previous next

Chapter 21: Mr. Davis's first session in Congress.

Mr. Davis took his seat as a member of the House of Representatives on Monday, December 8, 1845.

On the 29th of the month he offered two resolutions — the first:

That the Committee on Military Affairs be instructed to inquire into the expediency of converting a portion of the forts of the United States into schools for military instruction, on the basis of substituting their present garrisons of enlisted men by detachments furnished from each State of our Union, in ratio of their several representatives in the Congress of the United States.

The second:

Instructing the Committee on the Post-office and Post-roads to inquire into the expediency of establishing a direct daily mail route from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss.

With the presentation of these resolutions Mr. Davis for a time seemed satisfied. He remained in his seat, however, a keen observer [229] of the forms of parliamentary procedure, and made himself practically familiar with the questions likely to come up for discussion during the session.

His first speech was successful. On February 6, 1846, on the Oregon question, in Committee of the Whole, he addressed the House.

It seems needless at this late day to revive dead discussions and to elaborately explain political issues that have long since been settled. I shall therefore quote only such passages from the official reports as tend to illustrate traits of Mr. Davis's character or his subsequent political actions. In this speech Mr. Davis exhibited one characteristic that was never modified and often put to crucial tests-his contempt for illiterate clamor and demagogical attempts to influence legislation. He said: “Unfortunately the opinion has gone forth that no politician dared to be the advocate of peace when the question of war is mooted. That will be an evil hour-the sands of our Republic will be nearly runwhen it shall be in the power of any demagogue or fanatic to raise a war clamor and control the legislation of the country. The evils of war must fall upon the people, and with them the war feeling should originate. We, their representatives, are but a mirror to [230] reflect the light, and never should become a torch to fire the pile. But, sir, though gentlemen go, torch in hand, among combustible materials, they still declare there is no danger of fire. War speeches, and measures threatening war, are mingled with profuse assurance of peace. Sir, we cannot expect, we should not require, our adversary to submit to more than we would bear; and I ask, after the notice has been given, and the twelve months have expired, who would allow Great Britain to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over Oregon? If we would resist such an act by force of arms, before ourselves performing it, we should prepare for war.”

Drawing a comparison between Texan annexation and Oregon occupation, Mr. Davis indignantly denied the assumption that there had been inconsistency on the part of Southern men in treating this question. “Who are those,” he asked, “that arraign the South, imputing to us motives of sectional aggrandizement? Generally, the same who resisted Texan annexation, and most eagerly press on the immediate occupation of the whole of Oregon. The source is worthy the suspicion. These were the men whose constitutional scruples resisted the admission of a country gratuitously offered to us, but now look forward to gaining Canada by conquest. These [231] are the same who claim a weight to balance Texas, while they attack others as governed by sectional considerations.”

He repudiated for his people this doctrine of a political balance between different sections of the Union.

It is not,” he contended, “of Southern growth. We advocate the annexation of Texas as a ‘great national measure;’ we saw in it the extension of the principles intrusted to our care. And if, in the progress of the question, it assumed a sectional hue, the coloring came from the opposition that it met; an opposition based not upon a showing of the injury it would bring to them, but upon the supposition that benefits would be obtained by us.”

In referring to the support which the administration might expect in the event of war with England, Mr. Davis eloquently vindicated the loyalty of Mississippi. His State was fortunate in her champion. On this theme never once did he utter an uncertain note. As here, in his first speech in Congress, so, on every future occasion, in or out of that body-whenever and wherever slander might seek to sully her fame-she relied with a confidence never disappointed that he would vindicate her honor. In the course of this speech he said: [232]

Though this Government has done nothing adequate to the defence of Mississippi, though by war she has much to lose and nothing to gain; yet she is willing to encounter it, if necessary, to maintain our right in Oregon. Her Legislature has recently so resolved, and her Governor, in a late message, says: ‘If war come to us it will bring blight and desolation; yet we are ready for the crisis.’ Sir, could there be a higher obligation on the representative of such a people than to restrain excitement-than to oppose a policy that threatens an unnecessary war? . . .

The history of Mississippi, brief as it is, relieves me from the necessity of pledging her services to our Union in the hour of its need. But the marked omission of the gentleman from Missouri requires my attention. In recounting the services of the past, as earnest for the future, he gave to every neighboring name a place, but left out Mississippi; passed over it unheeded in his transit from Alabama to New Orleans. Sir, let me tell him that Mississippi's sons bled freely in the Creek campaign, and were leaders at Pensacola; further, let me tell him that, when they heard of an invading foe upon the coast of Louisiana, the spirit was so general to sally forth and meet him at the outer gate, that our [233] Governor issued orders to restrain their going; and on the field to which he has so specially alluded — the battle of New Orleans --Mississippi dragoons, led by our gallant Hinds, performed that feat which the commanding general announced as the “admiration of one army and the wonder of the other.” Sir, I will only add that, whenever the honor of our country is assailed, wherever its territory is invaded — to the North or to the South, to the East or to the West--if then we shall be warned of the prowess of the foe; if then we shall hear of armed fleets that skim along the sea and wait like birds of prey to swoop upon our commerce; if then we shall be threatened with a cloud of banners that, folded, wait to gather on our sky, and darken it with the storm of war; from the Gulf shore to the banks of our mighty river, through the length and breadth of Mississippi, her sons will answer with defiance and scornfully reply:

Free be your banners flung — we're loth
Their silken folds shall feed the moth!

This same debate emphasized another characteristic of Mr. Davis, love for those memories, which formed the common heritage of glory of all the States of the Union. In the service of his country he knew neither [234] North nor South, neither East nor West. “From sire to son” was his noble peroration--

has descended our federative creed, opposed to the idea of sectional conflict for private advantage, and favoring the wider expanse of our Union. If envy and jealousy and sectional strife are eating like rust into the bonds which our fathers expected to bind us, they come from causes which our Southern atmosphere has never furnished. As we have shared in the toils, so we have gloried in the triumphs of our country. In our hearts, as in our history, are mingled the names of Concord, and Camden, and Saratoga, and Lexington, and Plattsburg, and Chippewa, and Erie, and Moultrie, and New Orleans, and Yorktown, and Bunker Hill. Grouped together, they form a record of the triumphs of our cause, a monument of the common glory of our Union. What Southern man would wish it less by one of the Northern names of which it is composed? Or where is he who, gazing on the obelisk that rises from the ground made sacred by the blood of Warren, would feel his patriot's pride suppressed by local jealousy? Type of the men, the event, the purpose it commemorates, that column rises stern, even severe, in its simplicity; neither niche nor moulding for parasite or creeping thing to [235] rest on; composed of material that defies the waves of time, and pointing like a finger to the sources of noblest thought. Beacon of freedom, it guides the present generation to retrace the fountain of our years and stand beside its source; to contemplate the scene where Massachusetts and Virginia, as stronger brothers of the family, stood foremost to defend our common rights. Remembrance of the petty jarrings of to-day are buried in the nobler friendship of an earlier time.

Yes, sir, and when ignorance, led by fanatic hate, and armed by all uncharitableness, assails a domestic institution of the South, I try to forgive, for the sake of the righteous among the wicked — our natural allies, the Democracy of the North. Thus, sir, I leave to silent contempt the malign predictions of the member from Ohio, who spoke in the early stage of this discussion; while it pleases me to remember the manly and patriotic sentiments of the gentleman who sits near me (Mr. McDowell). In him I recognize the feelings of our Western brethren; his were the sentiments which accord with their acts in the past, and which, with a few ignoble exceptions, I doubt not they will emulate, if again the necessity would exist. Yes, sir, if ever they hear the invader's foot has been pressed upon our soil, they will descend [236] to the plain like an avalanche, rushing to bury the foe.

In conclusion, I will say, free from any forebodings of evil, above the influence of taunts, beyond the reach of treasonable threats, and confiding securely in the wisdom and patriotism of the Executive, I shrink from the assertion of no right, and will consent to no restrictions on the discretion of the treaty-making power of our Government.

On March 16, 1846, on a bill granting appropriations for certain harbors, Mr. Davis insisted on a strict construction of the Constitution in making appropriations for the improvement of rivers and harbors, which, although not at that time the source of public shame and scandal that it subsequently became, and still continues to be, threatened, under a latitudinarian interpretation of the Constitution, to lead to extravagant expenditures never contemplated by the framers of that instrument. He exposed, also, the sectional character of the proposed appropriations. After refuting some fallacies that had been advanced in support of the constitutional power to make these appropriations, Mr. Davis defined the spirit in which the Constitution should be interpreted.

Sir, there is a just medium between the claim of unrestrained discretion for this [237] Government and its restriction to the mere letter of the bond. The grants of power are general, and therefore many things must attach as incident. If the States deny the means necessary to the existence of this Government, nothing is more sure than that it will usurp them, and then a contest will arise between the rival powers injurious to both. If, on the other hand, the Federal Government by indirection, seek more than is proper to its functions, and necessary to their exercise, indiscriminate opposition may be generated and the liberality of patriotism be lost in the conflict. The harmony, the efficiency, the perpetuity of our Union require the States, whenever the grants of the Constitution are inadequate to the purpose for which it was ordained, to add from their sovereignty whatever may be needed, and the same motives urge us to seek no power by other means than application to the States. To all that has been said of the inherent power of the Government, I answer, it is the creature of the States; as such it can have no inherent power; all it possesses was delegated by the States; and it is therefore that our Constitution is not an instrument of limitation, but of grants. Whatever was then deemed necessary was specifically conveyed; beyond the power so granted nothing can now be [238] claimed except those incidents which are indispensable to its existence — not merely convenient or conducive, but subordinate and necessary to the exercise of the grants.

. . . I have been surprised-yes, sir — and have regretted, to hear gentlemen treat the question of appropriations as though it were a division of Treasury spoil between the different sections of the Union. We are told that the South has the larger portion in the fortification specifications, and that this should satisfy us for any deficiency in those for our harbors. I recognize no such principle in legislation, and would not stoop to claim a share of the money, wrung from the Treasury for sectional advantage. . . . Though forts and light-houses and breakwaters and navy-yards stud the Northern coast, it is not of this that I complain. I urge, not that you have had too much, but that we have had too little. The examination which I ask is not what has been done, but what is now required? I make no other distinction than that which constitutional principles and relative necessity require.

Beyond attending the caucuses of his party, introducing the before-mentioned speeches, and with some resolutions on business matters, and such like duties, Mr. Davis was [239] one of the most quiet members of Congress. Of the war clouds which lowered over the country Mr. Davis, many years after his active life had closed, wrote: “Texas having been annexed to the United States in 1845, and Mexico threatening to invade Texas with intent to recover the territory, General Taylor was ordered to defend Texas as a part of the United States. He proceeded with all his available force, about one thousand five hundred, to Corpus Christi. There he was joined by reinforcements of regulars and volunteers. Discussion had arisen as to whether the Nueces or the Rio Grande was the proper boundary of Texas. His political opinions, whatever they might be, were subordinate to the duty of a soldier to execute the orders of his Government, and without uttering it, he acted on the apothegm of Decatur, ‘My country; right or wrong, my country.’ ”

Texas claimed protection for her frontier; the President recognized the fact that Texas had been admitted into the Union with the Rio Grande as her boundary; and General Taylor was instructed to advance to the river. His force had been increased to 4,000, when, on March 8, 1846, he marched from Corpus Christi. He was of course conscious of the inadequacy of his division to resist such an [240] army as Mexico might send against it; but, when ordered by superior authority, it was not for him to remonstrate. General Gaines, commanding the Western Division of the army, had made requisition for a sufficient number of volunteers to join General Taylor, but the Secretary of War countermanded them, except as to such as had already joined. General Taylor, after making a depot at Point Isabel, advanced to the bank of the Rio Grande, opposite Matamoras, and there threw up an intrenchment, mounted field-guns, and made general provision for the defence of the place-Fort Brown. Leaving a garrison to hold it, he marched, with an aggregate force of 2,288, to obtain the necessary additional supplies from Point Isabel, about three miles distant. General Arista, the new Mexican commander, availing himself of the opportunity, crossed the river with an estimated force of 6,000 regular troops, ten pieces of artillery, and a considerable amount of auxiliaries. In the afternoon of the second day's march from Point Isabel, these were reported by General Taylor's cavalry to occupy the road in his front. He halted at a water-hole to allow the command to rest, and for the needful disposition for battle. In the evening a request was made that a council of war should be held, to which General Taylor assented. At the [241] meeting it was developed that the prevalent opinion was in favor of falling back to Point Isabel, there to instruct and wait for reinforcements. After listening to a full expression of views, the General announced: “I shall go to Fort Brown or stay in my shoes,” a Western expression equivalent to die in the attempt. He then notified the officers to return to their commands and prepare to attack the enemy at dawn of day. In the morning of May 8th the advance was made by columns until the enemy's batteries opened, when line of battle was formed, and our artillery, inferior in number but superior otherwise, was brought fully into action, and dispersed the most of the enemy's cavalry. The chaparral-dense copses of thorn bushes-served both to conceal the position of his troops and to impede the movements of the attacking force. The action continued until night, when the enemy retired and General Taylor bivouacked on the field. Early in the morning of May 9th General Taylor resumed his forward march, and in the afternoon encountered the enemy in a strong position, with artillery advantageously posted. Taylor's infantry pushed through the chaparral lining both sides of the road, and drove the enemy's infantry before them; but the batteries held their position, and were so fatally used that it [242] was an absolute necessity to capture them. For this purpose the General ordered Captain Maywith to charge them with his squadron of dragoons. The gunners were cut down at their pieces, the commanding officer was captured, and the infantry soon thereafter made the victory decisive. The enemy's loss, in the two battles, was estimated at i,000; Taylor's killed, 49. The Mexicans precipitately recrossed the Rio Grande, completely routed, leaving on the field the usual marks of defeat and rout. He then proceeded to Fort Brown. During his absence it had been heavily bombarded, and the commander, Major Brown, had been killed.

On the 28th the House resolved itself into Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union, to take up the joint resolutions, tendering the thanks of Congress to General Taylor and the army of occupation for recent brilliant services on the Rio Grande.

On May 29th a skirmish opened between two men, for each of whom the future had in store the highest political responsibilities and honors. These men came from the same section. They coincided on the leading war issues; but their early associations and education had made them totally unlike in their powers and personal character. [243]

One was Mr. Jefferson Davis, the other was Mr. Andrew Johnson.

Mr. Davis, in supporting the resolution, had protested against the unjust criticisms on the army and the West Point Academy, which had been expressed a few days previously by a member from Ohio. He hoped that gentleman (Mr. Sawyer) would now learn the value of military science, and that he would see in the location, construction, and the defence of the bastioned field-work opposite Matamoras “the utility, the necessity of a military education.” Following, and tracing with a soldier's eye the whole of those admirable movements, guided by skill and knowledge, which had crumbled the stone walls of Matamoras to the ground, he asked him to say “whether he believed a blacksmith or a tailor could have secured the same results?” Mr. Davis mentioned these two trades at random not knowing that either tailor or blacksmith was present. Mr. Sawyer, while avowing himself a blacksmith, was good-natured enough in his retort. This controversy was renewed the next day by Andrew Johnson. Vaunting himself upon being a mechanic, with a slur upon an “illegitimate, swaggering, bastard, scrub aristocracy,” he declared that “when a blow was struck upon that class, either direct or by innuendo, from Whig or [244] Democrat, he would resent it.” He summoned all history, sacred and profane, beginning with Adam, who (he said) was a tailor, to do honor to his class of mechanics.

Mr. Davis had named two of the trades of civil life, he said, but in doing so he had no desire to attack any particular class. “His opinion was simply that war, like other knowledge, must be acquired.” Nothing was more manifest throughout this debate than the courtesy of one party to it, unless it was the demagogism of the other. From this debate arose all Mr. Johnson's subsequent animosity against Mr. Davis.

When Mr. Davis sprung up all aglow with indignation, and with as much fervor as eloquence, paid this tribute to his Alma Mater, and put a lance in rest for her, Joshua Giddings raised his gaunt form, put his hand behind his ear and listened. Ex-President John Quincy Adams crossed over from the other side of the chamber and took a seat near enough to hear. Mr. Adams was a rather thick-set, short man, with irregular features; he had small, but bright, intense eyes; his head was large and entirely destitute of hair, and when excited it became a glowing red; his eyebrows assumed a pointed arch, and his mobile, rather large mouth, could wreathe itself into the impersonation of lofty [245] disdain. His whole person and movements bore the stamp of good-breeding; there was a repose, a deliberate examination of the person addressing him which put the unfortunate on trial where he must, in dumb submission, be judged on his merits. When Mr. Adams listened to my husband I was a proud young creature, and knew he must be doing something well; but found, afterward, that, to every new member he listened attentively once, and never again, unless pleased. Mr. Adams, when the debate was over, arose and said to one of the other members, “We shall hear more of that young man, I fancy.” While these amenities were at their height, Mr. Giddings showed a full set of gleaming teeth, and evidently enjoyed the little impromptu debate, not caring which got the worst of it. He seemed to think the slave-holders were given over to each other, and was willing to “let them alone.”

On March II, 1846, Mr. Polk sent a message in which he declared a state of war already existing. Mr. Davis, in the House, simultaneously with Mr. Calhoun, in the Senate, neither knowing the other had made the point, announced that while the President could declare a state of hostilities the right to declare war rested alone with Congress, the agent of the States. The rate at which [246] Federal power has encroached can be somewhat marked by this incident, which occurred in Congress at the time the first hostilities began in Mexico.

Finally the war, long threatened, had been in due form declared between the United States and Mexico. As the summer advanced the “dreadful call” came from Mississippi for Mr. Davis to command the First Mississippi regiment, which was organized at Vicksburg, and had elected him the colonel. He eagerly and gladly accepted. There were no telegraphs and few railways in those days. The notification was brought to Washington by a special messenger, his friend Colonel James Roach, of Vicksburg, Miss., who delivered it to Mr. Davis in the latter part of June, 1846. Then began hurried preparations for our departure for Mississippi.

The President had been authorized to appoint “two major-generals and four brigadier-generals, in addition to the present military establishment,” and he intimated to Mr. Davis that he should like to make him one of them. My husband expressed his preference for an elective office; when pressed, he said that he thought volunteer troops raised in a State should be officered by men of their own selection, and that after the elective right of the volunteers ceased, the appointing power [247] should be the Governor of the State whose troops were to be commanded by the general. This was his first sacrifice to State rights, and it was a great effort to him.

He then endeavored to get the regiment armed with the rifles which afterward became so celebrated as the “Mississippi Rifles.” He said that these would be more effective in the hands of our men than any other arms, as they were all used to hunting, and most of them had either a rifle or a double-barrelled shot-gun, and were good marksmen.

Before leaving Washington for the scene of hostilities, Mr. Davis had an interview with General Scott.

“It may be interesting to state,” said Mr. Davis in 1889, “that General Scott endeavored to persuade me not to take more rifles than enough for four companies, and objected particularly to percussion arms as not having been sufficiently tested for the use of troops in the field. Knowing that the Mississippians would have no confidence in the old flint-lock muskets, I insisted on their being armed with the kind of rifle then recently made at New Haven, Conn.-the Whitney rifle. From having been first used by the Mississippians, those rifles have always been known as the Mississippi rifles.”

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Mississippi (Mississippi, United States) (9)
Texas (Texas, United States) (8)
United States (United States) (4)
Point Isabel (California, United States) (4)
Oregon (Oregon, United States) (4)
Mexico (Mexico, Mexico) (4)
Matamoras (Indiana, United States) (3)
Fort Taylor (Texas, United States) (3)
Washington (United States) (2)
Vicksburg (Mississippi, United States) (2)
Ohio (Ohio, United States) (2)
England (United Kingdom) (2)
Corpus Christi (Texas, United States) (2)
Yorktown (Virginia, United States) (1)
Saratoga, N. Y. (New York, United States) (1)
Plattsburg (New York, United States) (1)
Pensacola (Florida, United States) (1)
Montgomery (Alabama, United States) (1)
Missouri (Missouri, United States) (1)
Mexico (Mexico) (1)
Massachusetts (Massachusetts, United States) (1)
Louisiana (Louisiana, United States) (1)
Lexington (Kentucky, United States) (1)
Jackson (Mississippi, United States) (1)
Fort Moultrie (South Carolina, United States) (1)
Fort Erie (Canada) (1)
Decatur (Illinois, United States) (1)
Connecticut (Connecticut, United States) (1)
Concord, N. H. (New Hampshire, United States) (1)
Canada (Canada) (1)
Camden, S. C. (South Carolina, United States) (1)
Bunker Hill (West Virginia, United States) (1)
Alabama (Alabama, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1889 AD (1)
June, 1846 AD (1)
March 16th, 1846 AD (1)
March 8th, 1846 AD (1)
February 6th, 1846 AD (1)
1846 AD (1)
December 8th, 1845 AD (1)
1845 AD (1)
May 29th (1)
May 9th (1)
May 8th (1)
29th (1)
28th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: