restricted access 2. Civic Republicanism in Davis’s Inaugural Address
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2 Civic Republicanism in ­ Davis’s Inaugural Address “The audience was large and brilliant upon my weary heart was showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers, but beyond them I saw troubles and thorns innumerable.” —Jefferson ­ Davis, The Papers of Jefferson ­ Davis On February 18, 1861, the Confederate States of America inaugurated­ Jefferson ­ Davis as provisional president. Sworn in on the front portico of the state capitol in Montgomery, Ala­ bama, in front of an estimated ten thousand people, ­ Davis delivered the first official presidential address of the newly constituted Confederate nation.1 Without a separate Confederate declaration of independence, responsibility for articulating the justification for secession, establishing legitimacy for the new Confederate government , establishing himself in the office, and outlining a vision for how the two nations could coexist fell squarely on ­ Davis’s thirteen-­ paragraph address. In short, ­ Davis was responsible for introducing the content and character of the Confederacy to the world. Although the task was difficult, ­ Davis did not work in isolation. The whirlwind of secessionist discourse generated complex, contradictory po­ liti­ cal voices urging the new nation in different directions. The secessionists had won their initial charge, leading the first wave of South­ ern states out of the Union, but lost ground to moderation as the need to establish a responsible government grew. Moderate voices emphasized the South’s philosophical connection to the tenets of civic republicanism, but that conservative tradition was inconsistent with the radical nature of secession. Within this sea of voices, a strong current pushed for unanimity from both sides, but at which extreme? ­ Davis’s inaugural address operated within the demands and constraints of this turbulent cultural milieu. William­ Davis argues: “In many ways, under-­ less-­ than-­ favorable circumstances, it was one of the finest addresses of his life.”2 Although the speech may have been one of ­ Davis’s finest, a closer examination reveals that ­ Davis struggled to reconcile the demands of the civic republican tradition with the radical act of secession. ­ Davis’s struggle to resolve tensions at this key moment suggested limitations for the civic republican tradition; the seeds Davis’s Inaugural Address / 25 of the Confederacy’s troubles with nationalism, in other words, may have been sown in the fertile soil of Montgomery, Ala­ bama. Baptism by Fire-­ Eaters After resigning from the Senate, ­ Davis returned to his home state of Mississippi . He arrived in Vicksburg on February 1, 1861, to discover his election as Major General of the Mississippi militia. He accepted the position and contemplated his return to military service as he traveled home to the Brierfield plantation. After the cathartic release that came with leaving Wash­ ing­ ton, DC, ­ Davis enjoyed his return to plantation life. In a letter to his friend John Callan, ­ Davis wrote, “I feel the strongest desire to pass the remainder of my days in the peaceful useful toil of my little cotton field.”3 But ­ Davis knew that his fate was being decided in Montgomery, Ala­ bama, where delegates from the first seven states of the Confederacy were hard at work laying the foundation for the Confederate government.4 Robert Barnwell Rhett Sr., a fierce secessionist from South Carolina, had chosen Montgomery for this convention before Ala­ bama had even seceded . Rhett included the provision that delegates should meet in Montgomery to create the Confederacy as part of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession. The “South Carolina Program” was designed to have the Confederate government in place before Lincoln’s inauguration.5 Howell Cobb, a prominent politician from Georgia, served as president of the convention that began on February 4, 1861.The convention was charged with writing a constitution, electing a provisional president and vice president, and passing whatever legislation was necessary for the establishment of a working government.6 After ­ Davis’s Senate resignation, everyone in the South (in­ clud­ ing ­ Davis) believed he would be appointed Secretary of War for the Confederacy. In addition to having publicly opposed immediate secession, he was a West Point graduate, a celebrated war hero, and had served as the Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. In fact, ­ Davis reaffirmed his desire to be a military commander in his letter to John Callan, “I think I could perform the functions of genl. if the Executive did not cripple me in my operations by acts of commission or omission.”7 Yet on February 9, 1861, the delegates voted unanimously to elect ­ Davis the provisional president and Alexander Stephens of Georgia the provisional vice president of...