Friday, July 16, 2010

Nullification vs. Secession: Jefferson Davis, 1861

William J. Cooper's Jefferson Davis, American begins with a description of the Mississippi Senator's announcement of his resignation from that body on January 21, 1861. That prompted me to locate Davis's remarks online, and I found them in the Congressional Globe here.

Davis's brief speech, it turns out, includes a fascinating discussion about the difference between secession and nullification. Davis affirmed that he believed that a state had the right to secede from the Union. He adamantly denied, however, the legitimacy of the doctrine of nullification. That doctrine, Davis maintained, amounted to an improper attempt of the States to have their cake and eat it too. A State, as a sovereign entity, had the right to remain in the Union or to sever its ties and renounce both the benefits and obligations of the Union. What it could not do was remain within the Union while denying that the laws applied to it:
I hope that none who hear me will confound this expression of mine [that a state has a right to secede] with the advocacy of the right of a State to remain in the Union, and to disregard its constitutional obligations by the nullification of the law. Such is not my theory. Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are indeed antagonistic principles. Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, and against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified when the agent has violated his constitutional obligation, and a State, assuming to judge for itself, denies the right of the agent thus to act, and appeals to the other States of the Union for a decision; but when the States themselves, and when the people of the States, have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application.

A great man who now reposes with his fathers, and who has been often arraigned for want of a fealty to the Union, advocated the doctrine of nullification, because it preserved the Union. It was because of his deep-seated attachment to the Union, his determination to find some remedy for existing ills short of a severance of the ties which bound South Carolina to the other States, that Mr. Calhoun advocated the doctrine of nullification, which he proclaimed to be peaceful, to be within the limits of State power, not to disturb the Union, but only to be a means of bringing the agent before a tribunal of the States for their judgment.

Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the States are sovereign. . . .

. . . It is by this confounding of nullification and secession that the name of a great man, whose ashes now mingle with his mother earth, has been invoked to justify coercion against a seceded State. The phrase “to execute the laws,” was an expression which General Jackson applied to the case of a State refusing to obey the laws while yet a member of the Union. That is not the case which is now presented. The laws are to be executed over the United States, and upon the people of the United States. They have no relation to any foreign country. It is a perversion of terms, at least it is a great misapprehension of the case, which cites that expression for application to a State which has withdrawn from the Union. You may make war on a foreign State. If it be the purpose of gentlemen, they may make war against a State which has withdrawn from the Union; but there are no laws of the United States to be executed within the limits of a seceded State.

A State finding herself in the condition in which Mississippi has judged she is, in which her safety requires that she should provide for the maintenance of her rights out of the Union, surrenders all the benefits, (and they are known to be many,) deprives herself of the advantages, (they are known to be great,) severs all the ties of affection, (and they are close and enduring,) which have bound her to the Union; and thus divesting herself of every benefit, taking upon herself every burden, she claims to be exempt from any power to execute the laws of the United States within her limits.
About the illustration, John Brown Exhibiting His Hangman:
Northern rejoicing at the end of the Civil War often took the form of vengeful if imaginary portrayals of the execution of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Here abolitionist martyr John Brown rises from the grave to confront Davis, although in actuality the latter had nothing to do with Brown's 1859 execution. Brown points an accusing finger at Davis, who sits imprisoned in a birdcage hanging from a gallows. Davis wears a dress and bonnet, and holds a sour apple. Below, black men and women, resembling comic minstrel figures, frolic about. (For Davis's female attire, see "The Chas-ed "Old Lady" of the C.S.A.," no. 1865-11.) Since the beginning of the war Union soldiers had sung about "hanging Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree." Davis's actual punishment was imprisonment at Fortress Monroe after his capture on May 10, 1865.


  1. Great John Brown cartoon! I was at Harpers Ferry a couple of weeks ago and had a wonderful visit. Along the same lines, saw a Thomas Nast cartoon from the war that showed none other than Santa Claus hanging Jeff Davis while entertaining the troops. Couldn't believe it!

  2. Thanks! I haven't seen the Santa Clause one, but when I was surfing around for a Jeff Davis cartoon for the post I came across a number of "hang Jeff Davis" cartoons and decided to go with this one just 'cause I liked it most.

  3. Every single Southern apologist always quotes Davis, extensively, for any matter. Never mind what Davis did, never mind his other quotes and speeches.

    The issue about Davis and the dress -- yes he wore a dress --- is no exception.

    When "scholarly" apologist "refute" the dress story, they invariably just quote Davis claiming he didnt wear a dress.

    That's like quoting Charles Manson saying he had nothing to do with the horrible crime his followers committed.

    When they discuss whether the Civil War was about slavery -- they just quote Davis, saying it was about state's rights. You name a topic, and they simply quote Davis.

    Of course, Davis said many things, and they leave out those other things. Plus, even more important, they leave out what he did.

    Never mind that Davis wrote that the "intolerable grievance" that led to the CIvil War was Lincoln's speech against the Dred Scott decision -- a decision which slapped logic AND state's rights in the face. Davis was very much against states rights, specifally he detested any state trying to keep slavery OUT.

    He said he would invade the North, capture all the blacks there, and made them slaves too, and that he hoped to reunite the country, as all slave states.

    Yes -- its true.

    Let's look at the dress story. True or not? Dress or not?

    Varina Davis all but confirmed Davis wore a dress, and frankly admitted she told the soldiers to leave "her" alone (meaning Davis), she was "my mother".

    Yes, Varina tried to convince the soldiers Davis was her MOTHER.

    Now, does any Southern apologist deal with what Varina said? No. Of course not.

    They just quote Davis himself. As if his denial was fiat accompli, proof positive.

    Far more revealing that the dress Davis wore, was his abject cowardice upon capture.

    This is a perfect metaphor for the entire notion of the Lost Cause. If Davis was a person coward, caught in a dress, running away, and IF Robert E Lee screamed at young slave girls, WHILE he had them tortured, and then sold their infants for extra punishment, then the entire Southern Myth is just that -- a myth.

    And Davis did, in fact, run away in a dress, and was a coward when confronted.

    Lee did, in fact, scream at slave girls while he had them tortured, then sold their child for extra punishment (and profit).

    In fact, Lee had part of his account book for a "Hunting List" (apparently he put Hunting List at the top) and kept amazing details of slaves -- mostly young girls --who had escaped. He kept meticulous obsessive track of the girls infants -- recording what shade of color they were.

    Did Lee keep track of the color of the babies, because they might have been his? I mean, biologically his -- of course hey were HIS. He had title.

    Or did he especially want those girls and infants back, because they sold for the most money?

    Lee was in Virginia courts repeatedly --- before and during the Civil War- - to get permission to sell the slaves he inherited. Again and again he was turned down.

    But apparently he sold the infants born to these slaves (whoever fathered them). And he wanted VERY MUCH to sell more.

    When you learn the real history of Davis and Lee, the whole nature of the CIvil War is fundamentally different.


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