An Interview With President Jefferson Davis

Gentlemen: I have transcribed this article from an English paper entitled “The Globe and Traveller” of September 2nd, 1864, of which I have an original in my possession. It is a negotiation interview between Jefferson Davis and Judah Benjamin of the Confederacy, and Colonel Jaques and J. R. Gilmore of the Union. I have emboldened a part that sums up what the South was all about.

Warmest Regards …Brian Lee Merrill

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The Globe and Traveller (England)
Friday Evening, September 2, 1864

AN INTERVIEW WITH PRESIDENT DAVIS

The Atlantic Monthly in an article in the September number gives a narrative of Colonel Jaque’s interview with President Davis, which took place some time ago, exciting a great deal of curiosity at the time. The narrative is from the pen of J. R. Gilmore, a companion of Colonel Jaques. The substance of the communication between the President and the two negotiators was made public at the time, but the following extract will give a better idea of the proposal discussed:-

Colonel Jaques: “Suppose the two Governments agree to something like this:- to go to the people with two propositions – say, peace, with disunion and Southern independence, as your proposition, and peace, with union, emancipation, no confiscation, and universal amnesty, as ours. Let the citizens of all the United States (as they existed before the war) vote “Yes” or “No” on these two propositions, at a special election, within 60 days. If a majority votes disunion, our Government to be bound by it, and to let you go in peace; if a majority votes union, yours to be bound by it, and to stay in peace. The two Governments can contract in this way, and the people, though unconstitutionally unable to decide on peace or war, can elect which of the two propositions shall govern their rulers. Let Lee and Grant meanwhile agree to an armistice. This would sheath the sword; and if once sheathed would never again be drawn by this generation.”

President Davis: “The plan is altogether impracticable. If the South were only one state it might work; but, as it is, if one Southern state objected to the emancipation, it would nullify the whole thing, for you are aware that the people of Virginia cannot vote slavery out of South Carolina, nor the people of South Carolina vote it out of Virginia.”

Colonel Jaques: “But three-fourths of the States can amend the constitution. Let it be done in that way, in any way, so that it be done by the people. I am not a statesman or a politician, and I do no know just how such a plan could be carried out; but you get the idea – that the people shall decide the question.”

President Davis:”That the majority shall decide it you mean. We seceded to rid ourselves of the rule of the majority, and this would subject us to it again.”

Colonel Jaques: “But the majority must rule finally, either with bullets or ballots.”

President Davis:”I am not so sure of that. Neither current events nor history shows that the majority rules, or ever did rule. The contrary, I think, is true. Why, Sir, the man who should go before the Southern people with such a proposition, with any proposition which implied that the North was to have a voice in determining the domestic relations of the South, could not live here a day. He would be hanged to the first tree, without judge or jury.”

Colonel Jaques: “Allow me to doubt that. I think it more likely he would be hanged if he let the Southern people know the majority couldn’t rule,” I replied smiling.

President Davis:”I have no fear of that,” rejoined Mr. Davis, also smiling good humouredly. “I give you leave to proclaim it from every housetop in the South.”

Colonel Jaques: “But, seriously, sir, you let the majority rule in a single State: why not let it rule in the whole country?”

President Davis:”Because the states are independent and sovereign. The country is not. It is only a confederation of states; or rather it was; it is now two confederations.”

Colonel Jaques: “Then we are not a people – we are only a political partnership?”

President Davis:”That is all.”

Judah Benjamin: “Your very name, sir, ‘United States,’ implies that,” said Mr. Benjamin. “But tell me, are the terms you have named – emancipation, no confiscation, and universal amnesty – the terms which Mr. Lincoln authorised you to offer us?”

Colonel Jaques: “No, sir; Mr. Lincoln did not authorise me to offer you any terms. But I think both he and the Northern people, for the sake of peace, would assent to some such conditions.”

President Davis:”They are very generous,” replied Mr. Davis, for the first time during the interview showing some angry feeling. “But amnesty, Sir, applies to criminals. We have committed no crime. Confiscation is of no account, unless you can enforce it. And emancipation! You have already emancipated nearly two millions of our slaves, and if you will take care of them you may emancipate the rest. I had a few when the war began. I was of some use to them; they never were of any to me. Against their will you ’emancipated’ them, and you may ’emancipate’ every Negro in the Confederacy, but we will be free. We will govern ourselves. We will do it if we have to see every Southern plantation sacked, and every Southern city in flames.”

Colonel Jaques: “I see, Mr. Davis, it is useless to continue this conversation,” I replied, “and you will pardon us, if we have seemed to press our views with too much pertinacity. We love the old flag, and that must be our apology for intruding upon you at all.”

Colonel Jaques: As we were leaving the room Mr. Davis said,

President Davis:”Say to Mr. Lincoln from me that I [shall be] at any time he pleased to receive proposals for peace on the basis of our independence. It will be useless to approach me with any other.”

Colonel Jaques: When we went out Mr. Benjamin called Judge Ould, who had been waiting during the whole interview – two hours – at the other end of the hall, and we passed down the stairway together. As I put my arm within that of the judge, he said to me- “Well, what is the result?” “Nothing but war – war to the knife.” “Ephraim is joined to his idols – let him alone,” added the Colonel solemnly.