Reply in the Senate to William Seward by Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) – Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College

The Senate of 1860 looked little like the Senate of 1790, its proceedings having degenerated into unbridled partisanship. Several years before this debate, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks savagely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner following anti-slavery remarks on the Senate floor. The South had few defenders more tenacious than Mississippi’s Senator Jefferson Davis. He had opposed the Compromise of 1850 and hoped for the annexation of much of northern Mexico, which he believed a natural place to expand Southern interests. Here, in response to New York Senator William Seward, Davis makes clear that, like John C. Calhoun, he rejects the equality principle of the Declaration.

February 29, 1860

…When the Senator from New York closed the studied and elaborate address which he delivered today, I rose for the purpose, not of replying to all the points which he had made, wherein I found rather those generalities not sufficiently glittering to delude, but only for the purpose of noticing some of the salient positions which he assumed, and to one of which the Senator from Illinois has very happily responded–that wherein he charged the Democratic party with having violated its faith which was pledged in 1850. The Senator from Illinois performed his duty on two occasions: first, his duty to the whole country, when he moved an amendment which he believed would bring to it peace and a permanent settlement of a grave question; next, he performed the duty which he owed to himself; for when the Congress enacted measures against the voice of certain southern Senators and members, and pledged themselves to the policy of non-intervention with slavery in the Territories, he, being a party to that transaction, owed it to himself, and discharged a duty which it imposed upon his honor, when he moved to repeal the restriction in palpable violation of the agreement which was then made. He has answered well as to that point, and I have nothing to add.

But the Senator from New York invokes us by his love for the Union, and in the spirit of fraternity. I have nothing to object to the tone in which he has addressed us, but I wish we could have acts instead of words. Faith might follow something more significant than high-sounding professions of attachment to the Union, and fraternity to its various members. If the Senator would show to us, by his adherence to the Constitution, and his faithful maintenance of the oath he has taken to support it, that we may rely on the pledge which he gives us that the Republican party, bound by its oath, cannot trespass on the rights of any section, our faith might follow, however far behind, such manifestations upon his own part of the good faith which he proclaims to be within the breast of his political party.

But are we to believe these mere professions of the lips whilst he proclaims opposition to one of the most marked features of the Constitution? whilst he and those with whom he is associated, not only here, but at home, are endeavoring to trample under foot the laws of the United States enacted in conformity with the Constitution, and to secure one of its provisions–a provision so significant that it has been remarked, and is a part of history, that the Union could not have been formed if it had not been incorporated in the Constitution? The oaths of such men become cheap as custom-house oaths, and we are asked to stake our future security on the mere guarantee which such an oath gives!

But the Senator from New York arraigns those who speak in a certain contingency of providing for their own safety out of the Union, as being in opposition to his love for the Union; and he manifests his incapacity to understand our doctrine of State rights by the very simile which he employs when he speaks of our fathers building a temple wherein they had a collision of opinion as to whether the marble should be white or whether it should be manifold in its color, and at last agreed together–forgetful that our fathers were occupied in providing a common agent for the States, not building up a central government to look over them. The States remained each its own temple. They made an agent. Their controversy was as to the functions and powers of that agent–not as to the nature of the temple in which they should preserve their liberties. That temple is the State governments. Beneath that we sit down as under our own vine and fig tree, secure in our power to maintain our rights.

But the Senator asks, how is it that, whilst we are professing this general fraternity and adherence to the Union, we still assert that if one of his party is elected President, we are ready to dissolve the Union? I do not know who has made that assertion, if it has been made. However, the language employed may have imperfectly conveyed the idea that the position was assumed as the Senator fairly presented it, under the conviction that they spoke of those who sought the Government to use it for their destruction. That was the provocation, that was the contingency, however it may have been expressed, that was the idea I have seen embodied in every resolution of that kind wherever it has been passed. To ask us that we shall sit still, under such a Government, is as though we were to be asked to sit in this Senate Chamber, whilst we knew that some one was destroying the foundation on which it rested; to ask us to rely upon the durability which that foundation had when the building was constructed; to rely confidently on the strength we knew it once to possess, even when we had been advertised that that foundation was being destroyed. Are we not advertised that the Senator and those with whom he cooperates are assailing our constitutional rights? How, then, can we sit quietly? If, instead of sitting here to admire the panel and the pilaster and the typical decorations of the ceiling, one, aware that the foundation was being undermined, should walk out of the Chamber, would you arraign him for endeavoring to destroy the building, or would you level your charges against the sapper and miner who was at work on its foundation? That is the proposition.

Who has been more industrious, patient, and skillful, as a sapper and miner against the foundations of the Constitution, than the Senator himself? Who has been in advance of him in the fiery charge on the rights of the States, and in assuming to the Federal Government the power to crush and to coerce them? Even today he has repeated his doctrines. He tells us this is a Government which we will learn is not merely a Government of the States, but a Government of each individual of the people of the United States; and he refers to that doctrine of coercion which the great mind of Hamilton (the mighty intellect of New York, which, in his day, like a lens, gathered in all which could illuminate the subject upon which his mind was concentrated) said was a proposition not to provide for a union of the States, but for their destruction. Such was the view which he who led the forces of the strong Government party took of this idea of enabling the Federal Government to coerce a State. Here the Senator, in advance of that, still mistaking the fundamental principles on which our Government rests, talks about the individual masses coercing the sovereign States of this Union. Sir, when it comes to that, there will be an “irrepressible conflict” indeed; and I have now the faith I have before announced, that, when it comes to that, he will find men loyal to the Government and true to its institutions, residing around his own home, who will arrest his footsteps, and hold him prisoner in the name of liberty and the Constitution.

There is nothing, Mr. President, which has led men to greater confusion of ideas than this term of “free States” and “slave States;” and I trusted that the Senator, with his discriminating and logical mind, was going to give us something tangible, instead of dealing in a phrase never applicable. He applied another; but what was his phrase? “Capital States” and “labor States.” And where is the State in which nobody labors? The fallacy upon which the Senator hung adjective after adjective was, that all the labor of the southern States was performed by negroes. Did he not know that the negroes formed but a small part of the people of the southern States? Did he suppose nobody labored but a negro, there? If so, he was less informed than I had previously believed him to be. Negro slavery exists in the South, and by the existence of negro slavery, the white man is raised to the dignity of a freeman and an equal. Nowhere else will you find every white man superior to menial service. Nowhere else will you find every white man recognized so far as an equal as never to be excluded from any man’s house or any man’s table. Your own menial who blacks your boots, drives your carriage, who wears your livery, and is your own in every sense of the word, is not your equal; and such is society wherever negro slavery is not the substratum on which the white race is elevated to its true dignity. We, however, have no theory to press upon you; we leave you to such institutions as you may prefer; but when you assail ours, we come to the vindication of our institutions by showing you that all your phrases are false; that we are the freemen. With us, and with us alone, as I believe, the white man attains to his true dignity in the Government. So much for the great fallacy on which the Senator’s argument hangs, that the labor of the South is all negro labor, and that the white man must there be degraded if he labors; or that we have no laboring white men. I do not know which is his opinion; one of the two. The Senator has himself resided in a southern State, and therefore I say I believed him to be better informed before he spoke. I must suppose him to be as ignorant as his speech would indicate. No man, however, who has seen any portion of southern society, can entertain any such opinion as that which he presents; and it is in order that the statement he has made may not go out to deceive those less informed than himself, that I offer at this time the correction.

The Senator makes a rather hackneyed argument, that, in asserting our right to go into the Territory and enjoy it, we are seeking to take exclusive possession of it. I shall not dwell on that point further than to say that we have sought to exclude nobody. We have sought not to usurp the Territory to our exclusive possession; we have sought that government should be instituted in order that every person and property might be protected that went into it–the white man coming from the North, and the white man coming from the South, both meeting on an equality in the Territory, and each with whatever property he may hold under the laws of his State and the Constitution of the United States. Such is our position. It is to array a prejudice, which does not justly attach to us, to assume that we have ever sought to exclude any citizen from any State or Territory from going into any Territory and there possessing all the rights which we claim to ourselves.

We have heard time and again this session the same point made against the Democratic party, that they were hedging themselves behind the decision of the Supreme Court. If this had been presented in the beginning, it might have had some fairness; but, after years of conflict, and after we had found it utterly impossible ever to reach a conclusion satisfactory to both sides–in other words, to enact a law which would answer the purpose–we then agreed to postpone a question judicial in its character, and thus agreed to be bound, legislatively and politically, by the decision which that judicial question should receive. Now, the Senator pleads to the jurisdiction, as though we had ever asserted that the Supreme Court could decide a political question; but he was bound in honor, and so were all who acted with him, to abide by the decision of an umpire to which they had themselves referred the case. We are willing to abide by it. We but claim from them that to which we pledged ourselves, and that to which they were mutually pledged when this position was taken by the two Houses of Congress.

But the Senator in his zeal depicts the negro slave of the South as a human being reduced to the condition of a mere chattel. Is it possible that the Senator did not know that the negro slave in every southern State was still a person, protected by all the laws which punish crime in other persons?Could the Senator have failed to know that no master could take the life of or maim his slave without being held responsible under the criminal laws of any southern State, and held to a responsibility as rigid as though that negro had been a white man? How, then, is it asserted that these are not persons in the eye of the law, not protected by the law as persons. The venerable Senator from Kentucky knows very well that this is not law in any State of the Union where slaves are held, but that everywhere they are protected; that the criminal law covers them as perfectly as it covers the white man….

…Several southern Senators around have spoken to me to the effect that in each of their States the protection is secured, and a suit may be instituted at common law for assault and battery, to protect a negro as well as a white man. The condition of slavery with us is, in a word, Mr. President, nothing but the form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves. It is exactly what in every State exists in some form or other. It is just that kind of control which is extended in every northern State over its convicts, its lunatics, its minors, its apprentices. It is but a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves. We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority. In their subject and dependent state, they are not the objects of cruelty as they would be if left to the commission of crime, for which they should be incarcerated in penitentiaries and work-houses, and put under hired overseers, having no interest in them and no relation to them, no affiliation, growing out of the associations of childhood and the tender care of age. Is there nothing of the balm needed in the Senator’s own State, that he must needs go abroad to seek objects for his charity and philanthropy? What will he say of those masses in New York now memorializing for something very like an agrarian law? What will he say to the throngs of beggars who crowd the streets of his great commercial emporium? What will he say to the multitudes collected in the penitentiaries and prisons of his own State? I seek not, sir, to inquire into the policy and propriety of the institutions of other States; I assume not to judge of their fitness; it belongs to the community to judge, and I know not under what difficulties they may have been driven to what I cannot approve; but never, sir, in all my life, have I seen anything that so appealed to every feeling of humanity and manliness, as the suffering of the poor children imprisoned in your juvenile penitentiaries–imprisoned before they were old enough to know the nature of crime–there held to such punishment as we never inflict save upon those of mature years. I arraign you not for this: I know not what your crowded population and increasing wants may demand; I know not how far it may be the necessary result of crime which follows in the footsteps of misery; I know not how far the parents have become degraded, and how far the children have become outcast, and how far it may have devolved on the State to take charge of them; but, I thank my God, that in the state of society where I reside, we have no scenes so revolting as these.

Why then not address yourselves to the evils which you have at home? Why not confine your inquiries to the remedial measures which will relieve the suffering of and stop the progress of crime among your own people?Very intent in looking into the distance for the mote in your brother’s eye, is it to be wondered that we turn back and point to the beam in your own?

  1. Jefferson Davis, “Reply to William H. Seward,” February 29, 1860, in Lynda L. Crist et al., eds., The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 6 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971—present), 278—84.Reprinted from The U.S. Constitution, A Reader, Published by Hillsdale College


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