The Papers of Jefferson Davis
The Papers of Jefferson Davis

Photograph by Montgomery C. Meigs, 1859 Library of Congress


  Speech at Philadelphia 

[July 12, 1853]

Hon. Jefferson Davis responded, and said that he begged leave, on the part of those members of the cabinet who were present, to return their cordial thanks for the compliment tendered them. They stood in the attitude of those who enjoy the advantage of reflected light; yet they did not think they were indebted for the consideration of those present, merely because they were members of the cabinet – it was rather because they were American citizens, and brought within the circle of Pennsylvania hospitality, that compliment was bestowed on them. [Applause] Thanks to the increased facility of intercourse, Pennsylvania hospitality was not to be limited hereafter, as it had been heretofore, by the slow progress of the old wagon and Conestoga horse, nor by the yet more rapid march of the coach, nor by the yet more rapid means of the railroad. No! Socially, Pennsylvania was tied by lightning to every portion of the older settlements of the United States, and with her coal and iron she was about to establish commercial relations with the slope of the Pacific, and to look over into that unknown region of Asia which includes China and Persia. [Tremendous cheering, which prevailed for many minutes.] These were results to be anticipated from the foresight and energy of the people; not to be effected by stretching the powers of the federal government beyond their legitimate sphere. They knew he belonged to the strict-construction school, which never turned to the right nor to the left to serve any purpose of expediency.

The President (interposing) observed that he was certain of that.

Mr. Davis resumed: Within the limits of the States they would touch nothing in disregard of State sovereignty and right of jurisdiction; and in this he spoke not for himself alone, but also for his honored chief. [Applause.] But when they looked to their recent possessions on the slope of the Pacific, there were two things which arrested attention – the conflicting interests of a different commerce, resulting from the want of easy and rapid communication; and the difficulty of fulfilling one of the great ends of our Union, that of giving adequate protection by mutual defence. Upon the pages of history, running back to the remotest antiquity, nothing is remarked more generally than that mountains have divided nations, and therefore it had been perhaps somewhat fancifully argued , that as the light and shadow fell upon the one side or the other, so would the character of men be modified, and government changed. But it had not been, in the progress of mind in its conflict with matter, that the useful sciences in the United States had advanced – had gained additional force; and had they not reached the period when they could triumph over this natural obstacle – when they could skip the mountains, tunnel them, or pass them by means known to civil engineering, thus combining opposite interests, uniting remote localities, and socially, commercially, and politically binding men together, so that the fluctuations of light should become to them as nothing? [Great applause] He had said that he was a strict constructionist; but he had always mocked the idea that the constitution had one construction within the limits of the United States, and another outside of them. [Applause.] He had always repelled the supposition that this government could build a road outside of the United States, and could not build one within it Our constitution was formed to bind the States together, to provide for the common defence, to concentrate the power of all for the protection of each, to throw their united shields over every State, over every locality, over every ship and individual of the Union. [Great applause.] The other question, which involved the integrity of the Pacific possessions, was still closer to fraternal feeling and to sense of duty; it was one to which he knew the heart of Pennsylvania would respond – it was the question of protection, which in her strength she had always shown herself willing to throw over the weak. In the event of a war with any of the powerful nations of the earth, California and Oregon are exposed to attack. Fraternity, chivalry, and constitutional obligation would combine to claim for them adequate protection. Could it, with our present means, be given? Could we rely upon an extra-territorial line of communication? If the Pacific possessions should be threatened by a hostile fleet, the government would have no sufficient navy there to interpose for their protection, if that hostile fleet belonged to and fairly represented such a power as England or France. It would take all the navy of the United States to keep a road open which would cross either of the isthmuses of this continent. And while the navy of the United States was thus employed, what would be more easy than for such a maritime power as either of these to strike at those possessions, and rend them from these States, even to the extent of the gold regions which lay behind the coast. If, then, as a purely military question, it is necessary to have an intercommunication, so that the government’s munitions of war and men could be throw upon the Pacific for its defence, the application of the war power of the government to this case would be within the strict limits of the constitution. [Enthusiastic applause.] But if it could be shown, and he always held his opinion open to correction from any quarter, that these means were not required, were not necessary—and by necessary he meant absolutely required—or if any one would show the other means which would answer as a substitute—how the duties of the government could be preformed without this auxiliary more effectively, more economically, with less exercise of the general power of the government—then , as a strict-construction democrat, he would accept the proposition. [Applause.] Under every ingenious construction which had been placed upon the various powers of the government to bend them to temporary convenience or individual advantage—under every ramification which ingenuity had suggested to supply by isthmus railroads and canals, the wants of commerce resulting from that deficiency of intercommunication—he had insisted that the end should be the discharge of a delegated trust, and that the means should be necessary to the performance of the duty. To defend and maintain the inhabitants and territory of our Pacific possessions was undeniably a delegated trust; and the question was, What means were necessary to the discharge of the duty? In vain had it been attempted to be shown him how the military power of this government, which consisted in the sinews and strong hearts of its citizens, could be used on the slope of the Pacific, unless there was a railroad to transmit it. [Applause.] If, then, it could be done by such means only, and if that hazard existed on the shores of the ocean, he would say that the rest followed as a consequence. Within the territories belonging to the United States the general government could certainly construct roads for military purposes. This power, so long acted on, would not change its nature with the change of the material to be used in construction; and it surely constituted no objection if the means employed for a legitimate object should contribute to the increase and development of interests which they were not specially designed to promote. Whether by these or other means effected, he would rejoice in the fulfillment of the anticipation that the smoke of Pennsylvania coal might be seen on the desert waste, beneath the cloud-capped mountains, and Pennsylvania iron, with the very stamp of her own foundries upon it, might be seen creeping in a long serpentine track to the slopes of the Pacific.  [Applause.]

It was not Pennsylvania's mineral resources alone which were to be benefited in connexion with these great works. She is the great agricultural State of the Union. Her mines and manufactures, with their concentrated power, wielding political influence, had attracted attention greater than that which belonged to her agriculture, yet her agricultural interest was many times more important. Nay, more: she had a commercial interest, which exceeded her mineral and manufacturing interests combined. And why should not commerce, the handmaiden of agriculture, bear from her huge and well-filled barns the accumulated store for which the millions of Asia were suffering. Happy in the unfailing abundance of their home, their only want was new markets to consume their surplus store. Not only free from want, but from the fear of it, their attention could safely be turned to the suffering of other lands.

And there was something which seemed to him ought to swell the heart of Pennsylvania with peculiar pride when she looked back to the land from which her sturdy farmers sprung, and saw upon her own broad bosom those crops which could hush the wail of hunger when the years of famine came upon her fatherland. The political temple she had reared in the woods of Penn stood with open portals, from which went forth an invitation and a welcome, not merely to a land of refuge, but of support. [Applause.]

He felt that the occasion was not one to wander into broad themes of discussion. He had trespassed too much already.

[Cries of go on! go on!]

Mr. Davis, (resuming.) He would close by referring , with their permission, to one who sat near to him, his friend, so long the representative of Pennsylvania, and whose name came unbidden when her name was mentioned. [Immense applause.]

He gave the health of Hon. James Buchanan.


From The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 5, pp. 29-32.  Transcribed from the Washington Union, August 4, 1853.  Originally published July 17, the text was corrected and revised by Davis at the editor's request.

How to Reach Us

The Papers of Jefferson Davis
Rice University--MS 215 
P.O. Box 1892
Houston, Texas 77251-1892
Phone: (713) 348-2586
Fax: (713) 348-6172