Jefferson Davis and the War of Conflicting Visions

By January 1, 1970Blog


leader of a second, alternative American Republic founded in this land, died a hundred years ago in New Orleans and received the largest and most impressive funeral ever held—before or since—in the South.

When he died in 1889, President Davis was 81 years old. He had suffered, in the 25 years since the end of the Confederate States of America, a long campaign of abuse and mistreatment.

Only toward the end of his life did a reconciliation between the South and the North begin to appear.

This reconciliation was attempted by the generation that matured after the great War between the two American Republics. Part of this generation was Southern, and represented the real Lost Generation: heirs of the Confederacy who matured during the Occupation of what Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens called ” the conquered provinces.”

This generation found its family fortunes destroyed and its prospects darkened by not only the Reconstruction, but by the nature of the new, Northern order. Young Southerners poured West—where there was land to create new cities and new lives. But they could not escape the Reconstruction.

Those who remained in the South experienced the Reconstruction at first hand. Their political rights were destroyed in favor of a minority. Northerners took command of their schools, their voting polls, their economy and their society.

It would be a mistake to believe that the Reconstruction affected only the South. The fact is, that the postwar Congress took charge of the nation and completely changed its economy, social order and political rules. Northern states that had not previously allowed minorities to vote were forced to do so. Freight rates between the States were set to favor New England. The Western agitation that arose later—the Grange and the Populist Movement and so on—was based on resentment of this favoritism.

All this changed the country after the war. We haven’t the time to describe that
great collision between the two Republics: to mourn over 600,000 deaths and over 400,000 recorded casualties—the battles and the generals, the victories and defeats. Let it suffice that it was the greatest of our wars—and the greatest of our defeats.

We haven’t the time to marvel at how the Confederate States of America created a Constitutional Government in the midst of war; established its own currency and institutions, conducted debates, sent diplomats abroad, raised armies and a Navy, created new industries and conducted elections.

All we can say is that the leaders of the Confederate States of America main-

tained the highest traditions of this nation. Had the Confederacy endured, Americans today would have a choice so inviting that I believe the North today would be depopulated.

But the Confederate Republic was not defeated alone. The defeat was not that of one side but of both sides. Both republics lost, because the issue was whether a State, as originally conceived, would remain free to select its own constitution and style, associated in a common culture, linked by common ideals and a common Constitution—or whether a new Government, created by the heirs of the Revolution, would subdue the traditions of both North and South, and create a
new, centralized authority.

The South understood that. That was why a new, alternative Republic was formed, and why its people fought so stubbornly. The North did not understand that—until after the war was over. Then the great changes began; changes that continue today.

After the war, the treatment of President Davis revealed the nature of the new regime better than words can convey. President Davis was forced into a dungeon, shackled hand and foot, his sleep deliberately disrupted by guards who marched heavily back and forth under lights that were never extinguished. Only
after months of such abuse did his privations diminish. The shackles were first removed from his ankles and then from his wrists. After fwyears, the Abolitionists slowly and reluctantly—like dogs letting go of a bone —allowed President Davis to be released to await trial. A trial that never took place.

I use the term “Abolitionists” deliberately, because that is who they were. Most historians today call the men who controlled the postwar Congress “Radical Republicans.”

That’s a semantic trick, to trick people into thinking that the Abolitionists vanished from the political stage when the war ended. Not at all. The postwar 

Congress was controlled by Abolitionists. It was Abolitionists who created the Republican party who staffed the big metropolitan newspapers of the North, who gained control of the large Northern universities, publishing houses and State Houses. These were the men who destroyed the Missouri Compromise, who raged against the Black Hawk and Mexican Wars, and who hated the first American Republic.
The North’s desire, only partially revealed by the Abolition-ist argument, was for a central, all-powerful authority that would enforce social equality, eliminate all State and regional diversity, reduce the Church and enlarge the power of Government over every individual life—in the name of Compassion and Justice.
It sounded wonderful. All inequities would vanish by becoming illegal. All differences would end by law. All discussion would end in the rule of the Transcendentalists. In the hands of the Secret Six, who were friends of Emerson and Thoreau and other Abolitionists, this program first used Propaganda, and then Terror.

The Propaganda started in the 1850s. When President Franklin Pierce was in the White House and Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War. Webster, Clay and Calhoun were gone; a new generation was on the stage. President Pierce was an athletic 48; Jefferson Davis was 44—and the ablest man in the President’s Cabinet. Both were traditionalists.

The Northern press foamed and raged against both these men and their attempt to govern according to traditional principles. The Pierce Administration was wrecked by a combination of Propaganda and Terror.

The Propaganda centered on the situ-

ation in Kansas, where no black people were allowed, and where a new State was being organized. Senator Douglas argued that all issues could be settled by peaceful votes. But his hope was lost when violence erupted in the Territory.


A he Abolitionists sent in guns, men —and printing presses. Reporters appeared from New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. The high speed press and Penny papers had just come onstream. Telegraph wires had just been strung across the plains. Events in Kansas were telegraphed to New York in minutes and appeared in headlines in hours. The northern journalists, looking for action, color and quotes (printed sound bites, so to speak) found John Brown and his men, who murdered peaceful settlers in the name, they said, of black freedom.

By 1856 the Northern press made
Brown a national hero. He had arrived in Kansas bringing Abolitionist rifles. When he left he was on an Abolitionist payroll. He provided the Terror, and the northern media provided the Propaganda that makes terror seem noble to the naive. The Secret Six provided the money.

There you have the formula we know so well today. Its ingredients are simple. They consist first of a murderer, coldheart-ed enough to kill innocent, unarmed people in the name of a noble Cause. Then add journalists who describe such murders as noble—in the name of the Cause. And finally, provide money from men anxious to promote that Cause. And you have political terror, made in the USA.

Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War when the Terror appeared, Secretary of War, close friend and advisor to President Franklin Pierce. The press then and later historians darkened the image of that President and that advisor: they were on
the wrong side of the revolution.

For it was a revolution. It was not a crusade. It was not mounted out of brotherly love. It was a revolution that used, in its course, what Dr. R.J. Rushdoony unforgettably calls “The Politics 0/ Guilt and Pity.”

The revolution continued through the Buchanan Administration with increasing success. Not official success, but success in the press; success in creating violence. Jefferson Davis became a United States Senator from Mississippi. He watched as the agitation and violence increased.

Then in the Autumn of 1859, a startling event occurred. An attack on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, designed to provoke and arm an uprising. Violence had moved from Kansas to the South itself; to the heart of Virginia, led by a mass murderer in the pay, and acting under the inspiration, of six New England Abolitionists: The Secret Six. 

The nation was, at first, appalled. Then, as Brown awaited execution, the newspapers of the North began to change his image. His courtroom speeches, heavy with Biblical quotes, were made the subjects of editorials and sermons. Within a month Brown was regarded not as a murderer, but as martyr. When he was hanged, Northern buildings were draped in black crepe, funeral marches were held, sermons were mounted and men wept.

The South watched in horror. It became terribly clear that the North had been turned in favor of massacres in the South—in the name of a noble cause. Southern Senators and Representatives came to Washington during Secession Winter-carrying guns and knives for selfprotection. For they knew that Harpers Terry—after all those eulogies —would inspire more attacks, more raids, more murders, more efforts to incite desperate actions.

But a new President had been elected, and Jefferson Davis waited to see what Lincoln would do. Some said later the South should have relied on its Washington Representatives to frustrate a minority President. But the fact was that votes and words were no longer enough. Propaganda promoting Terror had

In Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, he said that the South could peacefully secede and that no force would be used against it. Slavery was not an issue. He said, “We will collect the duties and imposts, but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no use of force against or among the people anywhere.”

In other words, you can leave, but we’ll continue to collect taxes from a tariff upon all your incoming goods. That was a trigger, and the gun was complete.

Of course, that was all a long time ago. When Jefferson Davis was elected President of the second American Republic, he stood at the apex of a remarkable career; a career crowned with success in every venture he undertook; a career loaded with honors and prestige. But, as one of the ancient Greeks said, “Count no man happy while he yet lives.” The last 25 years of President Davis’ life were darkened by many difficulties. Even in his eighties he struggled to support his family. On his deathbed he said, “It may seem strange to you that a man of my age should desire to live, but I do. There are still some things that I have to do in this world.”

What good does it do, after all these
years, to recall the last times of Jefferson Davis? To revive Lincoln’s role in creating a conflict; to revive the bitter days of a vanished generation?

After all, that war is long over; the Union was restored by force of arms. The alternative Republic is gone. Today there are those who would deny even its brief existence: who would forbid its flag from being flown or remembered; its dead from being honored, its leaders from being praised.

But in reality that past in not dead.

The past is dead only when it ceases to influence the present. The truth is that the issues and the tactics that once tore this nation apart and that led to a second American Republic, remain alive today.

Immediately after the war between the two American Republics, Congress seized control of the Northern nation. Thaddeus Stevens said that an amnesty on the South would lead to Southern control of the White House and Congress. It was essential, therefore, to disenfranchise the South and empower the Southern minority to vote Republican. That would ensure Northern control for the foreseeable future – and so it proved.

Long after that there was, of course, a period of reconciliation—or resignation.

The last of the veterans of the Confed-erate and Union veterans passed away when I was a young man. A new generation appeared who accepted the new order as something natural. The States gradually declined in importance. Their diversities were reduced.

The differences between the South and the North were accepted by mutual consent. The heirs of the Abolition created vast New England fortunes, controlled the Government, promoted Prohibition, Public Education and other Causes they made famous.

By the late Thirties these seemed insufficient. By a process difficult to define, old disputes came to be studied and revived. It is as though some group somewhere, somehow, looked at this nation and said, it was once split in half.

“Suppose it split again, on the old issues of race and rights, and Constitutional versus arbitrary Government?”

In the usual indirect manner by which such enterprises are launched, the Carnegie Corporation was persuaded to 

put up a large sum of money, and various university and political liberals were contacted, including Doxie Wilkerson of the U.S. Communist Party. The Swedish social economist Gunnar Myrdal was commissioned and a study was launched under the title of The American Dilemma.

This study focused on the remaining inequalities of position between the majority and the largest minority in this land. It appeared in two dense volumes in 1944, when we were involved in World War II. Only academic reviewers noticed it. But those two volumes ticked away like a clock tied to a bomb.

After World War II, books began to appear reviving The War Between the States. Long streams of them came into publication. In addition to histories of battles and people, biographies, Sandburg’s Lincoln—a sort of newspaper version—came out to great rollings of the drums. The figures of the New England Abolitionists reappeared. Theodore Parker, Gerrit Smith and others became the subjects of new biographies. John Brown was held aloft again, and tears were shed all over again about his hanging, his nobility, and his efforts—with only passing references to his murders.


X JkJl these books, like so many matches, emerged to light little fires in the mind of the nation. In Academia the Gunnar Myrdal project provided the raw material for studies and surveys and Governmental programs and lectures and films and conversation. All this preparation was made during the late 1940s and early 1950s, in an eerie replay of the arguments of the 1850s. The attitudes and the arguments of the 1850s were revived—as though we had learned nothing from the greatest and most diverse of our wars. As though The Confederate States of America had never existed; as though the original Constitution of this nation had never been twisted by the practitioners of the politics of Guilt and Pity.

f course we recall Little Rock, and Ole Miss, and rulings of the Supreme Court; the National Guard and the editorials and the marches and the demonstrations and
the riots and the deaths and the violence. Propaganda and Violence.

Once again, the Reconstruction. The elimination of States’ voting rights. Once again, the use of Washington to enter the schools not only of the South, but of the Midwest and the West and even, this time, the North. Once again minority votes were added to those of the modem Abolitionists, to master the nation.

What President Jefferson Davis sought to keep from the South has now been planted across the nation. The revolution never stopped: it only paused to gather its fruits, and prepare for the next stage.

This time, unhappily, we do not have Jefferson Davis. But now we can see and understand the forces against which he rallied half the nation.

Now after all these years, we understand that the people of the 1860s did not war over minor issues, but over the principles of a free— versus a forced—civilization.

It was not really the tariff, nor slavery, nor even States’ Rights for which the South fought—so much as it fought for the right to be let alone; the right to change its own society at its own pace and at its own time, in the subtle and peaceful ways that
free societies have always changed.

For men do not war over issues: they

war over visions. The vision of America, the South, held aloft under Jefferson Davis, was of a free country: not a country forced to obey orders because someone said the goal was greater than the Constitution or the people.
These conflicting visions have not vanished: they were not buried with President Jefferson Davis. They live among us now.

It was the great error of the Abolitionists to refuse to believe in the goodwill and common sense of humanity.

They refused to allow Time to adjust the inevitable maladjustments of society. They refused to let people work matters out on their own.

The result of that refusal was a great and bloody war, and a nation physically crippled for generations. We are today in the midst of a second Reconstruction that is, once again, sowing seeds of division in the name of unity.


JLhe unsafe streets of the Reconstruction South are now unsafe cities across the nation in the second Reconstruction. The bitterness that separated people in the first Reconstruction has reappeared in the second.

It is not possible for us to say what lies ahead, nor is it within our power to say what should lie ahead. God does not permit men to see the future. We are left with the past, with its errors and triumphs, tests and results. We can only look back at our great men; at their examples of courage and truth. Among these, we count Jefferson Davis, President of a great though short-lived American Republic, and to pray that we can in at least some measure, be worthy heirs of this great fellow American.

Otto Scott

Otto Scott (1918 – 2006) was a journalist and author of corporate histories who also wrote biographies on notable figures such as the abolitionist John Brown, James I of England and Robespierre.

Leave a Reply