restricted access 4. Conspiracy Rhetoric in Davis’s Response to the Emancipation Proclamation
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4 Conspiracy Rhetoric in­ Davis’s Response to the Emancipation Proclamation “The people of this Confederacy, then, cannot fail to receive this proclamation as the fullest vindication of their own sagacity in foreseeing the uses to which the dominant party in the United States intended from the beginning to apply their power.” — Jefferson ­ Davis, The Messages and Papers Of Jefferson ­ Davis and The Confederacy, Including Diplomatic Correspondence, 1861–1865 On Janu­ ary 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued one of the best-­ known rhe­ tori­ cal artifacts of the Civil War.The Emancipation Proclamation—declaring that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”—remains central to his rhe­tori­cal legacy.1 The subject of extensive study, it represents a seminal moment in the evolution of Lincoln’s perspective on race and America’s progress away from the institution of slavery.2 From a communication perspective, in its form and function the Emancipation Proclamation exemplifies key concepts of rhetoric—the importance of audience analy­ sis in the process of invention, for one. In these decades of sustained criti­ cal attention, however, few communications scholars, so focused on Lincoln’s famous directive, have examined Jefferson ­ Davis’s response. Three months earlier, on Sep­ tem­ ber 22, 1862, Lincoln had offered the “states in rebellion” a final chance to keep the institution of slavery if they were willing to return to the Union.3 Otherwise he would proclaim the slaves held in Confederate territory free.The deadline was Janu­ ary 1, 1863. Despite this bold Sep­ tem­ ber threat, ­ Davis did not comment on the impending Emancipation Proclamation in his De­ cem­ ber 1862 Mississippi address; instead ­ Davis responded on Janu­ ary 12, 1863, in his message to the Confederate Congress. One reason ­ Davis’s response has received inadequate attention is that it appears predictable. It is nearly self-­ evident that from the perspective of the Confederacy, Lincoln’s proclamation was an illegitimate directive with little moral and even less legal authority. ­ Davis’s response, however, 62 / Chapter 4 went further than simply denying the Proclamation’s authority; he used the opportunity to revive the powerful conspiracy discourse that was essential in the creation of Confederate nationalism. In the short term, the appeal to conspiracy helped rally Confederate nationalism. It celebrated the prophetic vision of the fire-­ eaters, who called for secession as the only measure to protect the institution of slavery. Over the long term, however , as the realities of war forced ­ Davis to propose his own limited conditional version of emancipation, this earlier conspiracy discourse constrained his rhe­ tori­ cal options. These competing functions of conspiracy discourse, enabling and constraining, help explain the precipitous collapse of Confederate nationalism as ­ Davis attempted an impossible move from describing an abolitionist conspiracy in 1863 to defending a limited and conditional form of emancipation in 1865. Secession and Conspiracy Discourse­ Davis’s depiction of a radical abolitionist conspiracy had its origins before the war, in the decision to secede. Much of the South­ ern po­ liti­ cal discourse surrounding secession centered on an alleged connection between Lincoln and radical abolitionists. Many argued that Lincoln was secretly a radical abolitionist bent on using his executive authority to eviscerate slavery. This grave threat structured the pub­ lic debate: should the slave states wait and attempt to use their institutional power to thwart Lincoln ’s aggressive actions, or should they secede before he gained the power of the executive? That Lincoln stated on numerous occasions he was no abolitionist was not only irrelevant but held up as evidence that he was the worst kind of conspirator—a master of language who could use his executive power to craft abolitionist policies without acknowledging his role. Among South­ ern slave owners, the assumption that Lincoln was beholden to a radical constituency was widely accepted; the only question was whether slave states could leverage their institutional power to prevent radical abolitionist actions by the federal government. Georgia’s debate over secession is one of the clearest examples of this conspiracy discourse and shows how it functioned argumentatively. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s election, Georgia held a series of discussions to debate the need for an official secession convention. One set of pub­ lic debates on secession took place from No­ vem­ ber 12–16, 1860, in the state capital of Milledgeville. A review of...