Starting a Debate: The selected works of Jefferson Davis and Henry Wilson

When people first start looking at the American Civil War the first thing that they see is the issue of slavery within the United States of America and the way that it send a nation into a brutal war where brothers fought brothers over the right to treat a person like their own property. However what a lot of people fail to see is the lively and ongoing debate between historians over how this war came about, an argument not only about the role of slavery within the southern states but also of state rights. This lively debate however started right after the end of the civil war itself with the works of two of the most influential people within the conflict, fighting for the abolitionists and the Union is Henry Wilson, Abraham Lincolns Minister for War during the conflict; and on the other side is Jefferson Davis the former and only President of the Confederacy.


Jefferson Davis will always be known as the President who fought against Abraham Lincoln in the

slavery jefferson davis

American Civil War and lost. However within the historical debate on the civil war he is much more important; he gave the first pro southern view of the American Civil War. The Basis of Jefferson Davis argument is centered on state rights and the ‘true’ nature of slavery. The arguments made by Jefferson Davis within his work “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” look at slavery as a teaching environment where slaves are taught to become Americans and that slavery within the south was shrinking  the south and that if left to its own slavery would have become extinct by itself. The idea of this has some evidence in basic forms however he uses it to proclaim how inevitably wrong the abolitionists were and that they do not have the proper knowledge about southern slavery in order to make their accusations. Contrary to this opinion is the work by Henry Wilson who acted as Abraham Lincoln’s minister for war during the American Civil War as well as a renowned abolitionist and founding member of the Free Soil party and the Radical Republicans whose main agenda was the removal of slavery.

slavery henry wilson

Henry Wilson’s work essentially validated the Union agenda who looked at slavery within the southern states as the degradation of African Americans. He argued that recent actions by Southern states in attempt to extent slavery throughout the rest of the United States caused emancipation action by the federal government. Action which resulted in the succession of the Southern States and the formation of the Confederate government in order to maintain slavery and their cheap source of labor.

State Rights

Whilst slavery has been viewed as the main contributing factor to the American Civil war Jefferson Davis brought the issue of the Southern Right of succession through individual state rights, an issue which comes straight from the American Constitution. Jefferson Davis main argument in regard to the right of succession was that the Federal Government’s war against Slavery was unjust due to the

state rights Jefferson Davis

constitutional rights of the individual states. Jefferson Davis draws from this that it was the Republican politicians through the guise of the abolitionist agenda to further increase economic and political control over the South. This argument goes through the economical nature of the United States at the time and the differences between the primarily industrial North who needed the agricultural South in order to survive. Looking at this argument we can see how Jefferson Davis has justified the way in which he led the formation of the Confederacy; that the south had succeeded from the Union not in defense of slavery but rather through the principle of state rights and in the maintenance of their economic independence. In defense of this argument abolitionist Henry Wilson argues the role in which slavery played in this argument and the fact that his argument relies on republican conspiracy and constitutional interpretation. The Constitution as such did not protect state rights the way in which Jefferson Davis believed it did and this was proven when the Federal Government passed the emancipation proclamation.


The Debate on the start of the American Civil War is one which has divided historian since its start at the end of the conflict. The start of the debate came from two of the most prominent politicians of the American Civil War, Jefferson Davis and Henry Wilson. Their argument on the true cause of the civil war (Jefferson Davis argument on state rights and Henry Wilson on the abolition of slavery) has been carried on throughout the generations and is still the basis for the debate on who started the American Civil War.


Further Reading

Davis, Jefferson [edited by Tom Thomas] (2009). The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, 2 Volumes, Black Oyster Publishing: USA

Wilson, Henry (1873) History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America. 3 Volumes. James R. Osgood and Company: Boston (reprinted by Hardpress: USA)


One comment on “Starting a Debate: The selected works of Jefferson Davis and Henry Wilson

  1. Hi Owen,

    Interesting topic! Especially considering the notion of states rights is still a hot topic in the US regarding serious issues such as gay marriage. It would have been interesting to see information on other confederate luminaries such as Robert E Lee. But it seems you’ve taken a historiographical approach to by contrasting the two clearly dissenting opinions. Its also interesting to see Wilson’s anti-slavery notion, considering most slaves retained their positions with limited freedom in the South as essentially indentured workers. Was he simply a moralistic crusader who cared more for ideology than reality?

    I think i might have to buy you a beer and find out more! Good job!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s