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Chapter 5:

  • Meeting of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States
  • -- adoption of a Provisional Constitution -- election of President and Vice-President -- notification to the author of his election -- his views with regard to it -- Journey to Montgomery -- interview with Judge Sharkey -- false reports of speeches on the way -- inaugural address -- editor's note.

The congress of delegates from the seceding states convened at Montgomery, Alabama, according to appointment, on February 4, 1861. Their first work was to prepare a provisional constitution for the new confederacy, to be formed of the states which had withdrawn from the Union, for which the style “Confederate States of America” was adopted. The powers conferred upon them were adequate for the performance of this duty, the immediate necessity for which was obvious and urgent. This constitution was adopted on February 8, to continue in force for one year, unless superseded at an earlier date by a permanent organization. It is printed in an appendix, and for convenience of reference the permanent Constitution, adopted several weeks afterward, is exhibited in connection with it, and side by side with the Constitution of the United States, after which it was modeled.1 The attention of the reader is invited to these documents and to a comparison of them, although a more particular notice of the permanent Constitution will be more appropriate hereafter.

On the next day (February 9) an election was held for the chief executive offices, resulting, as I afterward learned, in my election to the Presidency, with the Hon. Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia as Vice-President. Stephens was a delegate from Georgia to the congress.

While these events were occurring, having completed the most urgent of my duties at the capital of Mississippi, I had gone to my home Brierfield, in Warren County, and had begun, in the homely but expressive language of Clay, “to repair my fences.” While thus engaged, notice was received of my election to the presidency of the Confederate States, with an urgent request to proceed immediately to Montgomery for inauguration.

As this had been suggested as a probable event, and what appeared to me adequate precautions had been taken to prevent it, I was surprised, and still more, disappointed. For reasons which it is not now necessary [198] to state, I had not believed myself as well suited to the office as some others. I thought myself better adapted to command in the field; Mississippi had given me the position which I preferred to any other—the highest rank in her army. It was, therefore, that I afterward said in an address delivered in the Capitol before the legislature of the state, with reference to my election to the presidency of the Confederacy, that the duty to which I was thus called was temporary, and that I expected soon to be with the army of Mississippi again.

While on my way to Montgomery, and waiting in Jackson, Mississippi, for the railroad train, I met the Hon. William L. Sharkey, who had filled with great distinction the office of chief justice of the state. He said he was looking for me to make an inquiry. He desired to know if it was true, as he had just learned, that I believed there would be war. My opinion was freely given, that there would be war, long and bloody, and that it behooved everyone to put his house in order. He expressed much surprise, and said that he had not believed the report attributing this opinion to me. He asked how I supposed war could result from the peaceable withdrawal of a sovereign state. The answer was that it was not my opinion that war should be occasioned by the exercise of that right, but that it would be.

Judge Sharkey and I had not belonged to the same political party, he being a Whig, but we fully agreed with regard to the question of the sovereignty of the states. He had been an advocate of nullification—a doctrine to which I had never assented, and which had at one time been the main issue in Mississippi politics. He had presided over the well-remembered Nashville convention in 1849, and had possessed much influence in the state, not only as an eminent jurist, but as a citizen who had grown up with it, and held many offices of honor and trust.

On my way to Montgomery, brief addresses were made at various places, at which there were temporary stoppages of the train, in response to calls from the crowds assembled at such points. Some of these addresses were grossly misrepresented in sensational reports made by irresponsible persons, which were published in Northern newspapers, and were not considered worthy of correction under the pressure of the momentous duties then devolving upon me. These false reports, which represented me as invoking war and threatening devastation of the North, have since been adopted by partisan writers as authentic history. It is a sufficient answer to these accusations to refer to my farewell address to the Senate, already given, as reported for the press at the time, and, in connection therewith, to my inaugural address at Montgomery, [199]

Alexander H. Stephens

[200] on assuming the office of President of the Confederate States, on February 18th. These two addresses, delivered at an interval of a month, during which no material change or circumstances had occurred, being one before and the other after the date of the sensational reports referred to, are sufficient to stamp them as utterly untrue. The inaugural was deliberately prepared, and uttered as written, and in connection with the farewell speech to the Senate, presents a clear and authentic statement of the principles and purposes which actuated me on assuming the duties of the high office to which I had been called.
inaugural address Gentlemen of the Congress of the Confederate States of America, Friends, and


Called to the difficult and responsible station of Chief Magistrate of the Provisional Government which you have instituted, I approach the discharge of the duties assigned to me with humble distrust of my abilities, but with a sustaining confidence in the wisdom of those who are to guide and aid me in the administration of public affairs, and an abiding faith in the virtue and patriotism of the people. Looking forward to the speedy establishment of a permanent government to take the place of this, which by its greater moral and physical power will be better able to combat with many difficulties that arise from the conflicting interests of separate nations, I enter upon the duties of the office to which I have been chosen with the hope that the beginning of our career, as a Confederacy, may not be obstructed by hostile opposition to our enjoyment of the separate existence and independence we have asserted, and which with the blessing of Providence, we intend to maintain.

Our present political position has been achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations. It illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them at will whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established. The declared purpose of the compact of the Union from which we have withdrawn was to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our prosperity”; and when, in the judgment of the sovereign States composing this Confederacy, it has been perverted from the purposes for which it was ordained, and ceased to answer the ends for which it was established, a peaceful appeal to the ballot-box declared that, so far as they are concerned, the Government created by that compact should cease to exist. In this they merely asserted the right which the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, defined to be “inalienable.” Of the time and occasion of its exercise they as sovereigns were the final judges, each for itself. The impartial and enlightened verdict of mankind will vindicate the rectitude of our conduct; and He who knows the hearts of men will judge of the sincerity with which we have labored to preserve the Government of our fathers in its spirit.

The right solemnly proclaimed at the birth of the United States, and which has been solemnly affirmed and reaffirmed in the Bills of Rights of the States [201] subsequently admitted into the Union of 1789, undeniably recognizes in the people the power to resume the authority delegated for the purposes of government. Thus the sovereign States here represented have proceeded to form this Confederacy; and it is by abuse of language that their act has been denominated a revolution. They formed a new alliance, but within each State its government has remained; so that the rights of person and property have not been disturbed. The agent through which they communicated with foreign nations is changed, but this does not necessarily interrupt their international relations. Sustained by the consciousness that the transition from the former Union to the present Confederacy has not proceeded from a disregard on our part of just obligations, or any failure to perform every constitutional duty, moved by no interest or passion to invade the rights of others, anxious to cultivate peace and commerce with all nations, if we may not hope to avoid war, we may at least expect that posterity will acquit us of having needlessly engaged in it. Doubly justified by the absence of wrong on our part, and by wanton aggression on the part of others, there can be no cause to doubt that the courage and patriotism of the people of the Confederate States will be found equal to any measures of defense which their honor and security may require.

An agricultural people, whose chief interest is the export of commodities required in every manufacturing country, our true policy is peace, and the freest trade which our necessities will permit. It is alike our interest and that of all those to whom we would sell, and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon the interchange of these commodities. There can, however, be but little rivalry between ours and any manufacturing or navigating community, such as the Northeastern States of the American Union. It must follow, therefore, that mutual interest will invite to good — will and kind offices on both parts. If, however, passion or lust of dominion should cloud the judgment or inflame the ambition of those States, we must prepare to meet the emergency and maintain, by the final arbitrament of the sword, the position which we have assumed among the nations of the earth.

We have entered upon the career of independence, and it must be inflexibly pursued. Through many years of controversy with our late associates of the Northern States, we have vainly endeavored to secure tranquillity and obtain respect for the rights to which we were entitled. As a necessity, not a choice, we have resorted to the remedy of separation, and henceforth our energies must be directed to the conduct of our own affairs, and the perpetuity of the Confederacy which we have formed. If a just perception of mutual interest shall permit us peaceably to pursue our separate political career, my most earnest desire will have been fulfilled. But if this be denied to us, and the integrity of our territory and jurisdiction be assailed, it will but remain for us with firm resolve to appeal to arms and invoke the blessings of Providence on a just cause.

As a consequence of our new condition and relations, and with a view to meet anticipated wants, it will be necessary to provide for the speedy and efficient organization of branches of the Executive department having special charge of foreign intercourse, finance, military affairs, and the postal service. [202] For purposes of defense, the Confederate States may, under ordinary circumstances, rely mainly upon the militia; but it is deemed advisable, in the present condition of affairs, that there should be a well-instructed and disciplined army, more numerous than would usually be required on a peace establishment. I also suggest that for the protection of our harbors and commerce on the high seas, a navy adapted to those objects will be required. But this, as well as other subjects appropriate to our necessities, have doubtless engaged the attention of Congress.

With a Constitution differing only from that of our fathers in so far as it is explanatory of their well-known intent, freed from sectional conflicts, which have interfered with the pursuit of the general welfare, it is not unreasonable to expect that States from which we have recently parted may seek to unite their fortunes to ours under the Government which we have instituted. For this your Constitution makes adequate provision; but beyond this, if I mistake not the judgment and will of the people, a reunion with the States from which we have separated is neither practicable nor desirable. To increase the power, develop the resources, and promote the happiness of the Confederacy, it is requisite that there should be so much of homogeneity that the welfare of every portion shall be the aim of the whole. When this does not exist, antagonisms are engendered which must and should result in separation.

Actuated solely by the desire to preserve our own rights and promote our own welfare, the separation by the Confederate States has been marked by no aggression upon others, and followed by no domestic convulsion. Our industrial pursuits have received no check, the cultivation of our fields has progressed as heretofore, and, even should we be involved in war, there would be no considerable diminution in the production of the staples which have constituted our exports, and in which the commercial world has an interest scarcely less than our own. This common interest of the producer and consumer can only be interrupted by exterior force which would obstruct the transmission of our staples to foreign markets—a course of conduct which would be as unjust, as it would be detrimental, to manufacturing and commercial interests abroad.

Should reason guide the action of the Government from which we have separated, a policy so detrimental to the civilized world, the Northern States included, could not be dictated by even the strongest desire to inflict injury upon us; but, if the contrary should prove true, a terrible responsibility will rest upon it, and the suffering of millions will bear testimony to the folly and wickedness of our aggressors. In the meantime there will remain to us, besides the ordinary means before suggested, the well-known resources for retaliation upon the commerce of an enemy.

Experience in public stations, of subordinate grade to this which your kindness has conferred, has taught me that toil and care and disappointment are the price of official elevation. You will see many errors to forgive, many deficiencies to tolerate; but you shall not find in me either want of zeal or fidelity to the cause that is to me the highest in hope, and of most enduring affection. Your generosity has bestowed upon me an undeserved distinction, one which I neither sought nor desired. Upon the continuance of that sentiment, and upon your wisdom and patriotism, I rely to direct and support me in the performance of the duties required at my hands. [203]

We have changed the constituent parts, but not the system of government. The Constitution framed by our fathers is that of these Confederate States. In their exposition of it, and in the judicial construction it has received, we have a light which reveals its true meaning.

Thus instructed as to the true meaning and just interpretation of that instrument, and ever remembering that all offices are but trusts held for the people, and that powers delegated are to be strictly construed, I will hope by due diligence in the performance of my duties, though I may disappoint your expectations, yet to retain, when retiring, something of the good-will and confidence which welcome my entrance into office.

It is joyous in the midst of perilous times to look around upon a people united in heart, where one purpose of high resolve animates and actuates the whole; where the sacrifices to be made are not weighed in the balance against honor and right and liberty and equality. Obstacles may retard, but they can not long prevent, the progress of a movement sanctified by its justice and sustained by a virtuous people. Reverently let us invoke the God of our Fathers to guide and protect us in our efforts to perpetuate the principles which by his blessing they were able to vindicate, establish, and transmit to their posterity. With the continuance of his favor ever gratefully acknowledged, we may hopefully look forward to success, to peace, and to prosperity.

Statements having been made, seeming to imply that I was a candidate “for the Presidency of the Confederate States; that my election was the result of a misunderstanding, or of accidental complications”; that I held “extreme views,” and entertained at that period an inadequate conception of the magnitude of the war probably to be waged, information on the subject has been contributed by several distinguished members of the provisional congress, who still survive. From a number of their letters which have been published, the annexed extracts are given, parts being omitted which refer to matters not of historical interest.

From a communication of the Hon. Alexander M. Clayton of Mississippi, to the Memphis Appeal of June 21, 1870:

. . . . I was at the time a member of the Provisional Congress from Mississippi. Believing that Mr. Davis was the choice of the South for the position of President, before repairing to Montgomery I addressed him a letter to ascertain if he would accept it. He replied that it was not the place he desired; that, if he could have his choice, he would greatly prefer to be in active service as commander-in-chief of the army, but that he would give himself to the cause in any capacity whatever. That was the only letter of which I have any knowledge that he wrote on the subject, and that was shown to only a very few persons, and only when I was asked if Mr. Davis would accept the presidency. . . .

There was no electioneering, no management, on the part of any one. Each voter was left to determine for himself in whose hands the destinies of the infant Confederacy should be placed. By a law as fixed as gravitation itself, and as little disturbed by outside influence, the minds of members centered upon Mr. Davis. [204]

After a few days of anxious, intense labor, the Provisional Constitution was framed, and it became necessary to give it vitality by putting some one at the head of the new Government. . . .

Without any effort on the part of the friends of either [Messrs. Davis or Stephens], the election was made without the slightest dissent. Of the accidental complications referred to, I have not the least knowledge, and always thought that the election of Mr. Davis arose from the spontaneous conviction of his peculiar fitness. I have consulted no one on the subject, and have appended my name only to avoid resting an important fact upon anonymous authority. Very respectfully yours,

From the Hon. J. A. P. Campbell of Mississippi, now a justice of the Supreme Court of that state:

. . . .If there was a delegate from Mississippi, or any other State, who was opposed to the election of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederate States, I never heard of the fact. I had the idea that Mr. Davis did not desire to be President, and preferred to be in the military service, but no other man was spoken of for President within my hearing. . . .

It is within my personal knowledge that the statement of the interview, that Mr. Davis did not have a just appreciation of the serious character of the contest between the seceding States and the Union, is wholly untrue. Mr. Davis, more than any man I ever heard talk on the subject, had a correct apprehension of the consequences of secession and of the magnitude of the war to be waged to coerce the seceding States. While at Montgomery, he expressed the belief that heavy fighting must occur, and that Virginia was to be the chief battleground. Years prior to secession, in his address before the Legislature and people of Mississippi, Mr. Davis had earnestly advised extensive preparation for the possible contingency of secession.

After the formation of the Confederate States, he was far in advance of the Constitutional Convention and the Provisional Congress, and, as I believe, of any man in it, in his views of the gravity of the situation and the probable extent and duration of the war, and of the provision which should be made for the defense of the seceding States. Before secession, Mr. Davis thought war would result from it; and, after secession, he expressed the view that the war commenced would be an extensive one. What he may have thought at a later day than the early part of 1862, I do not know; but it is inconceivable that the “interview” can be correct as to that.

The idea that Mr. Davis was so “extreme” in his views is a new one. He was extremely conservative on the subject of secession.

The suggestion that Mississippi would have preferred General Toombs or Mr. Cobb for President has no foundation in fact. My opinion is, that no man could have obtained a single vote in the Mississippi delegation against Mr. Davis, who was then, as he is now, the most eminent and popular of all the citizens of Mississippi. . . . Very respectfully,

[205] From the Hon. Duncan F. Kenner of Louisiana:

. . . . My recollections of what transpired at the time are very vivid and positive. . . .

Who should be President, was the absorbing question of the day. It engaged the attention of all present, and elicited many letters from our respective constituencies. The general inclination was strongly in favor of Mr. Davis. In fact, no other name was so prominently or so generally mentioned. The name of Mr. Rhett, of South Carolina, was probably more frequently mentioned than that of any other person, next to Mr. Davis.

The rule adopted at our election was that each State should have one vote, to be delivered in open session, viva voce, by one of the delegates as spokesman for his colleagues. The delegates of the different States met in secret session to select their candidate and spokesman.

Of what occurred in these various meetings I can not speak authoritatively as to other States, as their proceedings were considered secret. I can speak positively, however, of what took place at a meeting of the delegates from Louisiana. We, the Louisiana delegates, without hesitation, and unanimously, after a very short session, decided in favor of Mr. Davis. No other name was mentioned; the claims of no one else were considered, or even alluded to. There was not the slightest opposition to Mr. Davis on the part of any of our delegation; certainly none was expressed; all appeared enthusiastic in his favor, and, I have no reason to doubt, felt so. Nor was the feeling induced by any solicitation on the part of Mr. Davis or his friends. Mr. Davis was not in or near Montgomery at the time. He was never heard from on this subject, so far as I knew. He was never announced as a candidate. We were seeking the best man to fill the position, and the conviction at the time, in the minds of a large majority of the delegates, that Mr. Davis was the best qualified, from both his civil and military knowledge and experience, induced many to look upon Mr. Davis as the best selection that could be made.

This conviction, coupled with his well-recognized conservative views—for in no sense did we consider Mr. Davis extreme, either in his views or purposes —was the deciding consideration which controlled the votes of the Louisiana delegation. Of this I have not the least doubt. I remain, respectfully, very truly yours, etc.

(Signed) Duncan F. Kenner.

From the Hon. James Chesnut of South Carolina:

. . . . Before leaving home I had made up my mind as to who was the fittest man to be President, and who to be Vice-President; Mr. Davis for the first, and Mr. Stephens for the second. And this was known to all my friends as well as to my colleagues.

Mr. Davis, then conspicuous for ability, had long experience in civil service, was reputed a most successful organizer and administrator of the military department of the United States when he was Secretary of War, and came out of the Mexican war with much éclat as a soldier. Possessing a combination of these high and needful qualities, he was regarded by nearly the whole South as the fittest man for the position. I certainly so regarded him, and did not change my mind on the way to Montgomery. . . . [206]

Georgia was a great State—great in numbers, comparatively great in wealth, and great in the intellectual gifts and experiences of many of her sons. Conspicuous among them were Stephens, Toombs, and Cobb. In view of these facts, it was thought by all of us expedient—nay, more, positively right and just—that Georgia should have a corresponding weight in the counsels and conduct of the new Government.

Mr. Stephens was also a man of conceded ability, of high character, conservative, devoted to the rights of the States, and known to be a power in his own State; hence all eyes turned to him to fill the second place.

Howell Cobb became President of the Convention, and General Toombs Secretary of State. These two gifted Georgians were called to these respective positions because of their experience, ability, and ardent patriotism. . . .

Mr. Rhett was a very bold and frank man. So was Colonel Keitt; and they, as always, avowed their opinions and acted upon them with energy. Nevertheless, the vote of the delegation was cast for Mr. Davis. . . .

(Signed) James Chesnut.

From the Hon. W. Porcher Miles of Virginia, formerly of South Carolina, and a member of the provisional congress of 1861:

Oak Ridge, January 17, 1880.

. . . . To the best of my recollection there was entire unanimity in the South Carolina delegation at Montgomery on the subject of the choice of a President. I think it very likely that Keitt, from his warm personal friendship for Mr. Toombs, may at first have preferred him. I have no recollections of Chesnut's predilections. I think there was no question that Mr. Davis was the choice of our delegation and of the whole people of South Carolina. . . . I do not think Mr. Rhett ever attempted to influence the course of his colleagues, either in this or in matters generally before the Congress. Nor do I think his personal influence in the delegation was as great as that of some other members of it. If I were to select any one as having a special influence with us, I would consider Mr. Robert Barnwell as the one. His singularly pure and elevated character, entire freedom from all personal ambition or desire for place or position (he declined Mr. Davis's offer of a seat in the Cabinet), as well as his long experience in public life and admirably calm and well-balanced mind, all combined to make his influence with his colleagues very great. But neither could he be said “to lead” the delegation. He had no desire and never made any attempt to do so. I think there was no delegation in the Congress, the individual members of which were more independent in coming to their own conclusions of what was right and expedient to be done. There was always the frankest and freest interchange of opinions among them, but every one determined his own course for himself.

1 See Appendix K.

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