A few months back, I had a student ask me about Don Livingston’s characterization of Jefferson Davis in a paper he presented to the Mises Institute in 1995 titled “The Secession Tradition in America.” The student wondered if Livingston’s statement, “Jefferson Davis was an enlightened slave holder who said that once the Confederacy gained its independence, it would mean the end of slavery. The Confederate Cabinet agreed to abolish slavery within five years after the cessation of hostilities in exchange for recognition by Britain and France,” was factually accurate.
Jefferson Davis was, as Livingston suggests, an “enlightened slaveholder.” He was well known as a kind master, even going as far as establishing a trial system on his plantation in Mississippi for punishment rather than resorting to the lash. He was not considered an ardent pro-slavery ideologue or a vehement “fire-eater” during the secession crisis in the months leading to war in 1861. As a member of the famous Committee of 13 charged with sorting through various compromise proposals in 1860, Davis suggested a policy of dual majorities for any proposal to pass. He supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have preserved slavery in the South as well as extended the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, but when Republicans on the Committee refused to support any compromise efforts, Davis voted against them. He wanted a compromise that was truly “national” in scope. Republicans chose Party over Union before, during, and after the War.
In 1864, Duncan F. Kenner, perhaps the largest slave holder in the South at the time and representative from Louisiana, approached Davis with a unique proposal. In order to gain the recognition of the British and French governments, something that had eluded the Confederacy since the beginning of the War, Kenner suggested that Davis tell both governments that the Confederacy would abolish slavery. No timeframe was discussed, and Kenner originally floated the idea of presenting the plan to the Confederate Congress. Davis asked Kenner not to do so and rejected the idea outright, thinking that the situation was not yet desperate enough to warrant such a move, but in late 1864 he sent for Kenner and told him to put the plan in motion. Kenner was given credentials and set out on a secret mission to Europe in January 1865. He arrived just weeks before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse and met with the two Confederate commissioners, James M. Mason (grandson of George Mason) and John Slidell, in Paris. Slidell at first refused to support the plan, but Kenner told him that such refusal would result in his immediate suspension.
The three men met with French Emperor Napoleon III, who agreed to recognize the Confederacy under these terms if the British would follow suit. The commissioners quickly sailed to London, where they met with the Prime Minister, Henry John Temple, who sternly rebuked their proposal, stating that Her Majesty’s government would never recognize the Confederacy under any condition. Lee’s surrender dashed any lingering hopes of continuing diplomacy, and this last-ditch effort to win international support died a swift death.
Davis would have needed approval from his Cabinet to send such a mission, and Kenner’s other task relating to a proposed joint British-Confederate bank with cotton used as operating capital certainly would have had input from the Confederate Secretary of the Treasury, George Trenholm, and Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin. Yet, such a plan would have required a commitment from the Southern states and a constitutional amendment, something they did not yet have but perhaps could have obtained if independence was secured.
Kenner’s tale was recorded in 1899 by the historian William Wirt Henry, grandson of Patrick Henry, and is legitimate. The Library of Congress admitted its validity in 1916, and referenced the Joseph Brent Papers, now housed at Louisiana State University, as evidence. Brent married Kenner’s daughter after the War, so he would have had conclusive proof.
Portions of this piece originally appeared on the Liberty Classroom Blog.