Thursday, October 3, 2019

Jefferson Davis & the Birth of the "Lost Cause"

In the years following the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865), seminal figures of the former Confederate states developed a series of arguments which were designed and promoted as the reasons why the South felt justified to break away from the Union. Many of these narratives still linger to this day in the popular perception of the Civil War, especially as it related to the issue of slavery. They have become known to the popular imagination as the "Lost Cause". One of the critical figures who promoted and created this movement was former Confederate president and former US Senator from Mississippi Jefferson Davis. In the later years of his life, when his family had lost everything due to the war, Davis wrote a 1,500 page two volume work titled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Davis’ choice of a title was evocative of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; as though the South was somehow reminiscent of the lost grandeur of ancient Rome). Davis, through his book, ignited the "Lost Cause" fire which was growing stronger as the end of the war receded further into the past.

MORR 9746
            Davis’ work has three distinctive goals: 1. To prove the legality of the South's secession through a constitutional argument. 2. To prove President Lincoln and Congress overstepped their boundaries, which were set by the Constitution. 3. To prove the South had been mistreated in the aftermath of the conflict through the repression of their rights. In addition to these goals, the book tells the story of how the North and South became so different from one another. Through his time in the nation's capital, Davis experienced firsthand the growing divide between the increasingly industrial North and the agricultural South. Davis himself owned a large farming plantation with many slaves in his home state of Mississippi in the years leading up to the war. When the South was defeated, like most landed families, Davis lost not only his wealth, but his slaves and property.

            When someone supports a theory like the "Lost Cause," they often already have certain views which are perpetuated by the theory. For example, Davis believed the South had every right to secede from the Union because the South had voluntarily joined the Union. There was no clause, he argued, in the Constitution that prohibited seceding. In a separate article that was published a year after his death, Davis put forth the idea that the Founding Fathers should or would have put a clause which legalized secession had they thought the concept through.[1] His preconceptions allowed him to justify the "Lost Cause" theory.

            The legality of the South's secession, based on a literal interpretation of the Constitution, has become one of the main pillars of the "Lost Cause" theory. A literal interpretation is one of many interpretations someone could have of the Constitution. It means that a person takes the Constitution verbatim. Davis, like many southerners at the time, saw the Constitution as an agreement between the federal government and the states. As an example, Davis cited an 1805 event where South Carolina voluntarily gave up control over forts in Charleston Harbor and on the Beaufort River. Davis also notes, in 1821, Virginia voluntarily gave up control over Fort Monroe and the Rip Raps.[2] Davis then fast forwards to when these states seceded from the Union. He claims the states had every right to take back these strategic locations because they were voluntarily given to the federal government in the first place. For him, this justifies his preconception that the Constitution was a voluntary agreement between the states and the federal government.

            Davis also uses the Constitution to justify his preconception that the federal government had to defend slavery rather than trying to abolish it. He points to the Three-Fifths Clause (Article I, section II), the Importation Clause (Article I, section IX) and the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, section II) as clear reasons for his preconception.[3] After the southern states seceded from the Union, Davis again used the Constitution to justify their actions. He emphasizes the act of secession was used as a last resort because the Constitution had failed to protect the South from "Northern aggression". He uses Article IV, section IV to protest the Union's reaction to southern secession. He also falsifies the Union's claim of "preserving the union" because the reality was to subjugate the South to the Union's anti-slavery views. These various pieces of the Constitution, through Davis' literal interpretation, help complete the legal justifications for the South's secession.

            The mistreatment of southern civilians as the Union pushed its way further south is another pillar of the "Lost Cause" theory. Throughout the book, Davis makes it clear that the innocent civilians of the South had their freedoms purposely trampled on just because they had supported their state rather than the federal government. He also makes clear the governments set up by the Union in occupied territory were illegal because they were not "by and for the people". This meant these governments could not pass laws, hold election nor approve amendments to the Constitution. These governments held elections in which only those who had pro Union opinions could run. No Confederates were involved which upset those in power in the South immediately after the Civil War. To men like Davis, this was a clear example of the federal government forcing people to choose loyalty to the federal government rather than loyalty to their state.

Davis' signature, top.
            One of the most interesting pillars of the "Lost Cause" is the supposed violation of the Constitution by President Lincoln and Congress. Davis uses the capture of Nashville, Tennessee as a clear example of this over stepping. When the city was captured in February 1862, the Union forced all local officials and clergymen to take an oath of allegiance and those who did not were imprisoned until they did.[4] This was repeated across Union captured territory. Davis likened this oath of allegiance as "[invoking] the Constitution was like Satan quoting Scripture".[5]

            In addition to mistreatment of civilians, Davis also points out the Union illegally established governments in captured territory. This included creating a Union friendly court system and installing Union generals as military governors. Davis refers back to his literal interpretation of the Constitution to defend his reaction. He uses Article IV, section IV to explain the Union did not guarantee the South a republican form of government by forcing a turnover of captured states' governments.[6] He again points to Article IV, section IV when justifying Virginia's right to protect herself from the Union's invasion. Another violation of Article IV, under section III, was the forming of West Virginia from Virginia. The people of Virginia did not consent to the creation of West Virginia because the federal government did not have the power to interfere with Virginia's laws because Virginia was a separate power from the federal government.[7] This also plays off Davis' opinion that the states are a sovereign body independent of the federal government.

            In addition to violating the Constitution, the federal government, as Davis interpreted matters, passed several confiscations acts which allowed the Union to confiscate anything that could aid the Southern cause. This included slaves, property, weapons and raw materials. Davis and other high ranking Confederate government officials saw this as an excuse by the Union to plunder the South and kill innocent civilians and to crush their rights as citizens of the Union.[8]

            In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Union set about readmitting the Southern states. There were many rules the former Confederacy had to follow. One of the biggest was every public servant had to take an oath of allegiance. According to Davis, the oath had two major problems with it. The first was that the person taking it was treated as though they were not a citizen of the United States. Davis believed that everyone involved in the war was always and had been citizens of the United States. The second was the clause which demanded southerners recognize slaves were now free. This sends Davis into a tirade about how the slaves could not be freed because they were Southerners' "unalienable right of property" and the federal government was supposed to protect, not abolish, slavery.[9] Another obligation the South had to take on was to accept the laws of the Union, which included the Thirteenth Amendment. Davis cited this as a violation of the South's rights as independent people. Davis had another issue with the process the Reconstruction governments the Union had set up. They were run by a general of the Union army. Military law replaced civilian law. Several years into the Reconstruction, the decision was made to allow the South to once again have a republican form of government. There was a catch: freed slaves had to be allowed to vote in the elections and only those with Union sympathies could run for office. Davis decried this as a government that was not created by "the free and unconstrained action of the whole people of a State."[10] Again, from the separate article, he believes "the only people known to the system were the people of a State or commonwealth."[11] Davis saw this as yet another example of the Union forcing their laws down the throats of innocent Southerners and purposely crushing their freedoms. Davis suggested an alternative method to readmission: the former Confederate states could "reconsider their ordinances of secession" and once again recognized the "Constitution as the supreme law of the land". This could have allowed the creation of what had existed prior to the war: a "Union of consent."[12]

            The birth of the "Lost Cause" theory came as the country was trying to move past its bloodiest moment, the Civil War. Some of those who had led the former Confederate states, on the battlefield and in politics, created a powerful mythology that is still being felt today. Jefferson Davis gave the theory the biggest shot in the arm with his book, but because it was incredibly detailed and repetitive, very few chose to actually read it. The ideas it suggests, however, gave the "Lost Cause" a true shape. A shape which has little changed for over one hundred and fifty years. Many turn to these ideas though when they defend their pro-southern opinion. These opinions are supported up by preconceptions which have faded over time, but some still linger to this day. The strongest of these is the undying support of states' rights. This has become a part of the modern day federalism argument which calls for a smaller federal government and giving states more power. Although the racial part of the "Lost Cause" theory has died out, most of the rest of the opinions have continued to live on in various iterations.  

[1] Davis, Jefferson. "The Doctrine of State Rights." The North American Review Vol. 150, No. 399 (Feb. 1890): 205-219 - via Wikisource.
[2] Vol. 1, Part III, Chap. II in Jefferson Davis Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Urbana, Illinois, Project Gutenberg, 2013), 197-198.
[3] Vol. 1, Part I, Chap. X in Davis, 82.
[4] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. XXXII in Davis, 228.
[5] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. XXXII in Davis, 229.
[6] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. XXXIII in Davis, 239-240.
[7] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. XXXIII in Davis, 242.
[8] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. LV in Davis, 530.
[9] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. LVI in Davis, 540.
[10] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. LVI in Davis, 541.
[11] Davis, "The Doctrine of State Rights", 205-219 - via Wikisource.
[12] Vol. 2, Part IV, Chap. LVI in Davis, 539.

This blogpost by Rose Spady, Mullenberg College.

No comments:

Post a Comment