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Jefferson Davis' Inaugural Speech

See more about the Confederate States of America



Then We'll Go Start Our Own Country!

South Carolina decides no more U.S.A. for them
We were driving along in South Carolina listening to talk radio. The topic of discussion was-what else? - the presidential election mess. One of the callers suggested that if Al Gore was to become President, people should start a civil war to protest. Okay, buddy, I'm not so sure if warfare is really the best solution. In fact, I am very scared to think that anybody would truly believe that. It did get me thinking about why a civil war would begin and why it did begin back in 1861.

South Carolina was actually the first state to secede, or leave the Union. While we were in South Carolina, one of the sites we visited was Institute Hall in Charleston, where the document for secession was signed in December of 1860. This was very soon after Abraham Lincoln was elected President. Were the people of South Carolina upset about ballot recounts? Not that I know of. But they were not such big fans of Lincoln either and few people in the Deep South voted for him. Lincoln, the Republican, was guaranteed victory when the Democratic convention (held in that very same building in Charleston) split 3 ways and could not come up with a strong candidate to nominate.

Institute Hall in Charleston, South Carolina
Okay, this is where things get a bit shaky. Historians today still debate the exact causes of the "War Between the States," as it is called. So I can't claim to have any absolute answers, but I will tell you what I've learned so far.

The North and the South at this time were like two different countries in terms of their politics, economy and culture. Slavery, of course, was a huge issue. If there were no slavery, there would have been no war. Yet, on the other hand, if you asked the soldiers of the war why they were fighting, I bet only a small number of them would say they were fighting for or against slavery. They felt it was more about protecting their own ways of life. The North and South were such different places at the time that each side felt threatened by the other.

So now I am trying to think about what the phrase "ways of life" entails. What kind of differences are we talking about anyways? I am picturing a street where everyone on one side liked running, listening to hip-hop music, and eating vegetarian food while the other side of the street enjoyed being couch potatoes, blaring classical music, and eating beef jerky. In this situation, the different sides probably wouldn't interfere with each other, unless the Mozart or Jay-Z got too loud one day or a stray piece of beef jerky happened to run across and find its way into the salad bowl. But if one side started to become more powerful and looked like they would be ruling the neighborhood, the others might feel like were being threatened.

When I talk about the "ways of life" for the people of the north and south, though, I mean more than just what they ate for breakfast or the kind of clothes they wore. Although, hey, that might have been a part of it too. It was all the differences in their daily activities and the ways that they made money and the resources they had available and their beliefs about the government and …well, basically it was like this:

The South was based on agriculture that depended on the labor of enslaved Africans. Becky and I learned all about this when we visited some plantations in Louisiana. For the majority of free people, slavery was more of an economic issue than a moral issue, unlike how we view it today. There were approximately 9 million people living in the South at that time and nearly 4 million of these people were enslaved. And even though the majority of people did not own slaves, it was definitely a major part of the Southern way of life.

The Alabama State Capitol-where the confederate government began
The North was more industrial, with a great number of factories and more miles of railroad than the rest of the countries of the world combined. Southern states were losing political power and felt that each state should make its own laws. This is what came to be known as "state's rights." The North believed in the strength of the Union and that leaving would be a completely unacceptable rebellion.

When Lincoln was elected, he promised to keep the country united and the new western territories free from slavery. Southerners felt he would not be sympathetic to their way of life. After South Carolina seceded, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas were soon to follow.

Becky stands where Davis' gave his inauguration speech… the crowds go wild
Then, in February of 1861, these states banded together to form a new independent government called the Confederate States of America (CSA). Jefferson Davis was elected president. The Confederacy had only one president during its existence, but he was inaugurated twice, so maybe that counts for something. The first time was in Montgomery, Alabama, which was established as the first confederate capital. Three months later, after the Civil War began at Fort Sumter and other states such as Virginia had seceded, the capital was moved to Richmond, and Davis was inaugurated again.

Neda gracefully frolics down the stairs of the Capitol
In his book Don't Know Much About the Civil War, Kenneth Davis writes, "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…" When the six initial Confederate states chose secession, it was not through popular voting but rather was decided in state conventions by mostly wealthy and upper-middle class men. And when Davis was elected President, it was again not by a vote of the common people. (Of course, we have to keep in mind that the majority of people were excluded from the political process altogether, especially the millions of African-Americans).

Nevertheless, Davis' inauguration was like a big party, with citizens on the streets cheering, cannons booming, a band playing "Dixie" over and over again, and even a woman dancing on top of the U.S. flag.

When the Confederacy was created, it flew its own flag, called The Stars and Bars. The new government came up with its own Constitution, which was very similar to the U.S. Constitution including the Bill of Rights. Except, of course, the confederates put in a section about the right to own slaves. One of the main concerns of the CSA was paying for the military, so they issued their own money and raised their own taxes, all under Davis' leadership.

Montgomery: the Confederacy's first home
Davis was a former war secretary, decorated veteran and hero of the Mexican War. He was a plantation owner from Mississippi who had turned to politics. In 1860, he was a U.S. Senator and a frontrunner for the presidential nomination in that Democratic convention I talked about earlier. Davis could have been the 16th president of the United States. Instead, he became the first and only president of the Confederate States.

Another fun fact about Davis: he is remembered for his idea to use camels instead of horses for cavalry patrols in the southwest desert. It didn't catch on, but Arizona residents still hold camel races once a year.

Neda knocks on the door of the Confederate White House-sadly, Davis was not home
But we are in Alabama and there are no camels here. Becky and I went to Montgomery to check out the Alabama State Capitol, which served as the headquarters of the early confederacy. We also took a tour of the first White House of the Confederacy where Davis and his family lived before moving to Richmond. The buildings were quite nice. Not such a bad gig that good ole' Jeff Davis had going on. Except for the fact that the South lost, of course. And Davis, out of a job, was imprisoned; then spent a period of exile in Canada before finally accepting a position with an insurance company. It must have been quite a letdown after being a president!

So there you have it. That's how and where the Confederacy was formed. I may not know for sure what caused the civil war. I do know that the people in power in the South were upset enough to form the confederacy and create their own government. I do know that they were upset enough to fire the first shots of the war at Fort Sumter. And I do know that the American Civil War was the deadliest war in our country's history.

Which makes me glad that most people don't share the view of that talk show caller.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Dred Scott: "a simple man who wanted to be free"
Rebecca - Friendly letters, wine and more at the start of a civil war?
Daphne - Bloodshed in Kansas: we're part of the war now, Toto
Daphne - Abraham Lincoln: A log cabin boy wonder!
MAD - Police brutality: when the law is NOT on your side