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Book: The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: Volume I

image Author: Jefferson Davis
Started: 25 Jun 2005
Finished: 22 Nov 2005
604p / 151d
4 p/d

This is the first half of a two volume explaination and justification of the Confederacy by the first and only President of the Confederate States of America written a number of years after the end of the Civil War. A long time ago now… I think when I was still in New Jesey, not even Pennsylvania, definately not in Florida… I saw this at a book store and made one of my fairly rare book purchases NOT from Amazon. They had both volumes, but I thought I would start with one.

I’d always been facinated by the idea of history from the view of the losers, and also with first hand perceptions rather than historical analysis. I saw it on the shelf and I just instantly wanted it. It had lots of pages. Lost of pages with dense type. Lots of pages with dense type consisting of verbose 19th century prose. Lots of pages with dense type consisting of verbose 19th century prose by a historical figure I knew suprisingly little about. I wanted it.

So I bought it. Years later it finally came to the front of my shelf pof books to read. (Of course, that was partially because many books that had been on that shelf are still in boxes). So I started it.

It was indeed dense. Some portions you really had to slog through, but from the very first chapters I was absolutely facinated. He starts with a recap of the adoption of the original articles of confederation and then the replacement of them by the constitution. With some detail on the ratification process, and the fact that most of the states in their retifications included specific language about how adopting the constitution did NOT imply a loss of sovereignty on the part of the states, but rather was a voluntary delegation of certain powers.

If you have known me long, or read certain of my posts here, you know that I am very retro in my views of federalism in general. I think that the change to the popular election of Senators rather than having them appointed by state legislators that happened ealry last century was a mistake. I think that the electoral college should operate as originally intended and be a deliberative body where the electors are elected (or appointed) before any candidates for president even exist (let alone having electors commit in advance to a specific candidate) and then having the electors actually decide on the spot when they vote in January who they will be voting for. I think that the 10th amendment is by far the most important of the bill of rights and should not be the completely ignored step-child that it is these days. I believe that we would be better off if the states really did live up to their name and act as essentially independant sovereign entities rather than essentially provinces of a strong central government… and as such almost all domestic issues should be decided on the state level and not the federal level… and I am also very literalist in interpretation of the constituation and various laws. I’m not big on the idea of “interpreting” beyond the actual text, aside from perhaps being knowledgeable of the changes in linguistic usage between when whatever it was was written and the current day… I almost always think that following the correct process is more important than acheiving the correct results… and I’ve always thought it a very strange thing the notion that states did NOT have the right to exit the union if they ever decided to.

Having said all that, I found myself VERY sympathetic to most of the arguments made by Mr. Davis in the first half or so of the book. (The part covering the events before the actual start of the Civil War.) He makes a very strong case for the legality of sucession given the constitution, the nature of the situation surrounding the original creation of the constitution, etc. And I tend to agree with him. I must admit, I have not read or examined beyond skimming, Texas v. White the 1869 post-Civil War Supreme Court Decision that officially decided that states indeed did not have the right to leave the Union, essentially ratifying the actions of the Lincoln administration after the fact. There may be some compelling arguments there, and I do look forward to eventually doing more reading on the other side of the question.

This of course does NOT mean I favor the South’s opinion on slavery of course. I found it very interesting the lengths Mr. Davis went through to avoid that issue in his writings. (Although more explicit references were made in some of his speeches quoted in the Appendices.) He dispenses with it in the very early chapters essentially saying while it was the trigger issue that exposed the sectional differences leading up to the war, what issue it was was essentially irrelevent, and that the fundamental issues were the larger ones of Federalism. Now… to some extent that still seems disingenous. If slavery hadn’t been the issue, then there might not have been an issue. In legal terms, the war was about the right of states to leave the union. But in practical terms, slavery was the real issue. The way in which Mr. Davis time after time refered to the rights of sothern people to move to the territories with “their property” was disturbing and really in and of itself provided a glimpse into the mindset.

Of course, one argument could be made that even if the states had the right to leave the union, because the slaves were not represented in the state governments or conventions that decided to leave, the actions were null and void because they were not made by a legitimate representation of the people of those states. Of course, by that argument, none of the other states or the US federal government was legitimate either since women were not allowed the vote, not to mention other disenfranchised groups. I don’t think that argument goes.

One could argue that whatever the constitutional legalities, the north had a MORAL obligation higher than the legal obligations to bring the south inline and end the institution of slavery. But by those rights, would not that obligation extend outside the boundaries of the US too? To me it seems clear that the course of action that would have done the right thing legally, but still addressed the moral concerns would have been to acknoledge the right of states to leave the union. Let the south go and become an independant country… and THEN declare war on them. War could be justified because of the moral slavery issue, and also because a large slave holding country controlling access to the Mississippi River would be a threat to security of the country.

So give them their independance, then declare war, then invade and take over, hold as a protectorate or whatnot, then eventually if the north felt like it, allow them to be readmitted as states again. In terms of actual results, this is essentially what happened anyway, but just describing it and wording it a bit differently, and doing things in such a way that you would not have to put strange warped glasses on in order to try to read the constitution in such a way that would not allow the South to leave. And also without in the process of the war allowing other violations of constitutional rights and in general a huge expansion of Federal power and the dramatic destruction of many of the most important concepts of Federalism. (Many of the rest were eroded over the many years since… we have very little of it left at this point… I constantly listen to the news and wonder if ANY of the people involved in any of the three federal branches ever paid attention in civics class when the reasoning behind the development of the US Constitution was covered…)

Or, another possibility, with an admitedly modern flair… let them go, do not declare war, but use tools such as economic sanctions and international pressure. Just due to the way the world economy was developing, slavery most likely would have collasped as an instituation within a few generations anyway… add a little covert action to support underground railroad type missions, support slave insurrections, etc, and you just accelerate that. Once again, without blatantly ignoring the Constitution and Federalist principals.

Anyway… I found that whole part about the detailed events surrounding the year or two immediately before the start of hostilities in the Civil War increadibly facinating. I just had never really studied it before, and this was a very detailed and well written chronology of what happened. (Admittedly from a VERY biased and one-sdied point of view.) And it actually gave some interesting information I just didn’t know about the time between the Article of Confederation and the Constitution as well. For instance, that after the last government under the Confederation and even after the first government under the new Consitution, North Carolina and Rhode Island were both fully independant because the Confederation was no more, but they had not yet ratified the new Constitution? The length of time was not hugely long, but it wasn’t mere days or weeks either. In the interum both states sent Ambassadors to the new Government of the US as foreign entities. I find that kind of thing facinating.

Anyway… the part after the war started was a lot less interesting to me. It started to be about supply chain management and battles and Mr. Davis basically explaining why all the military mistakes made by the South and the deficiencies in their ability to fend off the North were not his fault. Yawn!

The book was slow going. I averaged only 4 pages a day. Because unlike a nice lightweight novel, I had to really be in a nice quiet place where I could concentrate for more than a couple minutes at a time to read it. This was not a book I could read while other things were going on around me. I really had to concentrate on reading. So I’d read a few pages or a chapter, but then it might be a week or more until I picked up the book again. It was even more the one time I left the book at a hotel and after calling their lost and found for awhile unsuccessfully had to order a new one.

Anyway, the war stuff is less interesting, but I still very much want to get Volume II and read it too. Not so much for the rest of the military events leading up to the defeat of the South, but to hear some of what Davis has to say about reconstruction, another time period about which I know a lot less than I wish I knew.

I’d also like to put on my reading list some contemporanous accounts of this whole period from the perspective of prominant Northern politicians… obviously Lincoln didn’t live long enough to write up his perspectives, but I’m sure there are more than a few things that were written at the time by folks on the Union side that would be equally as facinating as this volume by Jefferson Davis. Again, not looking for military stuff, couldn’t care less about the battles and such, and I’m not looking for historical overviews written in the 20th and 21st centuries, but rather writings by the people who actually lived it, most particularly from the political side of things.

Love this stuff.

And I loved this book. It was just very facinating, instructive, and thought provoking. The best combination!

Anyway… I’m guessing this is long enough and nobody has actually read this far, so I guess I will stop now. :-)

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