The Emancipation Proclamation: Jefferson Davis Responds

In conjunction with a current exhibit, the Brooklyn Historical Society blog is featuring a series of blog posts called “The Emancipation Proclamation: Americans Respond.” Learn more here.

It should not surprise readers that the President of the Confederate States of America did not respond positively to the Emancipation Proclamation.

In a long and florid speech to the Confederate Congress on January 13, 1863, President Jefferson Davis portrayed the proclamation as a crime against humanity that would be decried and reviled throughout history.

“We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellow-men of all countries to pass judgment on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation ‘to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.’ Our own detestation of those who have attempted by the most excrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by a profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses.  …”

Several things are notable about Davis’s speech. First, to Jefferson Davis and other proponents of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation was a de facto call for slave rebellion. This sentiment was also echoed in the north by Copperheads and other critics of emancipation.

Armed rebellions were actually relatively uncommon in the antebellum American south as compared to other slave societies. But events like Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion and, of course, John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry lived in infamy among slaveholders and their supporters. The violent Haitian Revolution, which began with a slave revolt and ended the establishment of the black-led Republic of Haiti in 1804, terrified the slaveowning classes, especially in black-majority areas like South Carolina.

To tie emancipation to violent rebellion, Davis quoted one line from Lincoln’s proclamation – “to abstain from violence unless in necessary self defense.” Davis implied that this is tantamount to endorsing black-on-white violence in the Confederacy.

This endorsement of self-protection and personal self-determination was a very radical statement for Lincoln to make considering the centuries during which slaveowners were granted physical control over their chattel. Today, we can look to this clause to reflect how far Lincoln had come from his much more hesitant criticisms of slavery, including his previous endorsement of gradual manumission and of colonization.

Finally, Davis dramatically declared that the Emancipation Proclamation “doom[ed]” black Americans “to extermination.” Davis’ belief in the inferiority of African Americans was so great that he believed that emancipation would only disrupt their “peaceful and contented” lives, leading to their inevitable demise. Whether this would occur over a longer period time, or whether emancipation would prompt this extermination at the hands of white slaveowners defending themselves during a slave insurrection remained unclear.

What is of course most important is just how mistaken Davis was. Enslaved people did leave plantations in large numbers after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. But they rarely acted violently, and instead chose to head towards the United States Army to contribute their labor to something new: the Union cause. That, of course, created new opportunities for inequality. But that is a subject for another post.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Address to the Confederate Congress, January 12, 1863; Journal of Confederate Congress, Volume 3, pages 13-14.

Julie Golia

About Julie Golia

Julie Golia is the Director of Public History at Brooklyn Historical Society and co-host of BHS's podcast, Flatbush + Main.
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6 Responses to The Emancipation Proclamation: Jefferson Davis Responds

  1. Pingback: Today is Different: A Result of the Emancipation Proclamation – The Antebellum Times

  2. Keren Tolbert says:

    David, I agree with you that the Constitution did not then and perhaps today does not specifically forbade secession, but the act of the individual colony leaders sending delegates to a convention to draft a formal agreement to form a nation, a country, from those colonies is a contract. The ratification of that contract was the ‘planting of that germ’ to create a new entity above which none of the old parts could usurp or over throw without vitiating the contract, which by the spirit of it would remain in perpetuity. Any attempt by any thing, foreign or domestic, to alter the relationship is considered an attack on that union, and the thing is considered an enemy. All the secessionists states made themselves thus, not the least of which they were in collusion formally when Fort Sumter was fired upon by the armed forces of SC.
    As for Booth, you imply here a ‘legal’ precedent for killing Presidents.

  3. John Remington Graham says:

    This essay reeks with the prejudices of political correctness, which is an exaggeration of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” theory of the American Civil War. But say what you want about Davis’ condemnation of the emancipation proclamation on January 13, 1863, he predicted calamity would result, and explained why, whereupon one million slaves, one out of four then living in the Southern States, died of starvation and disease. This mass genocide disproves the fatuous claim that the war was a holy crusade to free the slaves, and it proves that slavery, as and when it fluorished in the Southern States, was a civilized necessity. It proves that slavery was a civilized necessity, the same as villeinage, under which white Anglo-Saxon labor worked under involuntary servitude in England after the Norman Conquest until about the founding of Jamestown, was also a civilized necessity. And we dare not judge these civilized necessities by contemporary standards. — John Remington Graham of the Minnesota Bar (#3664X)

  4. U says:

    When the fort was fired upon, confederates relinquished their “rights” at targeted themselves.

  5. David says:

    Lincoln’s Violations of the U.S. Constitution

    Did you realize it was the Union that was being the traitor to the Constitution?

    I apologize up front for truthful, accurate, factual posts here that may hurt any Lincoln fan’s feelings.

    Secession of states was not prohibited by the US Constitution at that time. Therefore it was completely legal.

    #1 Lincoln ordered the military blockade of Southern ports.

    This an act of war. Only Congress can do that. At that time Lincoln certainly violated the US Constitution.

    #2 Lincoln ordered hundreds of Northern newspapers who dared to speak out against him to be shut down. And their owners and editors were arrested for disloyalty.

    This is a clear violation of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution that Lincoln swore to uphold.

    #3 Lincoln ordered the arrest of Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham for the crime of speaking out against him. Can you imagine that?

    #4 Ex parte Merryman,

    Chief Justice of the US Roger Taney, sitting as a judge of the United States Circuit Court for the District of Maryland, ruled that Lincoln had violated the US Constitution when he illegally suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus.

    After hearing this Lincoln signed an arrest warrant to have the Chief Justice of the US arrested.

    #5 US Constitution Article lll…

    Section 3. Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them.

    Lincoln committed treason.

    Lincoln waged war upon his own country. Unless one considers secession legal and the Confederacy was a sovereign nation.

    #6 Lincoln sent Union troops door to door in areas of Maryland, a Union state, to confiscate weapons.

    This is a clear violation of the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution.

    Many Constitutional violations against Maryland

    ‘Maryland my Maryland’ was published calling Lincoln a tyrant and a despot and a vandal. Lincoln as already mentioned, trashed the Constitution by suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus and sending troops door to door confiscating weapons in areas of Maryland. Maryland was a Union state. Lincoln ordered the arrest of thousands Marylanders for the crime of ‘suspected Southern sympathies’. Lincoln ordered the arrest of US Congressman Henry May representing Maryland.

    #7 Lincoln also had arrested…

    Most of the Maryland State Legislature

    #8 Most of the Baltimore city council

    #9 The police commissioner of Baltimore

    #10 The mayor of Baltimore

    #11 Thousands of prominent Maryland citizens.

    #12 These people were arrested and held in Military prisons, without trial, some of them for years.

    This trashing of the Constitution upset many Marylanders. One of them was named Booth.

    Committing so many crimes against Maryland would eventually cause one of it’s citizens John W. Booth to take matters into his own hands.


    April 25 1861, When it looks as though Maryland may secede from the Union, Lincoln sends a letter to General Winfield Scott giving him permission to bombard Maryland’s Cities.

    This war criminal Lincoln couldn’t wait to bombard innocent civilians. We call that Terrorism these days.

    #13 Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation.

    This is a direct violation of the US Constitution and the US Supreme Courts decision on the matter.

    #14 The Lincoln administration allowed the taking of private property for public use without just compensation or due process of law. This is a clear violation of the 5th Amendment. A prime example is the Union army stealing Robert E Lees home, Arlington House, which they used as Headquarters.

    Since dead Union soldiers were stacking up like cordwood, they started burying them in Lee’s yard. There were so many Union soldiers graves here, this was to become Arlington National Cemetery.

    #15 The Lincoln Administration routinely used water torture against the thousands of Union prisoners arrested and jailed without trail. This violates the 8th Amendment, “Cruel and unusual punishment”.

    #16 Lincoln was Commander-in-Chief of an Army whose invasion of the South resulted in the deaths of 50,000 Southern civilians.

    I do not defend that Slavery was a good thing. Clearly it was not. But these were different times. Remember what America did to the Native Indians? Also keep in mind that even while the civil war was going and the North had supposedly Freed the slaves, they still allowed slavery in the State of PA until the slave turned the age of 28. Also keep in mind many of our Presidents and Union Generals owned Slaves. I can appreciate the anger and resentment of Black folks today. But we should not desecrate the rebel flag that so many men fought for in their minds to liberate the South from an invading North.

  6. Miles says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s astonishing to read statements like this and reflect on just how badly Jefferson Davis and the other Confederates misjudged everything around them. They thought they could beat the yankees; they couldn’t. They thought Europe would recognize them; they didn’t. They thought the north would rebel against Lincoln; it didn’t. They thought other countries would condemn Lincoln as the aggressor and come down on their side because of their cotton; no such thing ever happened. They thought, as in this quote, that “common humanity” would agree with them, when in fact common humanity saw them as barbarians. It’s hard to think of a historical parallel of a people so serially misled.

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