Speech at Portland

1858-07-09 - Jefferson Davis

After the music had ceased, Mr. Davis appeared upon the steps, and as soon as the prolonged applause with which he was greeted had subsided, he spoke in substance as follows:

Fellow Countrymen:--Accept my sincere thanks for this manifestation of your kindness. Vanity does not lead me so far to misconceive your purpose as to appropriate the demonstration to myself; but it is not less gratifying to me to be made the medium through which Maine tenders an expression of regard to her sister Mississippi. It is moreover, with feelings of profound gratification that I witness this indication of that national sentiment and fraternity which made us, and which alone can keep us, one people. At a period, but as yesterday when compared with the life of nations, these States were separate, and in sorts respects opposing colonies; their only relation to each other was that of a common allegiance to the government of Great Britain. So separate, indeed almost hostile, was their attitude, that when Gen. Stark, of Bennington memory, was captured by savages on the head waters of the Kennebec, he was subsequently taken by them to Albnny {sic} where they went to sell furs, and again led away a captive, without interference on the part of the inhabitants of that neighboring colony to demand or obtain his release. United as we now are, were a citizen of the United States, as an act of hostility to our country, imprisoned or slain in any quarter of the world, whether on land or sea, the people of each and every State of the Union, with one heart, and with one voice, would demand redress, and woe be to him against whom a brother's blood cried to us from the ground. Such is the fruit of the wisdom and the justice with which our fathers bound contending colonies into confederation and blended different habits and rival interests into a harmonious whole, so that shoulder to shoulder they entered on the trial of the revolution, step with step trod its thorny paths until they reached the height of national independence and founded the constitutional representative liberty, which is our birthright.

When the mother country entered upon her career of oppression, in disregard of chartered and constitutional rights, our forefathers did not stop to measure the exact weight of the burden, or to ask whether the pressure bore most upon this colony or upon that, but saw in it the infraction of a great principle, the denial of a common right, in defence of which they made common cause; Massachusetts, Virginia and South Carolina vieing with each other as to who should be foremost in the struggle, where the penalty of failure would be a dishonorable grave.

Tempered by the trials and sacrifices of the revolution, dignified by its noble purposes, elevated by its brilliant triumphs, endeared to each other by its glorious memories, they abandoned the confederacy, not to fly apart when the outward pressure of hostile fleets and armies were removed, but to draw closer their embrace in the formation of a more perfect union. By such men, thus trained and ennobled, our Constitution was formed. It stands a monument of principle, of forecast, and, above all, of that liberality which made each willing to sacrifice local interest, individual prejudice or temporary good to the general welfare, and the perpetuity of the Republican institutions which they had passed through fire and blood to secure. The grants were as broad as were necessary for the functions of the general agent, and the mutual concessions were twice blessed, blessing both him who gave and him who received. Whatever was necessary for domestic government, requisite in the social organization of each community, was retained by the States and the people thereof; and these it was made the duty of all to defend and maintain.

Such, in very general terms, is the rich political legacy our fathers bequeathed to us. Shall we preserve and transmit it to posterity? Yes, yes, the heart responds, and the judgment answers, the task is easily performed. It but requires that each should attend to that which most concerns him, and on which alone he has rightful power to decide and to act. That each should adhere to the terms of a written compact and that all should cooperate for that which interest, duty and honor demand. For the general affairs of our country, both foreign and domestic, we have a national executive and a national legislature. Representatives and Senators are chosen by districts and by States, but their acts affect the whole country, and their obligations are to the whole people. He who holding either seat would confine his investigations to the mere interests of his immediate constituents would be derelict to his plain duty; and he who would legislate in hostility to any section would be morally unfit for the station, and surely an unsafe depositary if not a treacherous guardian of the inheritance with which we are blessed.

No one, more than myself; recognizes the binding force of the allegiance which the citizen owes to the State of his citizenship, but that State being a party to our compact, a member of our union, fealty to the federal Constitution is not in opposition to, but flows from the allegiance due to one of the United States. Washington was not less a Virginian when he commanded at Boston; nor did Gates or Greene weaken the bonds which bound them to their several States, by their campaigns in the South. In proportion as a citizen loves his own State, will he strive to honor by preserving her name and her fame free from the tarnish of having failed to observe her obligations, and to fulfil her duties to her sister States. Each page of our history is illustrated by the names and the deeds of those who have well understood, and discharged the obligation. Have we so degenerated, that we can no longer emulate their virtues? Have the purposes for which our Union was formed, lost their value? Has patriotism ceased to be a virtue, and is narrow sectionalism no longer to be counted a crime? Shall the North not rejoice that the progress of agriculture in the South has given to her great staple the controlling influence of the commerce of the world, and put manufacturing nations under bond to keep the peace with the United States? Shall the South not exult in the fact, that the industry and persevering intelligence of the North, has placed her mechanical skill in the front ranks of the civilized world--that our mother country, whose haughty minister some eighty odd years ago declared that not a hob-nail should be made in the colonies, which are now the United States, was brought some four years ago to recognize our pre-eminence by sending a commission to examine our work shops, and our machinery, to perfect their own manufacture of the arms requisite for their defence? Do not our whole people, interior and seaboard, North, South, East, and West, alike feel proud of the hardihood, the enterprise, the skill, and the courage of the Yankee sailor, who has borne our flag far as the ocean bears its foam, and caused the name and the character of the United States to be known and respected wherever there is wealth enough to woo commerce, and intelligence enough to honor merit? So long as we preserve, and appreciate the achievements of Jefferson and Adams, of Franklin and Madison, of Hamilton, of Hancock, and of Rutledge, men who labored for the whole country, and lived for mankind, we cannot sink to the petty strife which would sap the foundations, and destroy the political fabric our fathers erected, and bequeathed as an inheritance to our posterity forever.

Since the formation of the Constitution, a vast extension of territory, and the varied relations arising there from, have presented problems which could not have been foreseen. It is just cause for admiration--even wonder, that the provisions of the fundamental law should have been found so fully adequate to all the wants of government, new in its organization, and new in many of the principles on which it was founded. Whatever fears may have once existed as to the consequences of territorial expansion, must give way before the evidence which the past affords. The general government, strictly confined to its delegated functions, and the States left in the undisturbed exercise of all else, we have a theory and practice which fits our government for immeasurable domain, and might, under a millennium of nations, embrace mankind.

From the slope of the Atlantic our population with ceaseless tide has poured into the wide and fertile valley of the Mississippi, with eddying whirl has passed to the coast of the Pacific, from the West and the East the tides are rushing towards each other--and the mind is carried to the day when all the cultivable and will be inhabited, and the American people will sign for more wildernesses to conquer. But there is here a physico-political problem presented for our solution. Were it was purely physical--your past triumphs would leave but little doubt of your capacity to solve it.

A community, which, when less than twenty thousand, conceived the grand project of crossing the White Mountains, and, unaided, save by the stimulus which jeers and prophecies of failure gave, successfully executed the herculean work, might well be impatient, if it were suggested that a physical problem was before us, too difficult for their mastery. The history of man teaches that high mountains and wide deserts have resisted the permanent extension of empire, and have formed the immutable boundaries of States. From time to time, under some able leader, have the hordes of the upper plains of Asia swept over the adjacent country, and rolled their conquering columns over Southern Europe. Yet, after the lapse of a few generations, the physical law to which I have referred, has asserted its supremacy, and the boundaries of those States differ little now from those which obtained three thousand years ago. Rome flew her conquering eagles over the then known world, and has now subsided into the little territory on which her great city was originally built. The Alps and the Pyrenees have been unable to restrain imperial France; but her expansion was a leverish action; her advance and her retreat were tracked with blood, and those mountain ridges are the re-established limits of her empire. Shall the Rocky Mountains prove a dividing barrier to us? Were ours a central consolidated government, instead of a Union of sovereign States, our fate might be learned from the history of other nations. Thanks to the wisdom and independent spirit of our forefathers, this is not our case. Each State having sole charge of its local interests and domestic affairs, the problem which to others has been insoluble, to us is made easy. Rapid, safe, and easy communication and co-operation among all parts of our continent-wide republic. The network of railroads which bind the North and the South, the slope of the Atlantic and the valley of the Mississippi, together testify that our people have the power to perform, in that regard, whatever it is their will to do.

We require a railroad to the States of the Pacific for present uses; the time no doubt will come when we shall have need of two or three; it may be more. Because of the desert character of the interior country the work will be difficult and expensive. It will require the efforts of an united people. The bickerings of little politicians, the jealousies of sections, must give way to dignity of purpose and zeal for the common good. If the object be obstructed by contention and division as to whether the route to be selected shall be northern, southern or central, the handwriting is on the wall, and it requires little skill to see that failure is the interpretation of the inscription. You are a practical people and may ask, how is that contest to be avoided? By taking the question out of the hands of politicians altogether. Let the Government give such aid as it is proper for it to render to the Company which shall propose the most feasible and advantageous plan; then leave to capitalists with judgment sharpened by interest, the selection of the route, and the difficulties will diminish as did those which you overcame when you connected your harbor with the Canadian Provinces.

It would be to trespass on your kindness and to violate the proprieties of the occasion, were I to detain the vast concourse which stands before me, by entering on the discussion of controverted topics, or by further indulging in the expression of such reflections as circumstances suggest.

I came to your city in quest of health and repose. From the moment I entered it you have showered upon me kindness and hospitality. Though my experience has taught me to anticipate good rather than evil from my fellow man, it had not prepared me to expect such unremitting attention as has here been bestowed. I have been jocularly asked in relation to my coming here, whether I had secured a guaranty {sic} for my safety, and lo, I have found it. I stand in the midst of thousands of my fellow citizens. But my friend, I came neither distrusting, not apprehensive, of which you have proof in the fact that I brought with me the objects of tenderest affection and solicitude--my wife and my children; they have shared with me your hospitality, and will alike remain your debtors. If at some future time, when I am mingled with the dust, and the arm of my infant son has been nerved for deeds of manhood, the storm of war should burst upon your city, I feel that, relying upon his inheriting the instincts of his ancestors and mine, I may pledge him in that perilous hour to stand by your side in the defence of your hearth stones, and in maintaining the honor of a flag whose constellation though torn and smoked in many a battle, by sea and land, has never been stained with dishonor, and will I trust forever fly as free as the breeze which unfolds it.

A stranger to you, the salubrity of your location and the beauty of its scenery were not wholly unknown to me, nor were there wanting associations which bust memory connected with your people. You will pardon me for alluding to one whose genius shed a lustre upon all it touched, and whose qualities gathered about him hosts of friends, wherever he was known. Prentiss, a native of Portland, lived from youth to middle age in the county of my residence, and the inquiries which have been made, show me that the youth excited the interest which the greatness of the man justified, and that his memory thus remains a link to connect your home with mine.

A cursory view, when passing through your town on former occasions, had impressed me with the great advantages of your harbor, its easy entrance, its depth, and its extensive accommodation for shipping. But its advantages, and if facilities as they have been developed by closer inspection, have grown upon me until I realize that it is no boast, but the language of sober truth which in the present state of commerce pronounces them unequaled in any harbor of our country.

And surely no place could be more inviting to an invalid who sought a refuge from the heat of a southern summer. Here waving elms offer him shared walks, and magnificent residences surrounded by flowers, fill the mind with ideas of comfort and of rest. If weary of constant contact with his fellow men, he seeks a deeper seclusion, there, in the back ground of this grand amphitheatre, lie the eternal mountains, frowning with brow of rock and cap of snow upon the smiling fields beneath, and there in its recesses may be found as much of wildness, and as much of solitude, as the pilgrim weary of the cares of life can desire. If he turn to the front, your capacious harbor, studded with green islands of ever varying light and shade, and enlivened by all the stirring evidences of commercial activity, offer him the mingled charms of busy life and nature's calm repose. A few miles further, and he may site upon the quiet shore to listen to the murmuring wave until the troubled spirit sinks to rest, and in the little sail that vanishes on the illimitable sea, we may find the type of the voyage which he is so soon to take, when, his ephemeral existence closed, he embarks for that better state which lies beyond the grave.

Richly endowed as you are by nature in all which contributes to pleasure and to usefulness, the stranger cannot pass without paying a tribute to the much which your energy has achieved for yourselves. Where else will one find a more happy union of magnificence and comfort, where better arrangements to facilitate commerce? Where so much of industry, with so little noise and bustle? Where, in a phrase, so much effected in proportion to the means employed? We hear the puff of the engine, the roll of the wheel, the ring of the axe, and the saw, but the stormy, passionate exclamations so often mingled with the sounds, are no where heard. Yet, neither these nor other things which I have mentioned; attractive though they be, have been to me the chief charm which I have found among you. For above all these I place the gentle kindness, the cordial welcome, the hearty grasp, which made me feel truly and at once, though wandering far, that I was still at home.

My friends, I thank you for this additional manifestation of your good will.