Jefferson Davis' Inaugural Address: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:06 Presidential Voices of…
  • 0:55 Jefferson Davis Sets the Tone
  • 2:53 Lincoln's Inaugural Address
  • 4:21 Gettysburg Address
  • 5:38 Lincoln's Second…
  • 6:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jayme Clune

Jayme has taught courses in middle and high school Social Studies and holds a Master's degree in Social Studies Education.

Learn about how Jefferson Davis's views on liberty, equality, government, and union compared to the beliefs of Abraham Lincoln as expressed in their various public addresses during the Civil War.

Presidential Voices of the Civil War

'Four score and seven years ago. . .' Almost all Americans have heard these opening words spoken by President Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address in 1863. Some of you may have even recited them in grade school. But how many of you can quote an excerpt from a speech given by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy? Although perhaps not as famous as Lincoln, Jefferson Davis' words still play an important role in American history. In this lesson, we will briefly examine how Jefferson Davis expressed his views on liberty, equality, union, and government in his first inaugural address. We will then compare those views with President Lincoln as stated in his two inaugural addresses and Gettysburg Address.

Jefferson Davis Sets the Tone

In February of 1861, just two months before the official start of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis delivered his inaugural address to the Confederacy as its new leader. Seven Southern states had already seceded, or broken away, from the United States and formed the Confederacy. Davis argued that the North oppressed the South through its disapproval of slavery, a practice vital to its economy and culture. He even compared the Confederacy's fight to defend its way of life as a revolutionary act, similar to how the colonies rebelled against the control of Great Britain back in the Revolutionary War. He described how it is 'the right of the people to alter or abolish' (get rid of) the government at will 'whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established.' In other words, Davis justified the South's decision to secede by arguing that the Constitution allows oppressed citizens to rise up against the government.

Jefferson Davis believed the union of the United States was formed by loose bonds that could be broken if necessary. In his opinion, the country's power rested in the individual states, and not in a strong central government. Davis believed that because the North was restricting the rights of the Southern states, secession was 'a necessity, not a choice.' In his address, he did not embrace the North's demands for a reunion of states, which he described as 'neither practicable nor desirable.' Davis helped set up a new government in the Confederacy, with the goal of making it similar to the United States. For example, the Confederacy had an executive branch modeled on the U.S.'s, which was in charge of a postal service, making foreign trades, and overseeing the military. The constitutions of each government were similar as well, with a key difference that the Constitution of the Confederacy guaranteed the right to own slaves.

Lincoln's Inaugural Address

On March 4, 1861, Lincoln spoke to a crowd gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol after being sworn in as President. Lincoln recognized how crucial this first inaugural address would be to the Southern states considering secession. He directed his words at convincing them that he was not their enemy, but a friend. On the topics of liberty and equality his message was clear: he did not want to abolish slavery in the South. Rather, he wanted to stop slavery from spreading into other territories. He told the crowd, 'I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.' Lincoln hoped that he could prevent the conflict from escalating by taking a peaceful approach on the divisive issue of slavery.

Remember how Davis argued that it was a necessity for the South to leave the union? Well, Lincoln disagreed. Lincoln viewed the United States as a collection of states held together by an unbreakable bond. 'The union of these states is perpetual,' or permanent, he declared. 'Physically speaking we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other.' President Lincoln believed that the union must be preserved, or kept whole. According to this view, he believed the Southern states could not legally leave the union. Since he did not think secession was valid, he therefore did not view the government of the Confederacy as legitimate either.

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