Speech of Jefferson Davis at the Portlant Democratic Convention, August 24, 1858
“Speech of Jefferson Davis at the Portland Convention,” from Jefferson Davis Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, collected and edited by Dunbar Rowland, Volume III, pages 284-288, printed for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Mississippi, 1923.
The theme of this speech was that the audience was superior because they maintained their white racial purity and Latin Americans hadn't and thus in Davis's opinion inferior and incapable of republican government. This theme was repeated in another speech Davis made in Maine and which is in the Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.
On Thursday, August 24th, 1858, when the Democratic Convention had nearly concluded its business, a committee was appointed to wait on Mr. Davis, and request him to gratify them by his presence in the Convention. He expressed his willingness to comply with the wishes of his countrymen, and accordingly repaired to the City Hall. On entering he was greeted in the most cordial and enthusiastic manner. After business was finished, he proceeded to the rostrum, and, addressing the Convention said:
Friends, fellow-citizens, and brethren in Democracy, he thanked them for the honor conferred by their invitation to be present at their deliberations, and expressed the pleasure he felt in standing in the midst of the Democracy of Maine—amidst so many manifestations of the important and gratifying fact that the Democratic is, in truth, a national party. He did not fail to remember that the principles of the party declaring for the largest amount of personal liberty consistent with good government, and to the greatest possible extent of community and municipal independence, would render it in their view, as in his own, improper for him to speak of those subjects which were local in their character, and he would endeavor not so far to trespass upon their kindness as to refer to anything which bore such connection, direct or indirect—and he hoped that those of their opponents who, having the control of type, would not hold them responsible for what he did not say. He said he should carry with him, as one of the pleasant memories of his brief sojourn in Maine, the additional assurance, which intercourse with the people had given him, that there still lives a National Party, struggling and resolved bravely to struggle for the maintenance of the Constitution, the abatement of sectional hostility, and the preservation of the fraternal compact made by the Fathers of the Republic. He said, rocked in the cradle of Democracy, having learned its precepts from his father,―who was a Revolutionary Soldier—and in later years having been led forward in the same doctrine by the patriot statesman—of whom such honorable mention was made in their resolutions—Andrew Jackson, he had always felt that he had in his own heart a standard by which to measure the sentiments of a Democrat. When, therefore, he had seen evidences of a narrow sectionalism, which sought not the good of the whole, not even the benefit of a part, but aimed at the injury of a particular section, the pulsations of his own heart told him such cannot be the purpose, the aim, or the wish of any American Democrat—and he saw around him to-day evidence that his opinion in this respect had here its verification. As he looked upon the weather-beaten faces of the veterans and upon the flushed check and flashing eye of the youth, which told of the fixed resolve of the one, and the ardent noble hopes of the other, strengthened hope and bright anticipations filled his mind, and he feared not to ask the question—shall narrow interests, shall local jealousies, shall disregard of the high purposes for which our Union was ordained, continue to distract our people and impede the progress of our government toward the high consummation which prophetic statesmen have so often indicated as her destiny?— (Voices, no, no, no! Much applause.]
Thanks for that answer; let every American heart respond no; let every American head, let every American hand united in the great object of National development. Let our progress be across the land and over the sea, let our flag as stated in your resolutions, continue to wave its welcome to the oppressed, who flee from the despotism of other lands, until the constellation which marks the number of our States which have already increased from thirteen to thirty-two, shall go on multiplying into a bright galaxy cover the field on which we now display the revered strips, which record the original size of our political family, and shall shed its benign light over all mankind, to point them to the paths of self-government and constitutional liberty.
He here referred to the history of the Democratic party, and numbered among its glories the various acts of territorial acquisition and triumphs through its foreign intercourse in the march of civilization and National amity, as well as in the glories which from time to time had been shed by the success of our arms upon the name and character of the American people. He alluded to the recent attempt by some of the governments of Europe, to engraft upon National law a prohibition against privateering. He said whenever other governments were willing to declare that private property should be exempt from the rigors of war, on sea as it is on land, our government might meet them more than half way, but to a proposition which would leave private property the prey of national vessels and thus give the whole privateering to those governments which maintain a large naval establishment in the time of peace, he would unhesitatingly answer no. Our merchant marine constituted the militia of the sea—how effective it had been in our last struggle with a maritime power, he need not say to the sons of those who had figured so conspicuously in that species of warfare. The policy of our government was peace. We could not consent to bear the useless expense of a naval establishment larger than was necessary for its proper uses in a time of peace. Relying as we had and must hereafter upon the merchant marine to main whatever additional vessels we should require, and upon the bold and hardy Yankee sailor, when he could not longer get freight for his craft, to receive a proper armament, and go forth like a knight errant of the sea in quest of adventure against the enemies of his country’s flag.
He said our country was powerful for all military purposes, and if asked to compare her armies and her navy with those of the great powers of Europe, he would answer, that is not our standard. History teaches that our strength is in the courage and patriotism, the skill and intelligence of our people. A part of the American army was before him, and a part of the American navy was lying in the harbor of their city. That army and that navy had fought the battles of the Revolution, of the “war of 1812” and of the war with Mexico, and would never be found wanting, whilst the patriotism of the earlier days of the Republic, proved a sufficient cement to hold the different parts of our widespread and extending country together. He said that everything around him spoke eloquently of the wisdom of the men who founded these colonies—their descendants, who sat before him, contrasted strongly, as did their history and present power, stand out in bold relief, when compared with those of the inhabitants of Central and Southern America. Chief among the reasons for this, he believed to be the self-reliant hardihood of their forefathers who, when but a handful, found themselves confronted by hordes of savages, yet proudly maintained the integrity of their race and asserted its supremacy over the descendants of Shem, in whose tents they had come to dwell. They preferred to encounter toil, privation and carnage, rather than debase their lineage and race. Their descendants of that pure and heroic blood have advanced to the high standard of civilization attainable by that type of mankind. Stability and progress, wealth and comfort, art and science, have followed their footsteps.
Among our neighbors of Central and Southern America, we see the Caucasian mingled with the Indian and the African. They have the forms of free government, because they have copied them. To its benefits they have not attained, because that standard of civilization is above their race. Revolution succeeds Revolution, and the country mourns that some petty chief may triumph, and through a sixty days’ government ape the rules of the earth. Even now the nearest and strongest of these American Republics, which were fashioned after the model of our own, seems to be tottering to a fall, and the world is inquiring as to who will take possession; or, as a protector, raise and lead a people who have shown themselves incompetent to govern themselves.
He said our fathers laid the foundations of Empire, and declared its purposes; to their sons it remained to complete their superstructure. The means by which this end was to be secured were simple and easy. It involved no harder task than that each man should attend to his own business, that no community should arrogantly assume to interfere with the affairs of another—and that all should be actuated by the noble emulation of promoting the common good, and by the honorable obligation of fulfilling the compact which their fathers had made.
He then referred to the commercial position of Maine, and spoke of her brightly unfolding prospects of prosperity and greatness. Many considered her wealth to consist of her forests, and that her prosperity would decline when her timber was exhausted—he held to a different opinion, and thought they might welcome the day, when the somber shadows of the Pine gave place to verdant pastures and fruitful fields. Was he asked, what then was to become of the interests of ship-building? He would answer—let it be changed from wood to iron. The skill to be acquired by a few years’ experience, would at a fair price for iron, enable our shipbuilders to construct iron ships, which, taking into account their greater capacity for freight and greater durability, would be cheaper than vessels of wood, even whilst timber was as abundant as now;—at least such was the information he had derived from persons well informed upon those subjects.
He express the gratification he felt for the courtesy of the Democracy in Maine, and doubted not that the Democracy of Mississippi would receive it, with grateful recognition, as evincing fraternal sentiment by kindness done to one of her sons, not the less a representative, because a humble member of her Democracy.