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Chapter 17: Begins his political life, 1843.

Canvass as elector for Polk and Dallas.

“In 1843,” said Mr. Davis, in a brief autobiographical sketch, dictated to a friend during the last month of his life, for a new Biographical Cyclopaedia, “I, for the first time, took part in the political life of the country. Next year I was chosen one of the Presidential electors at large of the State, and in the succeeding year was elected to Congress, taking my seat in the House of Representatives in December, 1845. The proposition to terminate the joint occupancy of Oregon and the reformation of the tariff were the two questions arousing most public attention at that time, and I took an active part in the discussion, especially in that of the first. During this period hostilities with Mexico commenced, and in the legislation which that conflict rendered necessary, my military education enabled me to take a somewhat prominent part.”

In this brief sketch Mr. Davis did not [182] deem it necessary to state what part he took in politics in 1843. In that year he was urged to become a candidate of the Democratic, or States' Rights party, for the State legislature, as the representative of Warren County, and with the expressed expectation of leading a forlorn hope. In a private memorandum Mr. Davis thus describes this, his first political campaign.

The canvass had advanced to a period within one week of the election, when the Democrats became dissatisfied with their candidate and resolved to withdraw him, and I was requested to take his place. The Whigs had a decided majority in the county, and there were two Whig candidates against the one Democrat. When I was announced one of the Whig candidates withdrew, which seemed to make my defeat certain; so, at least, I regarded it. Our opponents must have thought otherwise, for they put into the field for the canvass, though himself not a candidate, the greatest popular orator of the State--it is not too much to say the greatest of his day-S. S. Prentiss; and my first public speech was made in opposition to him. This led to an incident perhaps worthy of mention.

An arrangement was made by our respective parties for a debate between Mr. [183] Prentiss and myself on the day of election, each party to be allowed fifteen minutes alternately.

Before the day appointed I met Mr. Prentiss, to agree upon the questions to be discussed, eliminating all those with regard to which there was no difference between us, although they might be involved in the canvass.

Among these was one which had already been decided by the Legislature of Mississippi, and had thus become in some measure a historical question, but which was still the subject of political discussion, namely, that of repudiation. On this question there were but slight differences between us. He held that the Union Bank bonds constituted a debt of the State. I believed that they were instituted unconstitutionally, but as the fundamental law of the State authorized it to be sued, the question of debt or no debt was to be determined by the courts; and if the bonds should be adjudged a debt, I was in favor of paying them. As, therefore, we were agreed with regard to the principle that the State might create a debt, and that in such case the people are bound to pay it, there was no such difference between us as to require a discussion of the so-called question of repudiation, which turned upon the assumption that a [184] State could not create a debt, or, in the phraseology of the period, that one generation could not impose such obligations upon another.

There was another set of obligations known as the Planters' Bank bonds, the legality of which I never doubted, and for which I thought the legislature was bound to make timely provision.

To return to the incident spoken of. Mr. Prentiss and I met at the court-house on the day of the election, improvised a stand at the foot of the stairs up which the voters were passed to the polling-room, and there spent the day in discussion. There was but one variation from the terms originally agreed upon. Mr. Prentiss having said that he could not always condense his argument so fully as to state his position within fifteen minutes, I consented that the time should be extended, provided he would strictly confine himself to the point at issue. He adhered tenaciously to the limitation thus imposed, argued closely and powerfully, and impressed me with his capacity for analysis and logical induction more deeply than by any other effort that I ever knew him to make.

A young man who was present at a part of this debate told me it was a most striking scene. Mr. Prentiss was small and lame, but [185] his glorious head once seen made one forget that he had any infirmity. He lisped slightly, or rather had a soft pronunciation of his s, which gave a tender tone to his eloquent denunciation. When the mental duel began each man was given a round of applause. At every successful point made by the one party or the other, the respective adherents shouted and congratulated each other. “At last,” said my informant, “the colonel made a fine point, and I ran for my brother a block off. When we got back, the Whigs were shouting for Prentiss, and I was dreadfully cut up.” It would seem that if ever a man could be stimulated to the highest effort, such an affectionate and intimate following, aided by such generous applause, would bring out all there was in him. Mr. Davis continued:

The result of the election, as anticipated, was my defeat.1 As this was the only occasion [186] on which I was ever a candidate for the legislature of Mississippi, it may be seen how unfounded was the allegation that attributed to me any part in the legislative enactment known as the “Act of repudiation.”

1 Referring to this period a writer in the New Orleans Times-Democrat says truly: “Not only was it Mr. Davis's first appearance in the political arena, as a candidate for the legislature, subsequent to the reproduction of the bonds, but he never at any time, before or afterward, held any civil office-legislative, executive, or judicial in the State government. Furthermore, that his supposed sympathy with the advocates of the payment of the debt by the State was actually (although ineffectually) employed among the repudiators as an objection to his election to Congress in 1845. The idea of attaching any share of the responsibility to him for the repudiation of the bonds was of later origin.” In his latter years he felt and sometimes expressed strong indignation at the remark of General Scott in his Autobiography (vol. i., page 148), relative to “the Mississippi bonds, repudiated mainly by Mr. Jefferson Davis.” He spoke in terms of still severer censure of the late Robert J. Walker, who had been sent by the United States Government to propagate the same calumny, while their financial agent in Europe during the war, although Mr. Walker was personally familiar with all the facts of the transaction, and was himself Senator from Mississippi at the time.

In the summer of the same year (1844) Mr. Davis was a delegate to the Democratic State Convention which assembled at Jackson to organize the gubernatorial canvass and to appoint delegates to the National Convention.

Here he made his first conspicuous appearance as a coming leader in the party. Van Buren was the choice of the majority. A motion was made to instruct the delegates to support Mr. Van Buren in the Convention as long as there was any reasonable prospect of his selection. Mr. Davis offered an amendment instructing them to support John C. Calhoun as their second choice. In advocating this amendment he eulogized Mr. Calhoun and his principles in a speech of such force and eloquence that he was unanimously chosen an elector.

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