Jefferson Davis: Confederate President vs Nullification

Advocates for nullification are sometimes accused of a desire to resurrect the Confederate States of America, a supposed model for “states’ rights” and decentralized authority. In doing so, some will claim that the principles of nullification were connected with the interests of people like the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis.

While it may surprise many, Jefferson Davis detested nullification.

To make such a claim, substantiation is required. Corroboration can be provided by statements and writings Davis made during secession and long after the Civil War. It remains clear that Davis never changed his stance on nullification throughout his life: he loathed it.

From his perspective, Davis had good reason oppose the principle Thomas Jefferson called “the rightful remedy.” Northern nullification efforts rendered the Fugitive Slave Act 1850 unenforceable and foiled the efforts of the south to protect slave power and slave ownership in the north, even in states where slavery was completely abolished.

In Vermont, the Habeas Corpus Act penalized state officials and individuals who so much as assisted the federal officials in apprehending the runaway slaves. Michigan passed an act that denied the usage of their prisons for captured slaves to be held. In Wisconsin, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was nullified after years of popular revolt and unrest as a result of the policy. Aided by the heroic action of Sherman Booth, The successful liberation of Joshua Glover added fuel to the fire of resentment toward the malignant law.

Northern states responded by lining up in opposition to the Act, and the horror it brought. These states decided to make proactive strides to protect liberty and throttle the pernicious effects of the Act. To Davis, these actions did not go unnoticed.

Davis reacted by focusing on nullification specifically in his Farewell Address to the United States Senate, which he departed from upon his home state’s departure from the union. Addressing the Senate, Davis said:

Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are indeed, antagonistic principles. Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, and against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified then the agent has violated his constitutional obligations…but, when the States themselves and when the people of the States have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application.”[1]

Clearly, Davis believed that slave power was a “constitutional right.” Therefore, he opined that the northern states had no power to nullify any law that would protect slave ownership (such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850). Davis rejected the notion that nullification was justified, mainly because he didn’t acknowledge the existence of any constitutional violations.

Davis’s position on nullification remained unchanged throughout the rest of his life, and it lingered with him in old age. In his post-war memoir, Davis made it a specific point to denounce northern nullification efforts. In his 1881 book, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Davis revisits his disdain toward nullification:

“[State legislatures] made use of the powers and opportunities of the offices held under its sanctions to nullify its obligations and neutralize its guarantees. The halls of Congress afforded the vantage ground from which assaults were made upon these guarantees. The legislatures of various Northern states enacted laws to hinder the execution of the provisions made for the rendition of fugitives from service; state officials lent their aid to the work of thwarting them; city mobs assailed the offices engaged in the duty of enforcing them.”[2]

Clearly distraught over these developments, Davis realized the implications of northern nullification: it worked. It prevented federal overreach and acted to thwart slave power. Observing that the actions worked well in counteracting efforts to maintain slave ownership, Davis considered these responses as “assaults.”

To those who would mistakenly associate nullification with secession over 150 years later, Davis provided correction:

“Nullification and secession are erroneously treated as if they were the same thing.”[3]

As noted earlier, Davis described the two doctrines as “antagonistic principles.”

Davis also displayed hostility toward a fellow member of his own state, Judge William Sharkey. Davis criticized Sharkey specifically for holding a supportive viewpoint when it came to nullification, and reiterated his own rejection of the principle:

“Judge Sharkey and I had not belonged to the same political party, he being a Whig, but we fully agreed with regard to the question of sovereignty of the States. He had been an advocate of nullification – a doctrine to which I had never assented.[4]

Davis went to lengths not only to condemn nullification itself, but also to criticize proponents of nullification within his own state.

Despite what is often claimed, the Confederate States of America did not respect localized authority. Soon after establishment, the Confederacy worked to enact some of the same horrendous policies as the union did during the same timeframe: widespread conscription mandates, nationalization of banks, and printing of fiat currency. The government was hardly a bastion of decentralized authority. Davis’s words on nullification only serve as additional validation of that argument.

The result of the Civil War did not “settle” the validity of nullification, the losing side already shunned the principle while the winning side used it to erode slave power and protect liberty.

Nullification is not Confederate or Neo-Confederate in nature, but instead a swift repudiation of such ideologies. Instead, nullification is a principle that respects liberty and abhors tyrannical authority. Its maxims are the antithesis to callous, arbitrary, and repugnant government.


[1] Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Cambridge: De Capo Press, 1990), 156.

[2] Ibid, 68.

[3] Ibid, 156.

[4] Ibid, 198.

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