Jefferson Davis’ and Abraham Lincoln: Dueling inaugural addresses

On February 1861, former U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis took to a podium for his presidential inauguration and gave an impassioned speech about the constitution. Three weeks later, Abraham Lincoln did likewise, to very different results.

Davis was a pro-slavery and state’s rights advocate from Mississippi. He had served as Secretary of War for Franklin Pierce and then returned to the Senate, where he was a vocal supporter of state’s rights. He quit after Lincoln’s election saying “we are about to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us.”

On February 4, 1861, six states that had left the Union called their own constitutional convention and proclaimed Davis as provisional president of the Confederate States of America.

Davis, spoke at the Alabama capitol in Montgomery on February 18, 1861, about the virtues of the new constitution which he claimed was in tune with the 1787 Constitution written in Philadelphia and was in accord with the Declaration of Independence. He argued that the confederate states had no choice but to form their own constitution after the actions of the federal government. The six states had “merely asserted a right which the Declaration of Independence of 1776 had defined to be inalienable; of the time and occasion for its exercise, they, as sovereigns, were the final judges, each for itself,” he argued.

Several weeks later Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural speech. Lincoln referenced famous speeches and the constitution. He had been working on his speech since his election in November 1860, working with William Seward to hone his message. Lincoln concluded his epic address with, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

A month later, the Civil War started and on February 22, 1862, Davis gave a second inaugural address after winning election under the permanent Confederate constitution. He continued with the theme that it was the United States government that was unconstitutional and the confederate government had acted in concert with the Founders.

Source: Jefferson Davis’ and Abraham Lincoln: Dueling inaugural addresses
National Constitution Center, Constitution Daily

Back to top