The Papers of Jefferson Davis
 
The Papers of Jefferson Davis

Photograph by Mathew B. Brady, c1860 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

 

 Jefferson Davis to Lowndes County, Miss., Citizens


Steamboat "Gen. Scott," November 22, 1850.

Gentlemen:--I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your very gratifying letter of the 11, inst., in which, as friends "to the Union and Constitution," you approve of my course in the United States Senate, and invite me to a public dinner at such time as may be compatible with my other engagements.

When your letter was handed to me, I was on my way to Washington City, and the obligation to be present at the commencement of the session of Congress (I thought,) required me to proceed without delay. The shortness between the last and the coming session of Congress and the exigent demand for some attention to my private affairs, permitted me to visit but a small portion of my constituents. Had I consulted my own gratification in the selection of the places to which I should go, you will not fail to preceive the many inducements which Lowndes and adjoining counties offered to me, who owe to their people such debts as to any one it would give pride and pleasure personally to acknowledge. Suffice it to say, that I was governed by other considerations than the wish to visit those from whom I might expect the most flattering reception, and now far the pleasure of meeting you, must look forward to the ensuing summer, when I hope and expect to be with you.

For your expressions of confidence and estimation, accept assurances of my deepest gratitude, increased, if it be possible, by the consciousness that they are the result of your kindness, not of my service, and are all unmerited save for the unwavering devotion I have felt and feel to the State of Mississippi, the rights the interests, and the honor of my constituents.

The fears which you express of alienation of the people from the yet revered Union of our fathers, and the perversion of the Constitution from its intent and spirit, as consequences of the late action of Congress were the convictions of my mind when the measures to which you refer, were under consideration in the Senate & nerved me in the long opposition I offered to their enactment. It may be said; and from the annals of Congress, demonstrated, that but for sectional rivalry and distortion of the grants of the Constitution from their true purposes, those laws would not have been enacted. The source of the measures will, I think, be increased by their operations. The alienation of the people and the perversion of the Constitution bear to them the double relation of cause and effect.--Yet ingenious demagogues seek to deceive the people of the South, by throwing the responsibility of their present position on those who struggled most to defeat the means by which they have been injured and are required to answer the question, will you resist, or submit to unjust and humilating discrimination against you? A wrong has been inflicted on the South; those who aided in the infliction would now draw the censure they may have anticipated, by crying aloud against all who assert your rights and claim redress for past and security against future aggression. There could not be a more dangerous heresy than that which concedes to the majority of Congress, the right to use all grants as in their discretion they may choose, and acknowledges the right of the States to interpose against their federal agent only when the forms of the government are violated; in other words, for a palpable violation of the letter of the Constitution. The federal government is a creature of grants; its powers are not limited by prohibition, but are only co-extensive with the authority conferred. If the right of the States to interpose begins only on the palpable infraction of the letter of the Constitution, then they have no power to guard their reserved powers, none to confine the agent in the use of the grant to the purpose for which it was granted, and it would be difficult to conceive of a case such as is contemplated by the phrase, palpable violation of the Constitution, in which the Supreme Court of the United States would not furnish an adequate remedy. It is exactly in the case where the rights of the States and of the people thereof are withheld by evasion, or invaded by fraud, which deprive them of redress by appeal to the Supreme Court as the Constitutional arbiter, that the States have a right, which may become a duty, to interpose. Such is the refusal to give protection to slave property in the territories held by the federal government as the common property of the States. Such was the admission of California as a State, in order that slaves might be excluded from the whole territory acquired on the Pacific coast, not merely as effectually but more effectually than could have been done by the "Wilmot Proviso," and such was the partition of Texas. The violation of the guarantee of the Constitution against the citizens of private property, as presented in the bill to abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia, is one for which we might look to the Supreme Court for a remedy, and I cannot believe the court would sustain a law which declared a forfeiture of property, because the owner brings it into the district ceded to the States for their common use, intending at some future time and at some other place to sell that property. Yet there are those who speak of others as "ultra," and who declare that a violation of the letter of the Constitution justifies, if it does not demand, a dissolution of the Union. On the other hand, we, the so-called "ultras," contend that it is only where Constitutional remedies fail, and after all other means have been tried in vain, that State interposition should be invoked and the last alternative be resorted to. It is then because we will not shut our eyes to the fact that this last alternative may be forced upon us, that the attempt is made fraudulently to conceal the true issue and substitute that of Union or Disunion as one which we had presented? Is it because a self-sustaining, sectional anti-slavery majority in violation of justice, of State equality and the spirit of the Constitution, have denied us the protection and tranquility the Union was designed to secure? and have reduced us to a permanent minority in both Houses of Congress, and in the electoral Colleges of the United States, that we are called on to join in the triumphal song as the execrated tyrant of Rome fiddled over the conflagration of that city?--The approval or disapproval of the measures of the last session of Congress in relation to slave property, and the territory acquired by the United States from Mexico, is one question.-- The resistance or acquiescence of the South, is another and a very different question. The first closely concerns your Representatives, and I am willing to stand or fall as your judgement may be made up from the Congressional record. The last is a matter for the decision of the people, and in which I am involved only as every other citizen of Mississippi, whose fortunes are identified with the State, and whose ideas of allegiance require him to abide by that decision, whatever it may be. I trust the decision will be made calmly and deliberately upon principle, by reason, and equally uninfluenced by headlong passion, or unmanly fear. The history of the South has been one of steady adherence to the Constitution, of willing sacrifice to the Union, and I doubt not in both, the present generation will emulate the conduct of their siers. To do so, and truly to preserve the fame we have inherited, it is necessary that we should show our attachment to principles, not to forms; and that at whatever hazard we should maintain the institutions and the equality which was bequeathed to us. If for this it be necessary to assert our soverign rights even to the extent of disunion, the responsibility of a catastrophe we will sincerely deplore, will rest, not on our heads, but upon those who regardless of social and political obligations, have undermined the foundation on which our Union was erected. On which it might have securely stood when cotemporary governments which were supported by force alone, were buried in the waves of revolution. The consent and affection of the people was the cement in which our government was laid: to destroy the strength of the one is to ensure the fall of the other. We would more surely effect this than to perpetrate wrongs upon a section and claim submission because it was so done as to afford no remedy?

When California was admitted, I did not deny the constitutional power of Congress to admit new States; nor the right of a people in forming a State Constitution to determine what their domestic institutions should be. It was contended rather that Congress should, in exercising the conceded power, look to the purpose for which it was given; that there should be inhabitants and territories occupied by them, ready to form a State; a people competent to take upon themselves the responsibility and to discharge all the obligations of a State of the Union. Or that there should exist before any action of Congress, a State ready as such to enter our confederacy, such as the case of Texas presented.

There was not sufficient evidence that California filled the requirements of either supposition; the best information induced the belief that the resources of the country were not adequate to support a State government, and the unsettled condition of the population called for territorial rather than State organization.--That the latter was adopted instead of the former mode is to be ascribed to the determination of the majority in Congress to prevent the introduction of slavery into that country, and the prohibition of slavery contained in the Constitution of California is propbably to be assigned to the same cause. They had certainly full oportunity to know the sentiment of Congress, and could not have hoped to be admitted as a State with a Constitution which recognized and protected slave property.

Claiming then, that the grants of the Constitution should be exercised in subordination to the purposes for which each was made, and that the power to admit new States has been used as a means by which to assail the interests of a section of the Union, the conclusion is, that under the forms of the Constitution its spirit was violated by that act. It is needless to notice the argument that being admitted the States cannot be reduced to a territorial condition. No such proposition has been contemplated, and the argument does not meet the issue which is the bad conduct of the agent, the violation of the trust to the injury of a part of those from whom the trust is held.

Another illustration of the sectional feeling which controls the government is found in the Texas boundary act. Though the limits of Texas were held to be so sacred as to justify a foreign war, which cost us thousands of lives, and millions of money, when they came in conflict with the aggrandizing wishes of the anti-slavery party, they became so undefined and unsubstantal, that the Executive of the United States threatened to use the military power of the government against the State of Texas, if she attempted to take possession of territory which she had claimed when an independent republic, to which she asserted her title when annexed to the United States, and in defence of which our government went to war with Mexico. It is true a proposition was made to Texas, offering ten millions of dollars for territorial and other claims, if she accepted a proposed boundary; but if not, was her old boundary to be recognized? Not at all, this would have been to leave her free to choose between selling or keeping her territory. Instead of this, she was to make her option between receiving the money, or encountering the military power of the federal government. Now, the question occurs by what authority did the federal government assume to dispute the boundary of Texas, and to purchase a part of her territory. For specific objects the federal government may obtain territory within the limits of a State, but this purchase from Texas was not from any of those objects. But the resolution of annexation, the republic of Texas conferred on the government of the United States; power to negociate with foreign governments, in relation to any deposition about her boundary. That is to say intrusted the question between herself and Mexico about the limits of Texas to treaty making power of the United States government. All who know the different composition of the two houses of Congress, and that to ratify a treaty requires two-thirds of the Senate, whilst to enact a law requires but a majority of the two houses, will have no difficulty in perceiving how much the interest of a Southern State might suffer by transfer of a grant made to the treaty making power, from that to the legislative power of the government. It was not then from the treaty of annexation that the Congress could derive power to change the boundary of Texas, and otherwise that body had no more power to deny or abridge the limits of Texas than those of Massachusetts or Virginia. The pretence that there was conflict of claims between New Mexico and Texas is too puerile to deserve an argument in reply. The treaty of acquisition destroyed the existence of the province of New Mexico as a body politic, and transferred that like other territory required, as area to be aggregated or subdivided as the acquiring power might select.

In this, and in the whole series of measures, there is to be traced the ruling, directing power of hostility to the slave institutions of the South. The Southern men were permitted to pass the fugitive slave bill, which being a law to enforce in the north compliance with a provision of the constitution, should, as far as was necessary, have been tendered and sustained by Northern members. Thus it might have borne to their constituents a respect which it has not received. Whilst by the side of this measure stands the law, in relation to the slave trade in the District of Columbia, offensively discriminating against a particular species of property, placed by the Constitution on at least an equal footing with other property; and which was equally protected by the government, in the earliest days of the Republic; when the equality of the States and the equal privileges of the citizens were rights practically enjoyed. That was the day of fraternity, in contradistinction to sectional strife; before the pseudo philanthropy of British teachers had been entered like a wedge to rend our Union asunder; when no American statesman would have argued for a general law, on the ground that it was demanded by foreign or sectional sentiment; when patrotism would have rebuked into silence the man who for such constitutions would have offended the sensibilities, arraigned the institutions, or invaded the property rights of any portion of our fellow citizens.

If then, and I think it too apparent to admit of an honest doubt, the section which has the controling power in the Government, is hostile to that species of property on which our commercial prosperity depends, and the disturbance of which would involve us in total ruin; and if with the increase of power there is a growing tendency to disregard the checks of the constitution; the time has arrived when all who love the Union or the Constitution should unite to throw an adequate shield over the minority; before it is driven to seek in the arms that protection against an aggressive majority which the existing forms of our government fail to afford.

The South needs, and has asked for nothing more than the principles of the Constitution; the rights and immunities the compact was formed to make stable and secure; this much all who recognize this as an Union of equals, with powers conferred for the common benefit and general tranquility are bound to accord, or stand convicted of a wish to change the nature of our government, and binds us to an Union which is not the Union. The flippent patrizan, and the satelite of power may denounce all who claim sufficent guarantees for the constitutional rights of the South, as impracticable. disorganizing, treasonable, disunionists. Impracticable it is, not if the majority love the Union and the principles from which arose more than the aggrandizement of sectional power. Treasonable it is not, if to be true to one's country, be patriotism, and if it be a duty to maintain, at what ever cost the principles on which our liberty rest, the immovable foundations of truth and justice which will remain to uphold the cause we advocate when we and all of our's are dust.

Our Union was not formed by men who suppliant bent the knee to power; and loved a government only as it was powerful and glorious; nor did they leave us institutions which would be practicable in the hands of men forgetful or careless of the principles on which they were founded. They are the true friends of the Union who resist by all means every invasion on the Constitution, and seek to strengthen every barrier which is found insufficient for the use to which it was appropriated. In the struggle for right against aggressive power, the South will not be alone if she meet the conflict as becomes her cause. The resistance of the colonies made Chatham eloquent in the defence, how much more will every noble spirit be aroused among our Northern brethren, when it shall be attempted to sustain federal usurpation by force, or conquer sovereign States of the Union, and reduce them to territorial subserviency. Those who can contemplate such an event may well point to the sons of a State, thus under the ban, and say "'tis treason to love her, 'tis death to defend."

I look forward with confidence to the action of Mississippi, and hope it will be sustained by general action in the South; upon which hangs another hope, that the union of the South, will produce a reaction in the public feeling of the North, and that our constitutional union may be preserved, a monument more lasting than brass to our revolutionary fathers; and a temple of true liberty for posterity through countless ages. But if this fondly cherished hope cannot be realized, the union of the South will enable us to preserve the principles on which our federal Union was based, and to transmit to posterity with all the glorious memories of the Union, the principles from which its glory sprung, and to leave the laurels gathered in common toil and danger, unstained by the blood of civil war.

Led on from point to point, I have extended this letter to an unusual length, and must postpone many things which it would be desirable to me to say until we meet. Again permit me to offer my thanks for your kind appreciation, and to assure you that your cheering voice will animate and encourage me in the scenes I expect to encounter; that it will always be heard above the roar of the Northern majority, and be remembered as the reward, one of the poorest capacity may gain by devotion to duty, and the maintenance of the rights entrusted to his care. I am very respectfully, your friend and fellow citizen.

Jeff. Davis 




 

From The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 4, pp. 138-46. Transcribed from the Jackson Mississippian, January 3, 1851. The addressees were William Barksdale, James Blair, William H. D. Carrington, Beverly Matthews, and T[homas?]. Sharp.

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