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 BHS and co-director of Students and Faculty in the Archives, BHS's landmark post-secondary educational program.
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