Jefferson Davis Elected Provisional President of the Confederacy
When delegates from six seceding states convened for the Provisional Confederate Congress on Feb. 4, 1861, they faced a daunting and exciting challenge: building a new country from scratch. They needed a new constitution, government, flag, seal, coat of arms and motto. They had to resolve complex issues of revenue, commerce, representation, and defense. Undeterred by the task ahead, the representatives of the six states got right to work (the four deputies from the seventh seceding state, Texas, arrived to participate in the Congress on March 2.) Four days after the Congress opened, on Feb. 8, they adopted a provisional constitution to formalize their new country, the Confederate States of America. The next day, Feb. 9, 1861, they unanimously elected their provisional president: Jefferson Finis Davis.
Davis, the 52-year-old ex-senator from Mississippi, had resigned his U.S. Senate seat on Jan. 21, 1861, upon being informed that Mississippi had seceded from the Union (Davis opposed secession, but his first allegiance was to his home state). Returning to Mississippi, he received a commission as a major general of his state’s troops. He had a wealth of experience that made him well qualified to become the Confederacy’s first—and, as it turned out, only—president. A West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican-American War, Davis had been secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce as well as both a representative and senator from Mississippi. Well liked and respected, he was almost the Democratic candidate for the 1860 presidential election.
The inauguration of Jefferson Davis as provisional president took place on Feb. 18, 1861. He was elected to a full six-year term as president of the Confederate States of America on November 6 and inaugurated on February 22, 1862. Because the Civil War ended the Confederacy before Davis’s term expired, there never was a second Confederate president.
The swift action of the Provisional Confederate Congress in February 1861 was closely followed by both the Northern and Southern press, as suddenly everyone had to confront the reality that one country was now two. This article was printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) in its Feb. 10, 1861, issue, the day after Jefferson Davis was elected the South’s new president:
The news from the South this morning is of the highest importance. The Southern Congress at Montgomery, Alabama, on Friday unanimously adopted a constitution for a provisional government. It is in substance the same as the constitution of the Union. It gives the Congress ample power as regards the questions of revenue and taxation. It prohibits the importation of negroes from Africa and other foreign countries, as well as the introduction of slaves from any State not a member of the confederacy. The Congress yesterday unanimously elected Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, for President, and Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia for Vice President of the Southern confederacy, and the President of the Congress was directed to appoint committees on Foreign Affairs, on Finance, on Military and Naval Affairs, on Postal Affairs, on Commerce and on Patents. An ordinance was passed continuing in force, until repealed or altered by the Southern Congress, all laws of the United States in force or use on the 1st of November last. It is understood that under this law a tariff will be laid on all goods brought from the United States. The Provisional Government is now fairly underway.
This article was printed by the Albany Journal (Albany, New York) on Feb. 11, 1861:
Southern Confederacy—Election of President and Vice-President
Montgomery, Ala., Feb. 9.
Unusual interest was manifested in the proceedings of the Southern Congress today. The Hall of the Convention and the gallery was crowded with spectators.
Mr. Memminger presented a beautiful model of a flag, made by the ladies of South Carolina. The flag has a blue cross on a red field; seven stars are on it. He also presented another model flag, made by a gentleman of Charleston. It has a cross and fifteen stars, on a field of stripes.
A committee was appointed to report on a flag, a seal, a coat of arms and a motto for the Southern Confederacy.
The President [of the Southern Congress] was directed to appoint Commissioners on Foreign Affairs, on Finance, on Military and Naval Affairs, on Postal Affairs, on Commerce and Patents.
Hon. Jefferson Davis, of Miss., was then elected President, and Hon. Alex. H. Stephens, of Ga., Vice-President of the Southern Confederacy. The vote was unanimous.
A resolution was adopted for the appointment of a Committee of Three to enquire and report on what terms suitable buildings can be procured in Montgomery, for the use of the several Executive Departments of the Confederacy, under the Provisional Government.
The Southern press, predictably, was enthusiastic. This article was printed by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on the front page of its Feb. 11, 1861, issue:
By Electric Telegraph
President—Hon. Jefferson Davis
Vice President—Hon. Alexander H. Stephens
Montgomery, Feb. 9.—Hon. Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, is unanimously elected President of the Confederate States of North America, and Hon. A. H. Stephens, of Georgia, elected Vice-President, unanimously.
Project for a Provisional Government Adopted, and to Go into Immediate Operation
Montgomery, Feb. 9.—The Congress last night unanimously agreed to the Constitution and project of a Provisional Government. A strong and vigorous government will go into immediate operation, with full powers and ample resources.
No propositions for compromise or reconstruction will be entertained. The Congress will remain in session to make all necessary laws.
On that same front page, the Macon Daily Telegraph carried an account of the proceedings of the Provisional Confederate Congress, including this interesting explanation of the proposed Confederate flags provided by Christopher Gustavus Memminger, a delegate from South Carolina who would soon be appointed the first Confederate States Secretary of the Treasury:
Montgomery, Ala, Feb. 9, 1861.
Congress met this morning at 11 o’clock. Prayer was offered by Rev. Dr. Basil Manly.
…Mr. Memminger: I conceive, Mr. President, this a fitting occasion to discharge a commission which has been entrusted to me by some of my constituency of South Carolina. I have before me a flag which some of the young ladies of South Carolina present to this Congress as a model flag for the Confederate States of America. This flag, as it will be clear upon inspection, embraces the idea of a cross—a blue cross on a red field.
Now, Mr. President, the idea of a cross no doubt was suggested to the imagination of the young ladies by the beauteous constellation of the Southern Cross, which the Great Creator has placed in the Southern heavens by way of compensation for the glorious constellation at the North Pole. The imagination of the young ladies was doubtless inspired by the genius of Dante and the scientific skill of Humboldt.—But Sir, I have no doubt, that there was another idea associated with it in the minds of the young ladies—a religious one—and although we have not seen, in the heavens, the “in hoc signo vinces,” written upon the Labarum of Constantine, yet the same sign has been manifested to us upon the tables of the earth; for we all know that it has been by the aid of revealed religion, that we have achieved over fanaticism the victory which we this day witness; and it is becoming on this occasion that the debt of the South to the cross should be thus recognized.
I have also, Mr. President, another commission from a gentleman of taste and skill, in the city of Charleston, who offers another model, which embraces the same idea of a cross, but upon a different ground. The gentleman who offers this model appears to be more hopeful than the young ladies. They offer one with seven stars, six for the States already represented in this Congress, and the seventh for Texas, whose deputies, we hope, will soon be on their way to join us. He offers a flag which embraces the whole fifteen [slave] States. God grant that his hope may be realized, and that we may soon welcome their stars to the glorious constellation of our Southern Confederacy. (Applause.)
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