Since December, it has seemed that nearly every day brings us the 150th anniversary of some event related to secession and the coming of the Civil War. Today, February 18, is no different. It marks the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederate States of America. Davis' inaugural address, brief, grave, and slightly self-effacing, offers some insight into his concept of the new national project that the Confederacy had embarked upon. Obviously, this is one of the key documents in which we see the Confederacy turning from secession to fashioning a new government and creating a new country. In light of this, it is somewhat surprising that Davis had little to say about nationalism or nationhood on the birth of his newly adopted country. This contrasts sharply with the state of European political theory in that same period. Since 1848, Europeans had been experiencing periodic nationalist revolutions aimed at overthrowing old regimes. This spate of revolutions also inspired a florid debate over the concept of the nation and the meaning and purposes of nationalism. Despite the abundance of this intellectual fodder just across the Atlantic, the new Confederate president seemed to take little heed of it.
Davis' inaugural address instead emphasized how little things had changed in the new Confederacy. Member states retained their sovereignty and their existing governments, and the people's rights and the laws remained essentially unchanged. All that the seceding states had done, Davis suggested, was effect a change in "the agency through which they have communicated with foreign powers." This was, arguably, the most demure description of a political revolution ever uttered.
Perhaps we should not expect America's leading politicians and intellectuals to have waxed philosophical on the concept of nation in this period. There had not been a great tradition of such thought in the country's young history. Certainly, Americans were united in a kind of civic religion that venerated select Founding Fathers, and they shared a common land, and relatively uniform republican institutions that defined both their state and federal governments (with the exception of slavery, of course). Yet, a sense of nationhood still seemed lacking in the Union. During the crisis that led to the 1850 Compromise, Senator John C. Calhoun, haggard and dying, wrote vaguely of the "cords which bind these States together in one common Union," cords which he believed could not be sundered in one fell swoop. Yet, even this phrase did not plumb the depths of common national heritage. Tellingly, Calhoun referred to those institutions which seemed to tie disparate peoples and states together, not a shared sense of commonality which united the people.
Secession and the subsequent birth of the Confederacy then offered the perfect opportunity not just to excoriate the wrongs of the old Union, but to expound on the purity of the CSA's political and national mission. Davis, however, allowed the opportunity to pass. Expounding on the sound basis of union among the Confederate states, he felt it "necessary that there should be so much homogeneity as that the welfare of every portion be the aim of the whole. When this homogeneity does not exist, antagonisms are engendered which must and should result in separation." In other words, not only must Confederate states maintain the institution of slavery, but should ensure its growth to maintain that harmony of interest among all member states. Not even rising to the eloquence of Calhoun's invocation of the Union's "cords," Davis' meager reference to the necessity of "homogeneity," leaves us wanting.
Compare this with the self-consciously nationalist movements that convulsed Europe periodically from 1848 through the 1860s. Guiseppe Mazzini, one of the leaders of Italian unification, was acutely aware that his mission was not one of simply creating a political union of disparate kingdoms and provinces. In his Essay on the Duties of Man, Mazzini intoned, "the country is not an aggregation, but an association," an association that both inspired and required each citizen to "strive to incarnate his country in himself" and to "regard himself as a guarantor, responsible for his fellow countrymen." Mazzini further contended that there is "no true country without a uniform right. There is no true country where the uniformity of that right is violated by the existence of caste privilege and inequality." Equal rights and equal opportunity among citizens was vital for the growth of national unity, he insisted.
Therein, of course, lay the rub. Confederate leaders like Davis, despite their invocation of the Union's Revolutionary ideals and pledges of respect for individual rights, found the concept of equal rights rather tricky. The Confederacy's member states had allowed their citizens to vote for delegates to secession conventions, but did not allow popular voting on secession itself. Secession was a revolution of elites, even if it was a revolution that most southern citizens came to support. Indeed, the Confederate states did not merely represent a slave society, but resembled a caste society with slaveholders ensconced at the top, enjoying enormous political power (thanks to 3/5 clauses in state constitutions that gave slaveholding districts disproportionate power in southern state legislatures), social prestige, and economic clout. Little wonder then that on his inauguration, Jeff Davis and most Confederate leaders seemed more animated by the idea of independence than by the concept of nationhood.