Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lincoln vs Davis

There are many who blame Lincoln for the Civil War, that he somehow drove the Southern states into seceding and forming the Confederacy to protect themselves from his oppressive tariffs and unfair taxes. Somehow it simply doesn't make much sense, when compared to the facts. If you question this, simply look at the time lines.

As Abraham Lincoln was traveling by train from Illinois to Washington for his inauguration, the Confederate States chose Jefferson Davis as their provisional president of the Confederate States of America to great celebration in their new capital, Montgomery, Alabama. One of the most outspoken cheerleaders for secession, William Yancey from Alabama introduced Davis to the crowd; "The man and hour have met. Prosperity, honor, and victory await this administration." Davis's inauguration was filled with jubilation, booming cannons, and "Dixie" seemingly played on a loop, by the Montgomery Theater band, while actress named Maggie Smith danced on the flag of the United States.

Davis seemingly was much better prepared to be a war-time president. He was a former War Secretary, it was said that Davis was one of the most effective to hold that office. He was largely responsible for professionalizing and modernizing the U.S. Army. Davis was an experience soldier, a West Pointer, a decorated veteran and hero of the Mexican War.

Lincoln had none of these credentials. His only military experience was limited to leading a few volunteers in the Black Hawk War, Lincoln said he'd fought mosquitoes and led a charge on an onion patch.

Lincoln and Davis never met, but shared some interesting things in common. Neither Davis or Lincoln were popular leaders in their time, although time and mythology on both sides have elevated both today. Both men's handling of military affairs were extremely controversial. Both men had terrible times with their generals. Politically, Davis faced tremendous hostility from a large, well-organized faction, just as Lincoln had to contend with angry fellow Republicans and furious opposition Democrats.

When Davis tried to manage the war by placing power in the hands of a central government, he was called a tyrant and dictator, just as Lincoln was. Both men suffered much personally during the duration of the war, marked by tragedy and personal loss. Each man lost a son as well as many close personal friends during the war years. Each would grimly read the casualty reports that were heavy burdens for them both.

There are many, especially Libertarians, who make a big deal of Lincoln winning with less than 40% of the vote in 1860, even though the Republican Party was the largest of the four parties running, once the Democrats split into two, one North, one South. However, Davis's election was on much shakier ground. For a "country" that came into existence based on the protection of individual rights against a powerful central government, the Confederacy had allowed few people any say in electing a president. None of the six initial Confederate states had even chosen secession in popular voting. According to William C. Davis, in "Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour," their withdrawal from the Union had been decided in state conventions by 854 men, all of them selected by their legislatures. Of those, 157 had voted against secession. That means that the decision to secede was by only 697 men, mostly wealthy and upper-middle-class men who decided he destiny of 9 million people without an election. In Tennessee secession was ordered by its governor after the popular vote defeated a secession proposal.

After Davis was elected he told a northern visitor that slavery was not the cause of secession, explaining: "My own convictions, as to negro slavery, are strong. It has its evils and abuses, We recognize the negro as God and God's Book and God's Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him, our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude. You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be."

During the rush to organize a government, and an army, one of Davis's first acts was to dispatch three commissioners to Washington in an attempt to negotiate a settlement with the Union. Leading them was the Confederate vice-president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia. Lincoln had admired a speech that Stephens had given during their years as fellow Whigs in the Thirtieth Congress. They became close friends, although the later parted ways over slavery. Around Christmas, before going to Washington, Lincoln had sent Stephens a letter marked "For Your Eyes Only," promising that his administration would not interfere with slavery. When Stephens arrived in Washington, he hoped to negotiate an end to the crisis. With the situation moving toward a showdown, Stephens and the other delegates met in secret with Lincoln's secretary of state, William Seward, whom Lincoln had just defeated in the primary election for president, spoke without presidential authority. Seward promised that Fort Sumter would be evacuated, but Lincoln refused to meet with Stephens, unwilling to legitimize a Confederate government, he now viewed as a collection of rebels.

Lincoln was very consistent, he held open the olive branch to the Confederate states to avoid war, he would leave their slaves alone, but he held one thing firm, without compromise, all the states must come back into the Union.


  1. This is an interesting topic, Jim, and darned if I know why people would get upset about it. I haven't witnessed that yet.

    However, I do think that you should continue writing down your thoughts about it, even foot-noting with valid sources where appropriate. Later, you can organize your work into a compendium or even an e-book that you could sell for a small price using Ipad and Kindle and your own website. Or, if you just want to continue sharing for free, that is certainly fine, too.

    I haven't read much about this time period, and I was surprised to read that so few people decided the fate of the South. It is especially ironic that they did so in the name of individual rights and freedoms.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you Michael. I find it amazing the venom that some people carry. I believe much of it is simply generationally indoctrinated from those in the South who are still angry about the "War of Northern Aggression." There are many who have written books and have huge followings that preach this nonsense.