Jefferson Davis' Speech Recommending John C. Calhoun
State Democratic Convention
Jackson, Mississippi, January 8, 1844
Though instructed by the delegation from Warren to cast the vote of our county, in this convention, for Mr. [Martin] Van Buren, as the presidential candidate, I hope I will be excused for availing myself of the nomination of Mr. Calhoun, to express some of my opinions, as an individual, in relation to the comparative claims these gentlemen have upon us. I would here premise, that I wish nothing which I may say to be referred to a willingness to depreciate the high, just, and often- acknowledged claims of Mr. Van Buren; a democrat who long and severely tried, has never been found wanting--a democrat, than whom there is none I have more implicit confidence--none to whom I would more freely confide in times of difficulty, of danger, and of personal temptation, the safe keeping of the constitution; and in proof of the correctness of this opinion, I will refer to but a single instance: When the "independent treasury" was opposed by a prejudice so fixed and wide-spread among our people, that it was apparent if one had risen from the dead to bear testimony to its merits, he would not have been believed, still did Mr. Van Buren give it his open, decided and unwavering support. Surely it will not now be contended by those who attribute to him so much political shrewdness as to attach to him the name of magician, that he was ignorant of the danger to which an adherence to this measure exposed his political fortune. Upon us, however, it forces itself as conclusive evidence, that he valued truth and the good of his country above power and place, and the conscientious discharge of his duty above personal advancement.
Mr. President, it is not my purpose to attempt an eulogy of Mr. Calhoun. I should be inadequate to the task, and should deem the labor superfluous in the hand of the most able--a long public life of virtue and intelligence, of active and patriotic devotion to the best interest of his country, having shed around his name a halo which it is not in the power of language to brighten. Neither, sir, is it my intention to review the political principles of that great statesman; for in comparing him with Mr. Van Buren, I find no exception to that proud and generally just boast of the democracy, that the principles of our party are the same throughout the Union. The points of my preference for Mr. Calhoun will be merely indicated to you; because, resting as they do upon basis so well understood by you, any elucidation of them is uncalled for. First, I will mention "free trade," by which is meant, as I understand it, the most liberal principles of commerce, and from which we may anticipate as a consequence, the freest exchange of the products of different soils and climates, the largest amount of comforts for a given amount of labor. Again, as incident to the freest national intercourse, we may expect the extension of amicable relations, until our canvass winged doves shall bear us across every sea, olive branches from every land. In addressing Mississippians, who rely upon a foreign market for the disposal of their products, an argument in support of unrestricted commerce is surely unnecessary, and I will close the consideration of this point by saying I consider Mr. Calhoun is exponent.
The annexation of the republic of Texas to our Union, is another point of vital importance to the south, and demanding, by every consideration, prompt action. Daily are we becoming relatively weaker, and with equal step is the advance of that fanatical spirit which has for years been battering in breach the defences with which the federal constitution surrounds our institutions.
Would Mr. Calhoun have less zeal than one less intimately connected with the South, or would he support this measure with less ability? I would answer not less but more. The ardent, able and honest support which he gives to all measures having his entire approbation, enables him more successfully than any one I have ever known, to combat prejudice and error; and I would add that among the many I have known who had enjoyed his intercourse, I recollect not one who had not imbibed some of his opinions.
Again, I believe that Mr. Calhoun could reduce the various divisions of the executive department at Washington, to such order, and introduce a system of such prompt accountability, by the various agents, that defalcation could seldom reach that point which would result in loss to the government. That he possesses this ability, I conceive to be demonstrated by his administration of the War Department; considered, I believe, of the various departments, that which is most difficult and complex in its disbursements. He found it in great confusion--he reduced it to an organization so perfect, that it has received but slight modifications down to the present time, and has been that department which has afforded but few examples of unfaithful depositories of the public money.
With the experience he acquired then, and the knowledge he has acquired since, may we not expect all that I claim for him on this point?
I will, Mr. President, tax the patience of the Convention, with but one point more, and that is one nearly affecting us: it is the defence of the Southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts. We have been treated ungenerously and unjustly, in that the majority has, through a long course of years, refused to us, the minority, that protection which it was the duty of the Federal Government to give us. Having made such appropriations for the benefit of other portions of the Union, inability has not been the cause of this failure in duty towards us--a failure which is aggravated by the recollection, that throughout the whole period of our federal existence, we have contributed, as consumers, to the revenue, in a higher ratio than that of our representation in the halls of legislation, (by the number of our unrepresented slave population,) and therefore our claim to a share of those appropriations to which we are all entitled, is something stronger than our representative rate. Sir, if we institute a comparison as to the importance, in a national point of view, between the objects for which we require appropriations and those for which we have been neglected, still do we find nothing to justify the treatment we have received. Whilst the northern harbors and cities have been surveyed, and as far as the ability of the treasury would allow, fortified--whilst navy yards have been erected along the northern coast--whilst surveys have been made of the sinuosities of our northern lakes, sometimes where it required the perspective eye of the engineer to see a harbor, and millions expended year after year, for these joint purposes, there stand the cape and keys of Florida unprotected, though by them flows the whole commerce of the south and west; and though they overlook the straits through which, in peace or war, is the only maritime communication between the different portions of our Union, and around which sweeps a wide curve of circumvallation, extending from the Oronoko to the banks of the Bahama, from various points of which, within signal distance, frown the batteries of Great Britain.
Looking further westward, which brings us nearer home--here, upon our own coast, lie, wholly unprotected, the islands upon which the British fleet found a safe anchorage and harbor; where British troops debarked for the attack on New Orleans, an event which, though it brought glory to the American arms, and made this day an American festival, does not the less enforce itself as a warning on our government, and should have proved a sufficient reason to all who loved their country more than sectional interest, to have guarded against the recurrence of such contingency.
Mr. President, the South has a delicate and daily increasing interest in the navy. She needs her own sons in the navy to represent that interest; she therefore needs in her own waters navy yards, and squadrons at home, on her own waters, to develop the nautical feeling of our youth. A survey made of the Tortugas, by the recommendation of that great man who directed the glorious event to which I but just now alluded, as connected with the day on which we are assembled, exhibits a harbor admirably adapted to the purposes of a navy yard. At Pensacola, we have another favorable point, so recognized by our government, in building a dock, and giving it the name of "navy yard;" and they both have this great advantage over any northern harbor, they are convenient to "live oak," our most important ship timber.
Sir, I will not detain the Convention farther, than to urge upon their consideration the necessity we have for a Southern President, to advance these measures. The South has borne long; let her be true to herself, that justice may be done.
From The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 2, pp. 68-119. Transcribed from the Natchez (Miss.) Free Trader, January 24, 1844.