“Is there a president anywhere in the history of America as bad as George W. Bush? I believe there is. It is Jefferson Davis. He came from privilege. He wasn’t elected. And he marched thousands of young men to their death in a long war for immoral ends,” declares Chris Chandler of the Chandler and Roe political/musical duo in a rap he gives between songs—as he did recently at Berkeley’s La Pena night club.
Bush/Davis similarities are a topic among bloggers, one of whom asked, “Was Davis a better uniter than Bush?” to which another replied, “Davis only divided the nation in half. Bush busted it to pieces.”
Much discussion awaits on the topic of the similar abilities of Bush and the president of the Confederacy to act against the will of the majority. We saw in the November 2006 voting, in polls and in mass demonstrations, that Bush lacks a majority. He carries on, thanks to his rants and his shills who warn of the “terrorist threat,” in the manner of Davis and his crowd warning of the “Yankees” in the months leading to secession and the creation of the Confederacy.
Davis had far below a majority of Southerners with him in his crusade to save the South. For instance, 34 percent of Southerners in the 1860 census were African Americans, most of whom were enslaved. Unable to state their views in the 1860 presidential election, nor in the state conventions that voted for secession, blacks subsequently showed their support for Lincoln and the Union by marching off the slave plantations in numbers greater than even the numbers of anti-Bush marchers today. Once on the Northern side, a quarter million blacks served in the Union army, and many more were aides-de-camp, including black women, (women of either race were denied expression via votes and polls).
The people in Dixie in 1860 of basic European roots are stereotyped in some history texts as eager to protect “the Southern way of life” and “the rights of the white man.” But the Southern voters showed in November 1860, and in referendums and legislatures in the months after Lincoln’s victory, that a majority of whites were not enamored of the secession adventure pushed by Jefferson Davis. Regrettably, the evidence is often overshadowed by the success of Davis in forming a new country.
Great numbers of poor white farmers in the South lived in geographic areas apart from the slave economy and gave the system little support. For instance, in Virginia’s 1861 referendum on secession, the western counties of small farmer “hillbillies” voted 89% pro-Union. After the vote, West Virginia seceded from Virginia and was admitted to the Union as a “free state” in 1863.
Hill country whites in East Tennessee refused to join the Confederacy, and Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson, who was from their region, stood by the Union and northerners made him Lincoln’s running mate in the 1864 election.
The Confederates claimed that Kentucky and Missouri were two of their states. But almost all of their territory was run throughout the war by rival pro-Union legislatures that drew solid support from counties in those states where slaves were few.
In a number of states the declared votes in 1860-1861 were questionable. Georgia, for instance, joined the Confederacy after a popular referendum that allegedly gave a 56% majority for secession. But a recount conducted in 1972 found the non-secession vote in Georgia had a slim majority, one that might have been a larger except that data from some counties had been lost over the years.
Bush has step by step taken the nation into more dangerous territory, with a possible war against Iran looming. Southern secessionists stepped quickly to generate enough fear over the Republican Party nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 to keep Lincoln off the presidential ballot in ten states. And note, Abe was not an anti-slavery firebrand; he merely didn’t like the institution.
Featured in the 1860 election in the ten states was Stephen A. Douglas of the old Democratic Party, John Breckenridge of the new Southern Democratic Party (heralded by secessionists), and John Bell of the Constitutional Union party (the old Whig party that tried to be both pro-South and pro-Union). Breckinridge and Bell debated often and said little about the Republicans. One historian writes, “Neither of the two threatened secession, although they often challenged each other ... as to who was the more loyal to Southern rights and interests,”—shades of the Iraq debate today wherein no party seems willing to mention negotiation with the “insurgents.”
In November 1860 the Breckenridge party that fronted for separation took only 44.5 percent of the total popular vote in the future Confederate states, and this with Lincoln off most ballots and blacks excluded. Undaunted, as Bush is undaunted by this past November, the secessionists pressed for state conventions to vote secession up-or-down. In Texas, the aged Sam Houston was governor, and having helped Texas secede from Mexico, he wasn’t up for another secession. He vetoed the call for a convention. It was held anyway. In Georgia the Whig leader Alexander Stephens managed to delay a secession convention, but he changed his mind when Jeff Davis offered him the Vice Presidency in the Confederacy. Explaining his shift, Stephens declared that the “cornerstone” of the new government rested “upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
By early February the Confederacy had seven states across the deep South. Davis knew that any hope for a viable new nation required membership of states closer to the North. To entice them he needed an incident. He found it at Fort Sumpter, South Carolina. The state had seceded and its governor told the Union Army commander in the Fort that it was no longer U.S. territory and he and his men should withdraw. Col. Anderson refused to withdraw, and within weeks there was starvation in the ranks at the besieged Fort. Then Anderson told the Confederate authorities that he would abandon Ft. Sumpter on April 15. Davis learned of Anderson’s offer and ordered that the fort be fired upon on April 12, the reason being, that Lincoln had sent a supply ship South. Davis declared Lincoln had committed an act of war. Hysterical propaganda against the Northern aggression filled state houses and newspapers. Four more states joined the Confederacy.
In the propaganda world: a culture of greed helped Davis, as it helps Bush. Many a wavering Southern white in 1861 might have remained a Unionist were it not that Thomas Jefferson’s adage that success is your own farm had given way to the lure of slave plantation ownership. Davis asked Southern whites to stay in the economic crap shoot that offered the chance to become the one in 660 Southern white families that owned a plantation or the equivalent in wealth. Today, we see a shift from the “New Deal” infused post-World War II bonanza of cheap tract homes for the rising working class to the construction of enormous plantation-like mansions, some with white columns in front.
Davis and company stoked the fear of an influx of Northern life-style, with its dirty cities, corruption, uncontrolled women, and Godless Catholic and Jewish immigrants. Had 1860 immigrants worn turbans, Davis’ propaganda probably would have won him the war. Behind the complaints was envy. During the 1850s, the South fell year by year farther behind the North in industry, infrastructure, education, health care and overall modernization. In education, one of the first acts of the new West Virginia legislature was to fund a public school network—a mainstay in the North. Jeff Davis led pre-war Southern politicians who opposed taxes for public schools.
Regarding medical care: it was common in the Davis’ era for wealthy Southerners to go North for operations—what we call today “medical tourism.” From Georgia came William and Ellen Craft to the North, much of the distance by stage coach, in the absence of the train service that was then common in the North. Ellen grimaced at each bump of the coach, although the bandages covering her jaw were really not for an impacted tooth, but a disguise. She and William were slaves who escaped with the ruse that pale skinned untalkative Ellen was a male and the master of William, the servant who could decipher her nods.
Davis managed to create an autocratic government—so dictatorial that at one point Georgia threatened to secede back into the Union because of his heavy-handed tactics. Bush appears to be trying his best to replace our democracy. What’s to stop him? It took Abraham Lincoln’s armies to defeat Davis.