Our Slaves Were Led Into Temptation: Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ Lost Cause View of Black Emancipation and Enlistment

Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis: Slaves were “decoyed with the magic word of ‘freedom.’”
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Jefferson Davis was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America. In 1881, two decades after the Civil War began, his two volume book The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government was published. Ostensibly the book is a history of the Confederate States. But at its core, the book is a legal, political, and moral critique – perhaps condemnation is not too strong a word – of the various policies and actions taken by the Union in challenging secession, prosecuting the Civil War, and ending slavery.

Davis’ book doesn’t say much about the Civil War experiences of African Americans who resided in the Confederacy, even though they were almost 40% of the Confederate States’ population. Davis does have a lot to say about the Union’s emancipation and black enlistment policies, however. Among other things, Davis says that those acts were politically motivated by abolitionists; counter to international mores and constitutional law; and a clear attempt to destroy southern society by undermining its foundational institution, African slavery.

Within that context, Davis makes a number of comments about those held in bondage. His statements echo a key position of so-called Lost Cause advocates of the Confederacy: that enslaved African Americans’ “servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot… Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due.” In other words, black people loved being slaves.

But if these enslaved persons were so loyal and so happy with their lot, why did so many of them flee their masters, and why did so many become soldiers and sailors for the Union military? Davis blames it on the Union, which was a “tempter” “like the serpent in Eden” that “decoyed (slaves) with the magic word of ‘freedom.'”

Davis spells it out in Chapter XXVI of his book:

In his message to Congress … on December 8, 1863, President  (Abraham Lincoln) thus boasts of his proclamation:

“(In January 1863) the final proclamation came, including the announcement that colored men of suitable condition would be received into the war service. The policy of emancipation and of employing black soldiers gave to the future a new aspect, about which hope and fear and doubt contended in uncertain conflict.

According to our political system, as a matter of civil administration, the General Government had no lawful power to effect emancipation in any State, and for a long time it had been hoped that the rebellion could be suppressed without resorting to it as a military measure. . . .

Of those who were slaves at the beginning of the rebellion, full one hundred thousand are now in the United States military service, about one half of which number actually bear arms in the ranks, thus giving the double advantage of taking so much labor from the insurgent cause, and supplying the places which otherwise must be filled with so many white men. So far as tested, it is difficult to say they are not as good soldiers as any.”

Let the reader pause for a moment and look calmly at the facts presented in this statement. The forefathers of these negro soldiers were gathered from the torrid plains and malarial swamps of inhospitable Africa. Generally they were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and, sold by heathen masters, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity.

There, put to servitude, they were trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization; they increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due. A strong mutual affection was the natural result of this life-long relation, a feeling best if not only understood by those who have grown from childhood under its influence.

Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. Continue reading

A different view of secession

Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

Ah, you can’t beat that old time humor. This is a Civil War era envelope that I saw in the Library of Congress (LOC) online archives. This is from the LOC description of the item:

Date Created/Published:[between 1861 and 1865]
Medium: 1 print : wood engraving on envelope ; image and text 5 x 4.5 cm, on envelope 8 x 14 cm.
Summary: Picture shows an African American boy and mother with a bundle running.
Notes: Title from item.
Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy.

There were tens of thousands of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the war, and their story is not well known or understood in American memory. But as this tiny bit of humor indicates, it was on the minds of wartime Americans. As we commemorate and consider this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s something that should be on our minds as well. But I’m not sure if people have focused on this much as we reach the halfway point of the Sesquicentennial.

Perhaps it’s because the process of emancipation was not always a pretty sight. But we can’t look away at truth and insight, simply because it’s ugly.

Confederate President and Vice-President: Secession was Due to Slavery

Confederate States President Jefferson Davis and Vice-President Alexander Stephens: Founding Fathers for a nation that “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

What are children being taught about the causes of the Civil War? I ask because in a recent Pew Research Center poll, 48% of respondents said that the war “was mainly about states’ rights,” while 38% said it “was mainly about slavery.”

I have issues with the way the question concerning the causes of the war was worded, but even so, it is perplexing that almost 50% of those polled thought that states’ rights was the cause of the war.

That runs counter to the thinking of modern historians. Consider the comments of historian Elizabeth Varon, author of the book Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, in a lecture two years ago: “there’s emerged in recent years a strong consensus, which scholars call the fundamentalist school, that slavery was the root fundamental cause of the civil war and that the political antagonisms between the North and South flowed from the fact that the North was a free labor society while the South was a slave labor society which remained committed to slavery and indeed to extending its domain.”

That view – that slavery was the “root cause” of the war – is not shared by many folks today, and I wonder why there is a disconnect between what scholars understand and what non-scholars understand. It makes me wonder: what are children being taught about the war in school? And specifically, what are they being taught about the views of the Confederate Founding Fathers, such as Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Vice-President Alexander Stephens?

Just before Davis became President of the Confederate States, he was a United States senator for the state of Mississippi. When Mississippi seceded, it issued A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. This document was basically Mississippi’s declaration of independence from the United States government. This is how the document begins:

In the momentous step which our State [Mississippi] has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Following that declaration, Davis made a farewell speech to the Senate on January 21, 1861, to announce that he was leaving the Congress to join with his disunionist state, and to give some reasons for the state’s actions:

..if I had not believed there was justifiable cause; if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still… because of my allegiance to the State… have been bound by her action. I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act.

I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when the convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted…

It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions [i.e., slavery]; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.

On March 21, 1861, Confederate States Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, gave what is now called the “Cornerstone Speech” which, among other things, talked about the reasons for secession:

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
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