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


Jefferson_Davis_-_1875
Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, after the Civil War: 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.

The tempter came, like the serpent in Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word of “freedom.” Too many were allured by the uncomprehended and unfulfilled promises, until the highways of these wanderers were marked by corpses of infants and the aged. He put arms in their hands, and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors. What does he boastingly announce?—”It is difficult to say they are not as good soldiers as any.”

Ask the bereaved mother, the desolate widow, the sonless aged sire, to whom the bitter cup was presented by those once of their own household. With double anguish they speak of its bitterness. What does the President of the United States further say?—”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 further on, as if with a triumphant gladness, he adds, “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.” A rare mixture of malfeasance with traffic in human life!

It is submitted to the judgment of a Christian people how well such a boast befits the President of the United States, a federation of sovereigns under a voluntary compact for specific purposes.

As seen above, the idea that African Americans might want freedom, and be willing to fight and die for it, had no traction in Davis’ mind. Despite the professed “strong local and personal attachment” between master and slave, Davis did not have a clue that slaves would want, or even could want, the same rights, privileges, and opportunities that he and men like him enjoyed and displayed in the presence  of their bondsmen. From Davis’ viewpoint, slaves had no dreams beyond serving their master.

Davis “(submits) to the judgment of a Christian people” whether it was appropriate for Lincoln to “boast” that he armed and empowered so many black men to become soldiers for the Union and freedom. His feeling, perhaps, was that with the passage of time, Lincoln and the Union’s policies would be excoriated, while the policies of the Confederacy would be exonerated. But 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Davis must be turning in his grave. The Union, Lincoln, and black soldiers and sailors especially, are being recognized and honored for their role in ending slavery, an institution that is not seen as benevolent and kind as Davis conceived it. The Lost Cause myth of the contented loyal slave is not tenable in the United States today.

I must admit though, it strains my credulity and sensibility to think that as late as 1881, Jefferson Davis still believed that slaves were content with being enslaved. I can understand that in the antebellum era, slaves had to exhibit a fawning submissiveness to avoid retaliation, and this was no doubt interpreted as contentment by enslavers. I can understand that black abolitionists like the former slave Frederick Douglass might have been seen as an aberration and so ignored by white southerners.

But by 1881, even African Americans in Davis’ home state of Mississippi had achieved a number of leadership positions (three black Mississippians served in the US Congress, for example) and certainly a few of them must have stated that yes, we had always wanted to be free. Was Davis in some kind of emotional or intellectual bubble, that he simply could not come to grips with the thought of blacks not wanting to be slaves? Or was he simply rationalizing a system of brutality and degradation that any Christian people would judge despicable?

For those who say the white South was somehow close to ending slavery circa the 1860s… consider the ideas of Jefferson Davis as Exhibit A for opposing counsel.

> For a view of what Davis said when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, go here: CSA President Jefferson Davis on the Emancipation Proclamation: “millions of the inferior race… are doomed to extermination.”

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