The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government

IN two ponderous volumes 1 Mr. Jefferson Davis has submitted to the world his justification of his career as a public man. Many persons, probably, not only in this country but in Europe, were anxious to hear an account of the greatest struggle of modern times since the French Revolution closed at Waterloo, from the lips of a man who was the political leader, the conspicuous figure, and the official chief of one of the contending forces. Yet we cannot but think that the great majority of those who have eagerly expected the book will be disappointed when they read it. We do not say this because we think Mr. Davis has done his work badly, for from his stand-point it is well done, but because we are satisfied that it is not the kind of book which the public looked for. Most persons, we are inclined to believe, expected one of two things : either memoirs full of personal experiences, thoughts, and incidents, of what the newspapers call “ revelations,” spiced with attacks upon individuals, or else a careful history of the war and its causes, such as the ex-president of the Southern Confederacy would be likely to write after twenty years of quiet reflection. But Mr. Davis has given us neither one nor the other of them, nor even a mixture of both. His two volumes are for the benefit of that august judge and sadly overburdened individual, “ the future historian,” and form an elaborate argument or plea in behalf of Jefferson Davis in particular, and of the Southern Confederacy in general. As a contribution to history, in the ordinary sense, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government is of little value, except, perhaps, for some of the private letters which are scattered through the various chapters. This may seem a strange assertion to make in regard to a book professedly historical, and written by a principal actor in the scenes which it describes. But it must be remembered, in the first place, that nearly one half of the whole work is devoted to arguments, legal and historical, on points of constitutional law, while the remainder is, after a fashion, only a history of the war itself. The former are clear and forcibly stated, for Mr. Davis is a man of undoubted ability and knows his subject thoroughly ; but legal and constitutional arguments are not history. On the other hand, the portions relating to the war are so distorted, one-sided, and false, so thoroughly absurd, even, at times, as to be worthless as history. If a person utterly ignorant of the whole subject, say a highly civilized Maori scholar, some thousands of years hence were to read this book, he would learn that there had been a great and terrible war between two sections of the same country, the North and the South. He would find that all the battles from the first to the last, except in a few instances, lightly referred to or explained away, were won by the South. He would learn that all the men of the South were heroes, and performed everywhere prodigies of valor in their career of victory against overwhelming odds of men, money, and resources, while the soldiers and people of the North, with few exceptions, principally confined to their defeated generals, were cowardly, tyrannical, and in short so base and cruel that it would be difficult to tell why it was such a great exploit to overcome them. Yet at the end of all this he would be informed in an unmistakable way that the South had been thoroughly beaten, or, as the author prefers to put it, “ subjugated; ” and we are inclined to think that our searcher after truth would be sorely puzzled by such a consummation, and would wonder—and wonder in vain, if he had only these pages to turn to — why the side which had all the valor, truth, and right, and won all the victories of any apparent importance, should nevertheless have been hopelessly defeated. But in our day and generation there is no need to rectify such a narrative, nor do we intend to dwell on Mr. Davis’s account of the war. We leave him in this respect to more competent critics, especially to our military historians, and to his own generals among the number, with an entire confidence that he will receive full justice. We have no doubt that if it is worth while, his account in many instances will be demolished as completely as it was in regard to the burning of Columbia by General Sherman, whose statement of fact, as Mr. Davis has forgotten, was fully sustained by an impartial tribunal, — the mixed commission which sat to hear the British claims for cotton burned at that place, and which did not agree with Mr. Davis, General Wade Hampton to the contrary notwithstanding.

But putting all this aside, these volumes have in one way a real and lasting value, and will be of great service to our esteemed friend the future historian, who will unquestionably have a proper appreciation of their rightful merits. The future historian will not go to Mr. Davis’s book for facts, but he will take it as a whole, arguments and history, so called, together ; and he will find it an unequaled representation of a type of mind and of a mental condition which entered very largely into the war of the rebellion, and probably did more to precipitate that war than anything else. Time passes very rapidly, and even the greatest events soon grow dim, so that it is well worth while, especially for the younger generations who wish to know the history of the country, to study the type of man and of mind which is here depicted, and to examine closely the mode of thought and reasoning of which Mr. Davis is the best exponent.

As we read these pages we are carried back to the period before the war, into the atmosphere of the South in the time of the antislavery conflict, —an atmosphere murky with deceit and self-deception, when men listened only to their passions, and took their own ignorance of others for the truth. Mr. Davis is a man who has learned nothing and forgotten nothing, a genuine Bourbon; and it is this which gives value to his book and makes it typical. The world in its progress has moved by him, and he is no wiser and no better than before. Other men, other Southern leaders, for the most part have learned something, be it much or little, in the last twenty years ; Mr. Davis has learned nothing. He is a Southern leader of I860, aiive with the power of thought, and utterly unchanged in 1881, —a very rare and interesting combination. If he were not so, he would be more respectable as a man, but his book would be very different and probably much less instructive. As it is, these two large volumes seem as if they had come from under some corner-stone where men are wont to put the money and current literature of the day. The great building rises from the corner and becomes one of the landmarks by which pours day after day the eager stream of life. Years come and go : the building burns or is torn down, and from under the corner-stone we take up the yellow newspapers and old coins unchanged. They are the same, instinct with the spirit of the past, and yet speaking to us in the present tense, unconscious of the lapse of time, of the world’s progress, of the manifold interests of humanity, of the new ideas of a new generation. They have passed into history without knowing it, and so have the ideas of the ex-president of the Confederacy. Like Irving’s hero, he thinks that he is the same after his long sleep, and that the world is the same, while in reality he is an old man and it is a new world. Here the parallel breaks down, for Rip Van Winkle found out his mistake, but Mr. Davis has not and never will. For him the sun has stood still, and he rehearses the old talk of the old South with a ludicrous belief that it is new and valid. Thus he represents living what died long since, and so becomes of value to the historian.

The bare statement of the preface that the object of the book is to defend the constitutional doctrine of secession, and thereby to justify the conduct of the South, concentrates at once the utter confusion of thought which, whether willful or ignorant, was so largely responsible for the action of the South. Mr. Davis, speaking in 1881 with the voice of 1860, has not learned, or refuses to acknowledge, that secession was not then and could never be a constitutional question. Secession was revolution, and the one vital point was whether it was possible, not whether it was legal; for revolutions are not concerned with law. They may be right or wrong; they may be peaceable or bloody; they may be to defend threatened rights, or to repel oppression, or to erect a despotism ; but they are not, and can never be, even when the right to them is secured to the people in specific terms, as in the South American republics, constitutional. In the very nature of things, a revolution must be outside the pale of an existing constitution, and must appeal to humanity on grounds entirely foreign to constitutions, written or unwritten. To talk about secession as a constitutional right not to be interfered with is to say that men have a constitutional right to overthrow their government; and that is a very plain contradiction in terms, for a constitution is formed to create and maintain, not to destroy, political systems. Men have a right, no doubt, to revolution, but it is not a constitutional right, and it must rest on moral, not on legal principles, no matter how lawful the cause may be, or even if it is a revolution of precedents, as was our struggle of 1776. Mr. Davis says that the States exercised the right of secession from the old confederacy, and therefore they had it under the new. There is no question of the fact. The people of the various States pulled down the old confederacy, and set up a new form of government in its stead. They carried through a peaceful revolution, but they did not appeal to the Articles of Confederation as an authority. Men of English race, in drawing up a constitution of government, do not stultify themselves by putting in a clause to provide for its overthrow. When the men of 1787 found that the old confederacy was a failure they induced a majority of the people to agree with them, destroyed it, and erected a new one. Mr. Davis says, again, that the constitution was regarded at its formation as a compact. Any one who is familiar with the history of that time will readily admit this to be true. It was an experiment, which the people, acting through their state organizations, agreed to try. Whether it would be permanent, or whether it would fall a victim to a revolution, as its predecessor had done, no man then could tell. Only two men of that day, so far as we are aware, saw deeply enough into futurity to perceive what the work of the constitution would be if it was maintained. Washington and Hamilton looked to the constitution to create, as they said, a national sentiment, and a national sentiment meant the creation of a nation. That was the possible work of the constitution, and that was what it effected. The compact of 1789 endured, and in I860 it had made a nation out of a confederacy ; it had become a national charter. The question in 1860 was not, Have certain States, or the people of certain States, the constitutional right to withdraw from a compact? but was just what it had always been : Have they sufficient reason and sufficient power to revolutionize the existing government, and substitute something else in its place ? The issue was whether the nation which had grown up under the constitution should live or die, — whether we should have one Union or two. The North upheld the cause of the former, the South of the latter; the North prevailed. The people of this country did not go to war on a point of constitutional law; they fought to determine whether the nation should be broken up and divided, or should remain united and indivisible.

In support of the right of secession Mr. Davis adduces the attitude of Virginia and Kentucky in 1799, of New England in 1814, of South Carolina in 1832, and he might have cited many other examples, but none of them prove anything. In a federal system one weapon of the minority is sure to be the menace of withdrawal or disunion. It is a terrible weapon, no doubt, and when it was grasped by New England, and afterwards by South Carolina, the Union quivered. In the former case, events removed the grievances of the States ; in the latter, the national government yielded and compromised; but both meant simply that certain communities, defeated at the ballot-box, threatened to resort to revolution. But revolutions must stand or fall on their own merits. To argue the constitutional right of secession is beating the air. Such an argument at best was merely the necessary concession to the law-abiding and lawloving spirit of the race, which likes to fight revolutions on legal principles, and it degenerated in the hands of Mr. Davis and his friends into a mere cloudcompeller to obscure existing facts far mightier than any constitutions.

Mr. Davis’s discussion is of value only as showing the state of mind to which reasoning of that sort was needful in order to cover up the real issues of the time. The secession of the Southern States is not to be tried by the constitution, because in its nature it transcends the constitution and aims at its subversion. The simple question is, Was the South justified in beginning a revolution ? The answer lies in these volumes. Mr. Davis admits that slavery was only incidental; that the South did not secede on account of John Brown, or of the abolitionists, or of the course of certain Northern States as to slavery. In short, the South did not secede because the North had actually done anything, but, according to Mr. Davis, on account of what a sectional Northern party would do, in power. Nothing, absolutely nothing, had been done when the States seceded ; and although it is an excellent specimen of Southern reasoning in the time of James Buchanan, it is childish, and even worse, to point to what happened in war as a proof of what the North would have done if the South had never seceded and there had been no war. The whole case can be put in a few words, although Mr. Davis dared not declare it at the time, and does not dare to state it now, but goes round and round in the old treadmill of deceptive phrases, and will not face the facts. The truth was that while the North had always been politically divided on slavery, as on all other points, on that question the South had ever been solid and united. For more than half a century the South ruled the country. In 1860 the South was beaten in a fair election, and a party of the North hostile to slavery came into power. Did the South submit, as the North had always done, to the popular will expressed at the ballotbox ? No ; the moment they were defeated in the elections they rushed into revolution. So long as they ruled the Union they maintained it; when the majority was adverse they undertook to destroy the Union. The simple statement of the fact is the bitterest condemnation which can be uttered.

It seems a startling paradox to say that self-governing communities of English race, living in freedom and under a democratic system, should precipitate upon themselves and upon their country such an awful calamity, and for a cause so comparatively slight, so unreasonable, and so at variance with the first principles of American liberty. The problem can be understood and solved only by a close observance of the condition of the Southern mind. Slavery had of course a powerful effect upon Southern character. It made the ruling classes despotic, fierce, and impatient of opposition, and it bred the narrow contempt to be found in a greater or less degree in every aristocracy for all who differ from them, or who engage in pursuits which they think humiliating. Yet this of itself is an inadequate explanation of the action of the South. Slavery served merely to prepare the soil, in which the ideas carefully planted and nurtured by Southern leaders, drawn from the slave-holding class, grew rank and flourished. The leading theory was that the North had neither courage nor principle ; and it is sorely to be lamented that there was some ground for this in the conduct of Northern politicians who helped the South, and were called “ dough-faces ” for their pains. But the universal acceptance of the theory lay in the colossal ignorance of the North which prevailed at the South. Most Southerners believed that they could leave the Union in peace when they saw fit, and that the North would not fight. Others, and among them Mr. Davis, thought there would be war, — an opinion which makes their course still worse than it would otherwise have been. But it is safe to say that all Southerners alike felt that the North could not fight, even if they tried. The cowardice, mean spirit, and love of money in the North had been preached so long that the Southern people had come to accept them as immutable truths. The South was cursed with the same miserable ignorance as that displayed by England when Lord Sandwich proclaimed the Yankees cowards. The South assumed that men of English blood, the descendants of the Puritans, the boldest and hardiest of their race, could not fight, and they paid for this ghastly mistake by four years of desolating war, by the ruin of their social system, and by utter and crushing defeat.

Blinded by this error, they were led by their false guides to believe that they were fighting for the constitution and for liberty. Even the fact that they held slaves could not disperse the idea that they were the champions of freedom. To a people thus confused, and with passions heated by a political issue which they were taught to think threatened their well-being, when it really could affect only a class, every species of lie was told, and upon them every deception was practiced. Mr. Davis says now, as he and others said then to their followers, “ Look at the awful growth of the national government! The very life of the States is in danger.” They failed to point out that this overgrown government had reached that condition in a half century of almost complete control by the South. They omitted to show that the greatest stretches of power by the central government up to that time had been effected by Southern statesmen. And this is a specimen of their reasoning. The air was full of lies, equivocations, deceptions, and half truths, and in this atmosphere the South lived, thanks to the effects of slavery and a profound ignorance of their neighbors! Everything in the Southern mind was distorted and twisted. Nothing appeared to them as it really was, nothing had its true proportions; they lost in this way even the capacity to recognize existing facts, an attribute which Mr. Davis, as we see in this book, has never recovered, and the lack of which does so much to make the work typical and a living reproduction of an extinct species of thought.

This atmosphere of deceit went with them into the war, deepened their misfortunes, and made their downfall more complete. Take a few examples at random from Mr. Davis’s book. What, for instance, can be said to a man who calls a mob, composed of the scum of a great city in a State forming a part of the Union, engaged in throwing brickbats at national soldiers, “ noble and unarmed citizens ; ” who refers to Gettysburg as “ a check ; ” who says the government at Washington imitated the worst days of the French Terror, in the border States? Words fail to do justice to a man who comes from a region where, in times of profound peace, men were hunted, imprisoned, and had a price set on their heads because they spoke and wrote against slavery, and who abuses fiercely the government of the Union for suppressing freedom of opinion and free speech because in time of war they put traitors in prison and kept them there, and no doubt occasionally made mistakes and confounded the innocent with the guilty.

There is no need to dwell upon such things; they are mere illustrations of the utter falseness which beset the South with a thick darkness. The South got light at last, but it was a painful operation. As we read this book we know where to place the deepest blame for the war. It lies not upon the Southern people as a whole, nor upon their soldiers, who fought so gallantly and well, —for we have no need to belittle ourselves or our country by abusing and slandering our opponents, as Mr. Davis does in his treatment of the Northern armies. No : the heavy burden of causing the war, of making it possible, rests upon the leaders of the South, at home and in Washington, who represented the great planters and slave - holders, the rulers and governors of their States. It was for their interest to maintain slavery as it stood. When, in the march of progress and of modern ideas, it became evident that human slavery was doomed, instead of accepting the inevitable ; instead of yielding to a world-wide public sentiment, which forced even the Tsar of Russia to abolish serfdom ; instead of seeking to guide the movement of emancipation, and by gradual steps destroy slavery and so save themselves, they set themselves against the tide. With great skill and tenacity they held the government and made the Union subservient to slavery for nearly fifty years. When power passed from them without a single overt act on the other side, they hurried the country into revolution and war, setting the national life at stake by so doing. They made it their business to deceive others, — they may perhaps in some instances have deceived themselves; but their purpose was to rule unchecked, and if that was not possible over the whole country, then the nation must be sacrificed. It was a great crime against the country and against humanity, and among the class and the leaders who were guilty of it and responsible for it Mr. Davis stands conspicuous. We have no wish to indulge in any sectional feeling. We respect the men who fought well; we respect those who accept the result in good faith, and we wish for nothing so much as peace and good-will everywhere. But we cannot read this book and refrain from putting the blame where it belongs, — on the Southern political leaders. We have, furthermore, no desire to engage in the very simple amusement of abusing a man who has fallen below the point at which he deserves even hatred ; but when he recalls to us what he and men like him were, and for what misery and sorrow, both North and South, he and his fellow-leaders of the Southern policy are responsible, the verses of Lowell ring in our ears, and will not cease : —

“ I'd sooner take my chance to stan’
At Judgment where your meanest slave is,
Than at God’s bar hol’ up a hand
Ez drippin’ red ez yours, Jeff. Davis.”
  1. The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. By JEFFERSON DAVIS. New York: DAppleton & Co. 1881.