Early 1861 marked the only time in our nation’s history that it had two presidents, both calling for a return to the republic born in the American Revolution. On February 18, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the President of the Confederate States of America; on March 4, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as President of the United States of America. On the anniversary of that first inauguration, we’d like to share a little bit about the similarities and differences of these simultaneous presidents. The following is an excerpt from Howard Jones’s new book, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations.
Supporters of the Confederate States of America regarded themselves as the true progenitors of the republic and their secession from the Union as a return to the world of limited national government envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In his Inaugural Address of February 1861 delivered in Montgomery, Alabama, President Jefferson Davis declared: “We have assembled to usher into existence the Permanent Government of the Confederate States. Through this instrumentality, under the favor of Divine Providence, we hope to perpetuate the principles of our revolutionary fathers. . . . Therefore we are in arms to renew such sacrifices as our fathers made to the holy cause of constitutional liberty.” Thus from the southern perspective, the Union was in peril, but not from the secessionists; rather, the danger came from a big government in Washington that had subverted the original Union’s emphasis on states’ rights into a northern tyranny. Southerners sought to unseat the northern power brokers who had devised an oppressive central government that had for too long trampled on the minority South by violating its right to managing its own affairs, whether tariffs, internal improvements, or slavery. The Union, as southerners saw it, had become an overly centralized governing mechanism run by a repressive northern majority. The agreement underlying the Philadelphia compact of 1787 had been broken; secession was the only remedy.
Shortly after the Civil War erupted in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln asserted that his central objective was to preserve the Union based on a strong federal government and created by the Founding Fathers. Secession therefore posed its most severe challenge because the South’s attempt to stand on its own would destroy that Union. “The right of revolution,” he wrote, “is never a legal right. The very term implies the breaking, and not the abiding by, organic law. At most, it is a moral right, when exercised for a morally justifiable cause.” Otherwise, revolution is “simply a wicked exercise of physical power.” In his Inaugural Address of March 1861, he declared, “I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual.” No government ever included “a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” Secession was “the essence of anarchy.”
On many levels Davis and Lincoln waged a war for the very survival of the republic as each president defined the vision of the Founding Fathers. Well known were Davis’s advantages in military leadership from the beginning of the war; also well known was Lincoln’s frustrating search for a general who could rally a massive yet ineptly led war machine to victory. Lesser known were the two presidents’ struggles on an international level—Davis’s efforts to win diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy and hence the right to negotiate military and commercial treaties, and Lincoln’s attempts to ward off a foreign intervention in the war that could have led to southern alliances undermining the Union. Whereas Davis sought to maintain the status quo—a southern civilization built on slavery and dependent on the Constitution’s guarantees of property—Lincoln soon tried to construct an improved America based on ending slavery and adhering to the natural rights doctrine that underlay the Declaration of Independence. Davis considered the war a struggle for liberty, which he defined as the absence of governmental interference in state, local, and personal affairs—including the right to own slaves. In contrast, Lincoln came to regard the war as the chief means for forming a more perfect Union emanating from a new birth of freedom that fellow white northerners interpreted as the political and economic freedoms enjoyed under the Constitution but that he expanded to include the death of slavery and the Old South.
Davis had such a legalistic mind that he thought the European powers relied on international law only when it served their self-interest; Lincoln was highly pragmatic, knowing he had to convince the foreign governments that it was not in their best interest to intervene in America’s affairs. Davis appealed to Europe to acknowledge southern independence as a righteous cause and welcome the Confederacy into the community of nations; Lincoln insisted that the conflict in America was a purely domestic concern and warned that any outside interference meant war with the Union.
Both sets of arguments were morally and legally defensible and thereby right, making the two opposing leaders’ positions irreconcilable and, combined with the vendetta-like infighting that often comes in a familial contest, ensuring a massive bloodletting that would stop only when both sides were exhausted.
Excerpted from: Howard Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 9-11.