Reply in the Senate to Stephen Douglas by Jefferson Davis – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

A month before this speech, the Democratic National Convention had convened in Charleston, South Carolina. When the delegates failed to adopt an explicitly pro-slavery platform, the Convention dissolved. Rival Southern and Northern Conventions reconvened in June 1860, each nominating their own presidential candidate: Stephen Douglas for the North and John Breckinridge for the South. With the Democratic vote thus divided, the Republican candidate was widely expected to win the 1860 election. Here Davis laments the Kansas-Nebraska solution, explaining how Douglas, once a Southern hero, had become a villain.

May 17, 1860

…It is this confusion of ideas, it is this confounding of terms, this changing of language, this applying of special meanings to words, out of which, I think, a large portion of the dispute arises. For instance, it is claimed that President Pierce, in using the phrase “existing and incipient States,” meant to include all Territories, and thus that he had bound me to a doctrine which precluded my strictures on what I termed squatter sovereignty. This all arises from the misuse of language. An incipient State, according to my idea, is the territorial condition at the moment it changes into that of a State. It is when the people assemble in convention to form a constitution as a State, that they are in the condition of an incipient State. Various names were applied to the Territories at an earlier period. Sometimes they were called “new States,” because they were expected to be States; sometimes they were called “States in embryo,” and it requires a determination of the language that is employed before it is possible to arrive at any conclusion as to the differences of understanding between gentlemen. Therefore it was, and, I think, very properly, (but not, as the Senator supposes, that I wanted to catechize him,) that I asked him what he meant by non-intervention, before I commenced these remarks.

In the same line of errors was the confusion which resulted in his assuming that the evils I described as growing out of his doctrine on the plains of Kansas, were a denunciation, on my part, of the bill called the Kansas-Nebraska bill. At the time that bill passed, I did not foresee all the evils which have resulted from the doctrine based upon it, but which I do not think it contains. I am not willing now to turn on those who were in a position which compelled them to act and made them responsible, and to divest myself of any responsibility which belongs to any opinion I entertained. I will not seek to judge after the fact and hold the measure up against those who had to judge before me. Therefore I will frankly avow that I should have sustained that bill if I had been in the Senate; but I did not foresee or apprehend such evils as immediately grew up on the plains of Kansas. I looked then, as our fathers had looked before, to the settlement of the question of what institutions should exist there, as one to be determined by soil and climate, and by the pleasure of those who should voluntarily go into the country. Such, however, was not the case. The form of the Kansas-Nebraska bill invited to a controversy–not foreseen.

  1. Jefferson Davis, “Reply to Stephen A. Douglas,” May 17, 1860, in Lynda L. Crist et al., eds., The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 6 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971—present), 322.Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College


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