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LXXXI. the prohibition issue.

In 1887 the repose of Mr. Davis's life was grievously disturbed by the question of prohibition, which became a prominent issue in the politics of Texas. A constitutional amendment to prohibit the manufacture or the sale of any intoxicating liquors, including wine, ale, and beer, was to be submitted to popular vote. Scores of letters from Mr. Davis's friends in Texas besought an expression of opinion by him. Mr. Davis declined to answer, as he had no desire to come, even indirectly, before the public again. Finally, after a most urgent letter from his life-long and much-beloved friend, Colonel F. R. Lubbock, he consented to write a letter for publication.

It is as follows:

Beauvoir, Miss., June 20, 1887.
Colonel F. R. Lubbock. My Dear Friend
... My reason for not replying was an unwillingness to enter [883] into a controversy in which my friends in Texas stood arrayed against each other.

In departing from the rule heretofore observed, I trust that it will not be an unwarrantable intrusion.

Reared in the creed of Democracy, my faith in its tenets has grown with its growth, and I adhere to the maxim that “ the world is governed too much.”

When our fathers achieved their independence, the corner-stone of the governments they constructed was individual liberty, and the social organizations they established were not for the surrender, but for the protection, of natural rights. For this, governments were established deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. This was not to subject themselves to the will of the majority, as appears from the fact that each community inserted in its fundamental law a bill of rights to guard the inalienable privileges of the individual.

There was then a two-fold purpose in Government: protection and prevention against trespass by the strong upon the weak, the many on the few. 1 The world had long suffered from the oppressions of government under the pretext of ruling by divine right, and excusing the invasion into private and domestic affairs on [884] the plea of paternal care for the morals and good order of the people.

Our sires rejected all such pretensions, their system being: Government by the people for the people, and resting on the basis of natural inalienable rights. Upon the basis of these general propositions I will briefly answer the inquiry in regard to the prohibition amendment at issue.

“Be ye temperate in all things,” was a wise injunction, and would apply to intolerance as well as to drunkenness. That the intemperate use of intoxicating liquors is an evil, few, if any, would deny.

That it is the root of many social disorders is conceded, but then the question arises, what is the appropriate remedy, and what the present necessity? To destroy individual liberty and moral responsibility would be to eradicate one evil by the substitution of another, which it is submitted would be more fatal than that for which it was offered as a remedy. The abuse, and not the use, of stimulants, it must be confessed, is the evil to be remedied. Then it clearly follows that action should clearly be directed against she abuse rather than the use. If drunkenness be the cause of disorder and crime, why not pronounce drunkenness itself to be a crime, and attach to it proper and adequate penalties? [885] If it be objected that the penalties could not be enforced, that is an admission that popular opinion would be opposed to the law; but if it be true that juries could not be impanelled who would convict so degraded a criminal as a drunkard, it necessarily follows that a statu tory prohibition against the sale and use of intoxicants would be a dead letter.

The next branch of the inquiry is as to the present necessity.

I might appeal to men not as old as myself to sustain the assertion that the convivial use of intoxicants, and the occurrence of drunkenness, had become less frequent within the last twenty years than it was before. The refining influences of education and Christianity may be credited with this result. Why not allow these blessed handmaidens of virtue and morality to continue unembarrassed in their civilizing work. The parties to this discussion in your State have no doubt brought forward the statistical facts in regard to the effect produced in other States by this effort to control morals by legislation, and I will not encumber this letter by any reference to those facts.

You have already provision for local prohibition. If it has proven the wooden horse in which a disguised enemy to State sovereignty as the guardian of individual liberty [886] was introduced, then let it be a warning that the progressive march would probably be from village to State, and from State to United States.

A Governmental supervision and paternity, instead of the liberty the heroes of 1776 left as a legacy to their posterity. Impelled by the affection and gratitude I feel for the people of Texas, and the belief that a great question of American policy is involved in the issue you have before you, the silence I had hoped to observe has been broken. If the utterance shall avail anything for good, it will compensate me for the objurgations with which I shall doubtless be pursued by the followers of popularism of the day.

I hope the many who have addressed me letters of inquiry on the same subject will accept this as an answer, though somewhat long delayed. Faithfully yours,

Jefferson Davis.
I certify that the foregoing is a true copy of the original received by me, and now in my possession.

F. R. Lubbock. July 23, 1887.

This letter, widely published, aroused the antagonism of the partisans of prohibition, who knew that it would probably result, as later it did, in their defeat at the polls. [887]

Shortly after the letter was published, it was announced that Mr. Davis favored a prohibition policy, because at a camp meeting he had worn a temperance badge and complimented one of the lady orators!

In a letter to Reverend W. M. Leftwich, dated Beauvoir, August 24, 1887, Mr. Davis thus disposed of this absurd electioneering trick:

Though we may disagree as to the best remedies against intemperance, we cannot differ as to the desirability of its suppression, and I would be least of all willing that you should attribute to me such laxity of opinion as would permit a change of position without anything to justify it.

My letter to Governor Lubbock of July 20th, I must insist, is too plain to be of different construction. Four days after it was written I went to the sea-shore camp ground, and after the morning service was invited to dinner, and sat next to Mrs. Chapin at the table. She was to lecture in the afternoon, and very naturally led our conversation to the subject of which she is a zealous advocate. Agreeing as we did in regard to the evil of intemperance, we differed widely as to the proper and practicable remedies. At the close of the dinner I felt that I had been more [888] positive in my remarks to her than was needful, considering that my antagonist was a lady. A friend who sat very near to us subsequently told me that I was rather hard. I could only say that I did not mean to be discourteous, though anxious to be exactly understood. In the afternoon I listened attentively to the lecture; it was an eloquent description of the sufferings of women and children as a consequence of the drunkenness of husbands and fathers. No specific remedy was. proposed, and after she had closed her lecture and left the pulpit, I congratulated her on her address, and expressed my entire concurrence with the sentiments she had uttered. My letter to Governor Lubbock, written four days previously, was fresh in my mind; it conveyed my deliberate opinion, and I did not tzen, nor do I now, see any conflict between the sentiments of that letter and those which Mrs. Chapin had more forcibly expressed.

Pleased at my congratulations, she asked me to write my name in her book. Not knowing what all this might imply, I declined. She offered me the badge she wore; this I declined also, because I did not know the creed and canons of the order, and could not accept its emblem-declining, however, with a pleasant courtesy and deference which is habitual with me to a lady. [889]

She had learned from Miss Willard the sympathy my wife felt with the efforts of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and proposed that I should take the badge to Mrs. Davis. I made no objection, and she transferred the badge she wore to the lapel of my coat. I wore it to my home and delivered it with the message to my wife, who acknowledged it in a personal letter to Mrs. Chapin, which she published.

I saw no evil, and hoped much good, from the measure of local option by which public opinion and law would go hand in hand in a homogeneous group of people; but when it was proposed to extend such narrow sumptuary measures as were proposed in the Texas amendment, and instead of a village, town, or magistrate's beat, to embrace a whole State; and, further, when I heard that petitiorrs were in circulation for prohibiting enactments by the Congress of the United States, there loomed up a gigantic monster before which the liberties our fathers left us could offer but a vain resistance. As it is, the law and the Federal Administration are bound to prefer Union soldiers in all selections for Federal office. First we were to have sumptuary legislation, dictated by the majority against us, a permanent minority in the Union; and, to enforce it, domiciliary visits by strangers to our people. [890]

You and all others who remember the events in the closing years of the war and the period of reconstruction, will require no words to enforce the horrors of a condition which should expose our people to spies, informers, and arbitrary power. The influence of science and religion have brought the fruit of increased morality, and in its train a temperance far exceeding that of any period historically recorded. Why not trust to these and like means for moral reform?

Respectfully yours, Jefferson Davis.

Among the criticisms evoked by this letter was an address at Brookhaven, Miss., by a bishop of the Methodist Church South, which was reported by the Times-Democrat of New Orleans. Mr. Davis responded to this address in an open letter to the reverend orator, for which I have space for a few extracts only.

“ You have expressed sorrow,” Mr. Davis wrote,

because I answered the inquiry of a friend for my opinion on a political question, and employed many kind and complimentary expressions in regard to me; but in view of your persistence in unjustified assailment, your compliments seem like the garlands with which, in the olden time, a sacrificial offering [891] was decorated. Now it is my turn to grieve, not for you personally, but that a dignitary of the Methodist Church South should have left the pulpit and the Bible to mount the political rostrum and plead the higher law of prohibition — the substitution of force for free will, moral responsibility, the obligation to do unto others as we would be done by, and the brotherly love taught by the meek and lowly Jesus whom we adore. In this I see the forbidden union of Church and State. My grief is real and relates to both.

Disfranchised as I be, the love of my life for the Constitution and the liberties it was formed to secure, remains as ardent in age as it was in youth. “The Methodist Church South” has been to me the object of admiration and grateful affection, because of its fidelity to principle despite the pressure of wealth and power, by the good of its underpaid ministers, who have gone along the highways to penetrate unfrequented regions, and there “preach the gospel to the poor.” Often has my memory recalled the prophetic vision of Bishop Marvin. Will it be fulfilled by introducing politics into the organization of the Church he nobly illustrated? ...

Fanaticism looks through a reversed telescope, minimizing everything save its special object. What though one should point a [892] prohibitionist to the civilizing, harmonizing, peace-securing, comfort-giving effects of commerce among the nations? If he thought it interfered with his peculiar “ism,” would he not probably answer by irrelevant catchwords? The time was when sumptuary laws embraced what should be worn and eaten. If we begin the march of retrogression, where will it stop? If, as already proposed, there should be Federal laws to enforce the prohibition policy, your recollection of war and reconstruction days should enable you to anticipate the doings of an army of spies, informers, and deputy-marshals making domiciliary visits to insure the observance of the law. The moral decay which would inevitably result from such a condition, needs no portrayal. To me it seems the plain duty of every citizen who loves the liberty our sires bequeathed to us, to check the scheme before it acquires dangerous proportions. I hold it to be one of the natural rights of man to do as he pleases with his own, provided he inflicts no injury on another. To protect the use and prevent the abuse of that right is the necessity of social existence; to give adequate power, and yet efficiently to guard against the perversions of the grant, is the problem which the wisdom of ages has but partially solved. Hence the maxim, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” [893]

There are surely better remedies for offence against the peace and good order of society than such a departure from our principles of constitutional liberty and community independence as would be Federal legislation to enforce a sumptuary policy. Father Mathew found reason and moral suasion such potent factors that his good work was not of a day, but lives after him in some who took the pledge, and others who have joined the temperance societies. These and other causes have so acted upon public opinion and social habits, as to give the prohibition movement the possibilities it now has, and could not have enjoyed in the not remote past. Why not trust to religion and education, to refinement and science, aided by the laws which have had the sanction of experience, to prevent the formation of habits of intemperance, rather than, at the sacrifice of personal liberty and moral responsibility, to undertake by coercive means the reformation of the drunkard? The former may be preachable; the latter, by such methods, is hopeless.

In the letter to Governor Lubbock, I admitted intemperance to be a great evil; but is it the only one that afflicts society and calls for more active remedies? The opium habit is reported by statistics to be increasing, and, sad to relate, that its greatest ravages are [894] among the gentler and finer sex. Laws exist, but fail to prevent the abuse. In this, prohibition does not prohibit. Are there not other means? Is there no Peter to preach a crusade for the redemption of woman, the mother of Jesus? of woman, the last at the cross, and first at the sepulchre? of woman, the consoling friend in the hospitals, the leader in all the charities? Is there no St. George to stay the hydra that is poisoning the salt of the earth? I do not deprecate the effort to abate the evil of intemperance, but here is an evil more deleterious to mind and body, and why, it is asked, is the field unoccupied to which humanity and manhood are both calling for laborers?

Atheism reviles, and free thought, namely want of thought, denies the truth of revelation, and in the broad day scoffs at the plan of salvation. The month in which you made your address is reputed to have had an exceptionally large number of assassinations. The newspapers have many notices of burglaries, robberies, rapes, and infanticides. Divorces are shamefully frequent. The war between labor and capital gives cause for gravest apprehensions. The colossal wealth of the few grows in geometrical proportions, while the toiling millions plod on their weary way. Are all these and other evils, crimes, and misfortunes [895] not enumerated due to one cause, or is the one idea a universal absorbent?

As these excerpts clearly convey Mr. Davis's view of the issue involved, it does not seem necessary to give any further account of the controversy. It ended in the complete overthrow of the prohibitory movement in Texas, but the disturbance created by the abuse of him impaired his health, now quite feeble, and grieved him greatly. The Methodist bishop, followed by many of his clergy, attacked him, and some of them made him the theme of sermons. As he always admired the Methodists and worshipped with them when not at his own church, this added to his annoyance, not for the sake of the individuals who made the attack, but for the body of pious people before whom he felt himself wantonly misrepresented.

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