True Delta
President Davis’ Inaugural
Richmond, Feb. 22.—Fellow Citizens: On this, the birthday of the man most identified with the establishment of American independence, and beneath the monument erected to commemorate his heroic virtues and those of his compatriots, we have assembled to usher into existence the permanent government of the Confederate States. Through this instrumentality, and under the favor of a benign Providence, we hope to perpetuate the principles of our revolutionary fathers. The day, the memory and the purpose seem to be fitly associated. It is with mingled feelings of humility and pride I appear to take, in the presence of this people and before High Heaven, the oath prescribed as a qualification of the exalted station to which the unanimous voice of the people has called me. Deeply sensible of all that is implied by this manifestation of the people’s confidence, I am yet more profoundly impressed with the vast responsibility of the office, and humbly feel my own unworthiness. In return for their kindness, I can only offer my assurances of the gratitude with which it is received, and can but pledge my zealous devotion of every faculty to the service of those who have chosen me their chief magistrate. When, through a long course of class legislation directed not to be for the general welfare, but for aggrandizement in warfare and against the domestic institutions of the Southern States; when the dogmas of sectional parties, substituted for the provisions of the constitutional compact, threatened to destroy the sovereign rights of those States, six of those States, withdrawing from the Union, confederated together to exercise the right to perform the duty of instituting a government which would better secure their liberties, for the preservation of which that Union was established. 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 and the Constitution, must have been dispelled by the malignity and barbarity of the Northern States in the prosecution of the existing war. The confidence of the most hopeful among us must have been destroyed by the disregard they have recently exhibited for all time-honored works of civil and religious liberty. Their Bastilles are filled with prisoners arrested without civil process or indictment, which they are in duty bound to serve; the writ of habeas corpus suspended by executive mandate, and a State Legislature controlled by the imprisonment of its members, whose avowed principles suggested to the Federal executive there might have been another added to the list of seceded States; elections held under threats of military power; civil officers, peaceful citizens and gentle women incarcerated for opinion’s sake; proclaimed the incapacity of our late associates to administer the government as free, liberal and humane as that established for our common use. For the proof of our sincerity of purpose to maintain our ancient institutions, we may point to the Constitution of the Confederacy, or to the laws enacted under it, as well as to the fact that through all the necessities of an unequal struggle there has been no act on our part to impair personal liberty, or freedom of speech, of thought, or of the press. The courts have been opened, and their judicial functions fully executed, and every right of the peaceful citizen maintained as equally as if a war of invasion had not disturbed our land. The people of the States now confederated became convinced that the government of the United States had fallen into the hands of a sectional majority, who would peril that most sacred of all trusts to the destruction of those rights which it was pledged to protect, and they believed that to remain longer in the Union would subject them to a continuance of disparaging discrimination, submission to which would be inconsistent with their welfare, and intolerable to a proud people. They therefore determined to sever its bonds and establish a new Confederacy for themselves. [Cheers.]
The experiment instituted by our revolutionary fathers, of a voluntary union of sovereign States, for purposes specified in solemn compact, had been prevented by those who, feeling they had the power and forgetting the right, were determined to respect no law but their own will. The government had ceased to answer the ends for which it was ordained and established. To save ourselves from a revolution which, in its silent but rapid progress, was about to place us under a despotism of numbers, and to preserve, in the spirit as well as the form, the system of government we believed to be peculiarly fitted to our condition and full of promise for mankind, we determined to make a new association, composed of States homogenous in interest, policy and feeling. True to our traditions of peace and our love of justice, we sent commissioners to the United States to propose a fair and amicable settlement of all questions of public debt or property which might be disputed, but the government at Washington, denying our right to self-government, refused even to listen to any proposals for a peaceful separation. Nothing was then left us but to prepare for war. [Cheers.]
The first year of our history has been the most eventful in the annals of this continent. A new government has been established over an area exceeding 700,000 square miles, and the great principles upon which we have been willing to hazard everything dear to man have made conquests for us which could never have been achieved by the sword. Our Confederacy has grown from six to thirteen States, and Maryland, already united to us by hallowed memories and material interests, will, I believe, when able to speak with united voice, connect her destiny with the South. [Great applause.]
Our people have rallied with unexampled unanimity to the support of the great principles of constitutional government, with a firm resolve to perpetuate by arms the rights they could not peacefully secure against a million which, it is estimated, is the standing hostile army waging a war along a frontier of thousands of miles. Battles have been fought and sieges conducted, and although the contest has not ended, and did for the moment go against us, the final result in our favor is not doubtful. The period is near at hand when our foes must yield under the immense load of debt incurred—a debt which, in their effort to subjugate us, has already attained such fearful dimensions as will subject them to burthens which must continue to oppress them for generations to come. We, too, have had our trials and difficulties, and that we are to escape them in the future, is not to be hoped. It was to be expected, when we entered this war, that it would expose our people to many sacrifices and cost them much, both in money and blood; but we knew the value of the object for which we have struggled, and understood the nature of the war for which we engaged, and that nothing could be so bad as failure, and any sacrifice will be cheap as the price of success in such a contest. [Cheers.]
But the picture has its lights as well as its shades. This great strife has awakened in the people the highest emotions and qualities of the human soul. It is cultivating feelings of patriotism, virtue and courage, and instances of self-sacrifice and generous devotion to the noble cause for which we are contending are rife throughout the land. Never has a people evinced so determined a spirit as that now animating the men, women and children in every part of our country. Upon the first call men fly to arms, and wives and mothers send their husbands and sons to battle without a murmur or regret. It was, perhaps, in the ordination of Providence that we were to be taught the value of our liberties by the price we pay for them. The recollections of this great contest, with all its common traditions of glory, sacrifices, and of blood, will be a bond of harmony and enduring affection amongst the people, producing unity in policy, fraternity in sentiment, and joint effort in war. The material sacrifices of the past year have not been made without some corresponding benefits. If the acquiescence of foreign nations in the pretended blockade has deprived us of our commerce with them, it is fast making us a self-supporting and 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 commodities for domestic use. It is a satisfaction to know that we have maintained the war by our own unaided exertions; we have neither asked nor received assistance from any quarter. The interests involved are not only our own, but the world at large is concerned in the opening of our markets to its commerce. When the independence of the Confederate States is recognized by the nations of the earth, and we are free to follow our interests and inclinations by cultivating foreign trade, the Southern States will offer the manufacturing nations the most favorable markets which ever invited their commerce. Cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco, provisions, timber and naval stores will furnish attractive exchanges, nor would the constancy of these supplies be likely to be distributed by war. Our confederate strength will be too great to tempt aggression, and never was there a people whose interests and principles committed them so fully to a peaceful policy as these Confederate States. By the character of their productions they are too deeply interested in foreign commerce to want a war only to disturb the world, and a war of conquest they cannot wage, because the Constitution of their Confederacy admits no coerced association. A civil war there cannot be between States held together by their volition only; and this rule of voluntary association, which cannot fail to be conservative, by securing a just and impartial government at home, does not diminish the security of obligations by which the Confederate States may be bound to foreign nations. In proof, it is to be remembered that at the first moment of asserting their right to secession, these States proposed a settlement on the basis of common liabilities for the obligations of the general government. Fellow-citizens, after the struggles of ages had consecrated the right of Englishmen to a constitutional representative government, our colonial ancestors were forced to vindicate that birthright by an appeal to arms. Successes crowned their efforts, and they provided for their posterity a peaceful remedy against future aggression. The tyranny of an unbridled majority, the most odious and least responsible form of despotism, has denied us both that right and remedy. Therefore, we are in arms to renew such sacrifices as our fathers made to the holy cause of constitutional liberty. At the darkest hour of our struggle the provisional gives place to the permanent government. 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 this people, who are resolved to be free, these disasters tend but to stimulate to increased resistance. To show ourselves worthy of the inheritance bequeathed us by the patriots of the Revolution, we must emulate the heroic devotion which made it severe to them, but the crucible in which their patriotism was refined. [Applause.]
With confidence in the wisdom and virtues of those who will share with me the responsibility and aid me in the conduct of public affairs, and securely relying on the patriotism and courage of a people of which the present war has furnished so many examples, I deeply feel the weight of the responsibilities I now, with unaffected diffidence, am about to assume; and, fully realizing the inadequacy of human power to guide and sustain, my hope is reverently fixed on Him whose favor is vouchsafed to the cause which is just. 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.
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