Senator Jefferson Davis’ response to William Seward’s State of the Country Speech was effectively a political speech- it was not meant to fully articulate the Southern cause of State’s Rights, nor was it a long-winded justification of that “peculiar institution,” slavery. Rather, Davis’ goal was to respond to Seward’s earlier speech, which condemned slavery. Within Davis’ speech, though, we find an idea more dangerous and pernicious than slavery as a positive good or that a State has rights; Davis rejected the central principle of the American Founding and Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Davis also failed to grasp that the federal government derives its power from the sovereignty of the people. Rather, he viewed the Constitution as an agreement between the state governments.
The basis for representative self-government in America is that principle in the Declaration, that “all men are created equal…” Davis fundamentally rejected the idea that all men, particularly whites and blacks, share equality. Davis was clear when he said, “Negro slavery exists in the South, and by the existence of Negro slavery, the white man is raised to the dignity of a freeman and an equal.” For Davis, the existence of freeman seems to necessitate the existence of slaves, but there is no principle that makes Africans the enslaved race other than their skin color. Davis seems to view them as slaves by nature. He continued on, “Your own menial [slave] who blacks your boots, drives your carriage, who wears your livery, and is your own in every sense of the word is not your equal; and such is society wherever negro slavery is not the substratum on which the white race is elevated to its true dignity…we come to the vindication of our institutions by showing you that all your phrases are false; that we are the freeman.” The falsehood that Davis spoke of was not just “Capital States” and “Slave States”, as Seward said, but equality. “All men are created equal” is that false phrase. Davis says explicitly that a slave is “not your equal” and that he is necessary to raise the white race to its “true dignity.” This is not just equality of condition or station, but a denial of the humanity of Africans.
Further in the speech Davis claimed that, “the condition of slavery with us is, in a word, Mr. President, nothing but the form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves.” And who selected the African people for slavery and as unfit to govern themselves? For Jefferson Davis, it is a power no less than God; “the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the creator…” He seemed unaware that this was a rejection of our system of government and mirrors the divine right of kings, long claimed in Europe as the justification for rule. A class, selected by God as unfit to rule even their own lives, logically leaves a superior class of people fit to rule. Six years earlier, in Lincoln’s 1854 reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he confronted this very idea and wrote, “When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs another man that is … despotism.” This claim to a divine right to rule another people is anathema to the American Republic. In Federalist 1, Hamilton stated that the goal of the American experiment was to see “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Davis determined that America was an accident, for he asserted that God chose a group to rule, and they are to rule through force.
Beyond rejecting the Declaration of Independence, Davis misunderstood the American Founding when he asserted, “our fathers were occupied in providing a common agent for the States, not building up a central government to look over them” and later contended the idea that, “this is a Government which we will learn is not merely a Government of the States, but a Government of each individual of the people of the United States…” was the wrong doctrine. The Constitution of the United States begins “We The People” not “We the Colonies,” “We the States,” or “We The White Land Owning Gentry”; it is a promise to all people, and to future generations of Americans. This is explicit in the Federalist Papers, when Madison wrote in Federalist 39 that ratification of the Constitution “must result from the unanimous assent of the several States that are parties to it, differing no otherwise from their ordinary assent than in its being express, not by the legislative authority, but by that of the people themselves.” A republic is “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people…” The States are not self-generating; rather, the people form the states, and the federal government. Thus, they give sovereignty, understood as power, to both the state and the federal government. Just governments are created by, and for, men and it is the people who determine which powers are reserved to the states and enumerated to the federal government. Davis is right in the sense that that the states helped to form the federal regime, with powers reserved to them (this is articulated best in the 10th Amendment), but incorrect in disregarding the role the body of the American people in the Federal Union.
May 14, 2013 – Essay #62
Read Reply in the Senate to William Seward by Jefferson Davis here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4317
James Legee recently completed his Master of Arts in Political Science at Villanova University, where he was a Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good. You can find him on twitter @JamesLegee.