Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, who would go on to become president of the confederate states during the Civil War, was no stranger to New England.
A firebrand and die-hard defender of the south and all its traditions – including slavery – Davis twice traveled to New England in the 1850s. The first trip came in 1853. Davis visited the region in his official capacity as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce to tour military installations.
Both trips were designed to escape the south’s summer heat, but Davis’ second visit was also to help him restore his health and perhaps steer the nation away from war.
Gracious Maine: Jefferson Davis in New England
Davis left Baltimore for Boston aboard a steamer on July 3, 1858. After an overnight stop in the city, he caught a second steamer to Portland.
His tour of Maine included a stop at the home of General Henry Knox in Thomaston, a trip to Lead Mountain and a stop in Belfast to review a state militia meeting. In Brunswick – once home of abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe – he was honored with an honorary degree. And in Portland, he agreed to address the Cumberland County Democractic Convention.
Davis was quite an attraction. The Republican press had vilified Davis and his extreme views as a man of the “ultra south.” Crowds in New England who came to see him might well have expected a raving tyrant. What they got was a smooth, elegant southern gentleman with impeccable manners and exotic green-tinted glasses to protect his eyes.
Davis was largely blind in one eye due to an persistent infection, which he hoped the moderate northern climate would help him ease.
At the Democratic Convention in Portland, he sounded a note of conciliation. Were the differences between north and south really so great as to demand a war;
“Shall narrow interests, shall local jealousies, shall disregard for the high purposes for which our union was ordained, continue to distract our people and impede the progress of our government towards the high consummation which prophetic statesmen have so often indicated as her destiny?”
“No, No, No,” the crowd thundered in reply.
As he began his return journey home in October, Davis stopped again in Massachusetts. He toured Daniel Webster’s Marshfield homestead.
Charles G. Greene, founder and editor of Boston Post, hosted a reception for Davis on Sat Oct. 16 and he socialized with prominent Massachusetts’ democrats, such as Caleb Cushing.
Republican Nathaniel Banks was governor of Massachusetts at the time of Davis’ visit. Banks was a moderate Republican who had won support of Massachusetts’ fervent abolitionists in part by firing Judge Edward Loring. Loring had enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, which required northern states to return escaped slaves to the south rather than grant them asylum.
On October 11, Davis addressed the state Democratic Convention held at Faneuil Hall to nominate Erasmus Beach to run for governor against Banks. (He would fail in the general election).
Again, Davis sounded his somewhat conciliatory tone. He defended slavery. And he called it an issue of state’s rights. (Though he didn’t extend the states’ rights argument to the right to grant asylum to escaped slaves.)
But he crafted a message designed as music to the ears of New Englanders wary of war. Was Massachusetts, home of John Hancock and Samuel Adams, really ready to discard all that the country had achieved over these regional disagreements?
Jefferson Davis, Peacemaker?
He sang the praises of John Hancock for snubbing President George Washington when the president visited the commonwealth in 1789. Hancock had asserted that the governor of each state should be of superior rank to the president in matters of protocol.
Davis reserved his harshest criticism for the abolitionists, painting them as bent on destroying the country. “The political agitator, like the vampire, fans the victim to which he clings but to destroy,” he said.
In summation, Davis said he hoped that those hoping to split the nation would not succeed.
“Why, then, I would ask, do we see these lengthened shadows, which follow in the course of our political day? Is it because the sun is declining to the horizon? Are they the shadows of evening; or are they, as I hopefully believe, but the mists which are exhaled by the sun as it rises, but which are to be dispersed by its meridian splendor?”
Davis, in his speeches, stressed that the differences between the south and north were not so great as to require a split. But he never said exactly what compromise he supported to avert it, leaving the listener to form his own conclusions.
Eruption in the South
In the north, moderates might well be persuaded that Davis’ position was softening, that he was suggesting an end to slavery might be acceptable for the preservation of the union. That interpretation was pleasing to some.
In the South, the Davis’ visit to New England was viewed as something like treason.
The Charleston Mercury in South Carolina declared Davis was a “Union Mormon.” It said “Jefferson Davis we know is no more.”
Davis needed to harden his rhetoric and in November of 1858, he did so. In a speech to the Mississippi legislature, he declared that the south must secede if an abolitionist were to be elected president.
“I love the flag of my country with even more than a filial affection,” he said. “I glory in the position which Mississippi’s star holds in the group; but sooner than see its lustre dimmed—sooner than see it degraded from its present equality—would tear it from its place to be set even on the perilous ridge of battle as a sign round which Mississippi’s best and bravest should gather to the harvest-home of death.”
This story about Jefferson Davis in New England was updated in 2023.