1. Decorum in Davis’s Resignation from the Senate
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1 Decorum in ­ Davis’s Resignation from the Senate “They recognized in him (Lincoln) the representative of a party professing principles destructive to ‘their peace, their prosperity, and their domestic tranquility.’ The long-­ suppressed fire burst into frequent flame.” — Jefferson ­ Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government With the flames of secession fanning through­ out the South, Jefferson ­ Davis found himself in a troubling situation. He was a senator from Mississippi who had risen to national prominence to become one of the central spokes­ persons for the South, but he was also an outspoken critic of the rash and unorganized manner in which secession was unfolding. Despite his initial objections, Mississippi had seceded and left ­ Davis with little opportunity to continue his role in the Senate. ­ Davis was, however, given one last opportunity to capture the attention of his colleagues through his resignation speech. In twelve paragraphs, Jefferson ­ Davis officially resigned from the Senate in what Hudson Strode considers “one of the most moving and eloquent speeches in Ameri­ can history.”1­ Davis was courteous, succinct, and passionate.As James G. Blaine remarked,“no man gave up more than Mr.­ Davis,” because “for several years he had been growing in favor with a powerful element in the Democracy of the free States, and, but for the exasperating quarrel of 1860, he might have been selected as the Presidential candidate of his party.”2 Given the scope of his national prominence and influence, ­ Davis’s resignation was a topic of conversation through­ out the nation, which made his speech more complicated than a simple goodbye. The speech was delivered with a simple topical construction: an introduction that announced his resignation, a description of his obligation to the state of Mississippi, a concise explanation of the theory and legal arguments for secession, an elucidation of the complete and total sovereignty of Mississippi, and a plea for peaceful relations. The initial simplicity of the speech vanishes with a closer inspection of ­ Davis’s rhe­ tori­ cal struggle to thwart the justifications for a military response to secession through an early articulation of his vision for a peaceful separation. That separation, according to ­ Davis, was not only justified, legal, and timely but should be Davis’s Resignation / 7 peaceful because of the shared history between North and South and the character of the people of the South. The End of Equivocation By 1860, ­ Davis had bolstered his position as a spokesperson for the South by attacking Stephen Douglas’s theory of popu­ lar sovereignty. He had adopted the uncompromising position that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford had secured South­ erners’ rights to take slaves into the West­ern territories.3 Douglas’s theory of popu­ lar sovereignty allowed for the possibility that the people in the West­ ern territories would vote to ban slavery, a position that was intolerable for ­ Davis and other senators from the cotton South. In the buildup to the election of 1860, these attacks played a crucial role in the sectional divide within the Democratic Party.4­ Davis hoped to present a unified Democratic front in the election of 1860, but the uncompromising nature of the attacks meant that he could not support Douglas as the sole nominee of the party. ­ Davis, there­ fore, stumped for the South­ ern nominee for the Democratic Party, John Breck­ in­ ridge, who was the vice president under James Buchanan. Like ­ Davis, Breckinridge defended a proslavery platform in direct opposition to Douglas. Throughout the fall of 1860, ­ Davis continued his attacks on Douglas in the name of helping elect Breckinridge to the presidency. Despite his efforts to focus the conversation on Breckinridge, ­ Davis was increasingly confronted with the question of secession. The uncompromising nature of ­ Davis’s position on slavery made it difficult for him to dismiss secession as an option of last resort. Rather than answering the question, ­ Davis chose to invest his rhe­ tori­ cal resources in supporting Breckinridge while equivo­ cating on secession.5 The election of 1860 forced ­ Davis to reconcile his theoretical position with the realistic prospect of secession. While Douglas’s theory of popu­ lar sovereignty may have resulted in slavery being outlawed in the territories , Abraham Lincoln’s Republican platform supported the complete prohibition of slavery in the West­ ern territories. In the wake of Lincoln’s victory, the South looked to ­ Davis for guidance and the North looked to him to assess the likelihood of secession. Both audiences turned...