Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A Time for the Ages

You gotta hand it to the representatives that converged on Montgomery, Ala. in February 1861. Out of chaos, they created a government.

Considering how our government operated during the recent disaster, that's all the more mind boggling.

"Up until the election of 1860, no one knew what was going to happen," historian William C. "Jack" Davis told the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable last night. "In October 1860, (South Carolina) governor William Gist sent a letter to the governors of the 14 other slave states saying 'It appears possible that (Abraham) Lincoln will be elected (and) will you secede?' All the governors said 'No, not unless South Carolina does first.'"

Still, Davis said, the Southern states remembered Ben Franklin's idiom that those who don't hang together will surely hang separately. Representatives from each seceded state (six at the time) met in Montgomery that February to discuss the future.

"Each state sent the same number of delegates they had in the U.S. Congress," Davis said. "Nearly 50 men. The best men in every state got sent. None are empowered to commit their states to anything."

The sleepy town of 8,000 turned into a booming city of 20,000 when the delegates arrived. But those expecting The Greatest Show on Earth were disappointed.

"They march in, greet each other, elect a president of the convention, and then go into secret session and kick everybody out," Davis said.

Surprisingly enough, there was little politicking for the presidency. "Everybody assumed Georgia would get the presidency," Davis said.

That meant either Alexander Stephens, Robert Toombs or Howell Cobb.

Toombs looked the part, but he couldn't hold his liquor. Two nights prior to the vote, South Carolina held a party. Toombs had two glasses of wine. It was enough.

"Toombs had that fatal second glass of wine and made an ass out of himself," Davis said.

Scratch Toombs.

Stephens was, Davis said, the intellectual figure of his age, the true Little Giant. But he never had been part of "The Movement" and had in fact opposed secession until after it happened.

Thus goes Stephens.

And Cobb? Well, he never was seriously considered for the presidency.

Enter John Campbell. Campbell had written to former U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis in Mississippi. Would he consider the presidency?

Responding with sly political doublespeak, Davis said "I have no desire to do anything but stay at my plantation and pick flowers. However, if my people call, I can not say no."

Jack Davis said Jefferson Davis was the perfect choice.

"He was not a hotheaded secessionist, and he was not a Unionist," he said. "Davis had stood by the Union as long as he felt he could."

He was inaugurated on Feb. 18, on, ironically enough, Union Street, in a town formerly known as Yankeetown.

There were other ironies. Just a stone's throw from the spot where Davis took the oath of office was the future home of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Where Martin Luther King would later usher in the Civil Rights movement.

The Confederacy would eventually move to Richmond after Lincoln called for troops in the spring of 1861. Davis wouldn't return to Montgomery again until 1886.

He stepped, like so many of his contemporaries, into a time that would belong to the ages.

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