There were perhaps no two men more different in the early days of the Civil War than Jefferson Davis and William Lloyd Garrison. Davis, a Mississippi planter and slaveholder, was Provisional President of the Confederacy, dedicated to slavery’s preservation. William Lloyd Garrison, an activist and newspaper editor based in Massachusetts, had since the early 1830s advocated the immediate and uncompensated abolition of slavery. To Garrison, slavery was an egregious sin and moral stain on the nation which could not be tolerated. To Davis, slavery was a benign institution, beneficial to all parties concerned (including the slave), integral to southern identity, and worth preserving at all costs.
So it is surprising in late April 1861 that Jefferson Davis and William Lloyd Garrison would agree on anything, most especially the cause of the war that had just broken out between the North and the South. Hence, it is highly significant that in fact they did agree on this point. Garrison writing privately and Davis writing publicly both acknowledged slavery was the cause of the Civil War.
On April 28, 1861, William Lloyd Garrison penned a letter to James Sloan Gibbons, a New York City businessman and longtime financial supporter of the abolitionist cause. Garrison wrote Gibbons:
The civil war now raging in the land is, on the part of the Administration, technically and ostensibly to defend the “stars and stripes,” and maintain the government against conspirators and traitors; but it is really a struggle between the free states and the slave States–i.e., between freedom and slavery–between free institutions and slave institutions–between the ideas of the nineteenth and those of the twelfth century.
The following day, April 29, 1861, Jefferson Davis sent a message to the Confederate Congress, delivering the good news that their new constitution had been ratified by its states. In it, Davis reiterated the grievances of the South that had led to secession, at their heart having to do with slavery. His message, in part, read:
When the several States delegated certain powers to the United States Congress, a large portion of the laboring population consisted of African slaves imported into the colonies by the mother country. In twelve out of the thirteen States negro slavery existed, and the right of property in slaves was protected by law. This property was recognized in the Constitution, and provision was made against its loss by the escape of the slave. The increase in the number of slaves by further importation from Africa was also secured by a clause forbidding Congress to prohibit the slave trade anterior to a certain date, and in no clause can there be found any delegation of power to the Congress authorizing it in any manner to legislate to the prejudice, detriment, or discouragement owners of that species of property, or excluding it from the protection of the Government.
The climate and soil of the Northern States soon proved unpropitious to the continuance of slave labor, whilst the converse was the case at the South. Under the unrestricted free intercourse between the two sections, the Northern States consulted their own interests by selling their slaves to the South and prohibiting slavery within their limits. The South were willing purchasers of a property suitable to their wants, and paid the price of the acquisition without harboring a suspicion that their quiet possession was to be disturbed by those who were inhibited not only by want of constitutional authority, but by good faith as vendors, from disquieting a title emanating from themselves. As soon, how ever, as the Northern States that prohibited African slavery within their limits had reached a number sufficient to give their representation a controlling voice in the Congress, a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States was inaugurated and gradually extended. A continuous series of measures was devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves. Fanatical organizations, supplied with money by voluntary subscriptions, were assiduously engaged in exciting amongst the slaves a spirit of discontent and revolt; means were furnished for their escape from their owners, and agents secretly employed to entice them to abscond; the constitutional provision for their rendition to their owners was first evaded, then openly denounced as a violation of conscientious obligation and religious duty; men were taught that it was a merit to elude, disobey, and violently oppose the execution of the laws enacted to secure the performance of the promise contained in the constitutional compact; owners of slaves were mobbed and even murdered in open day solely for applying to a magistrate for the arrest of a fugitive slave; the dogmas of these voluntary organizations soon obtained control of the Legislatures of many of the Northern States, and laws were passed providing for the punishment, by ruinous fines and long-continued imprisonment in jails and penitentiaries, of citizens of the Southern States who should dare to ask aid of the officers of the law for the recovery of their property. Emboldened by success, the theater of agitation and aggression against the clearly expressed constitutional rights of the Southern States was transferred to the Congress; Senators and Representatives were sent to the common councils of the nation, whose chief title to this distinction consisted in the display of a spirit of ultra fanaticism, and whose business was not “to promote the general welfare or insure domestic tranquillity,” but to awaken the bitterest hatred against the citizens of sister States by violent denunciation of their institutions; the transaction of public affairs was impeded by repeated efforts to usurp powers not delegated by the Constitution, for the purpose of impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority. Finally a great party was organized for the purpose of obtaining the administration of the Government, with the avowed object of using its power for the total exclusion of the slave States from all participation in the benefits of the public domain acquired by all the States in common, whether by conquest or purchase; of surrounding them entirely by States in which slavery should be prohibited; of thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars. This party, thus organized, succeeded in the month of November last in the election of its candidate for the Presidency of the United States.
In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the wellbeing and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of the wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people; towns and cities had sprung into existence, and had rapidly increased in wealth and population under the social system of the South; the white population of the Southern slaveholding States had augmented from about 1,250,000 at the date of the adoption of the Constitution to more than 8,500,000 in 1860; and the productions of the South in cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man. With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced. With this view the legislatures of the several States invited the people to select delegates to conventions to be held for the purpose of determining for themselves what measures were best adapted to meet so alarming a crisis in their history.
So although the editor William Lloyd Garrison quickly got to the point and the politician Jefferson Davis carried on at length, they both essentially made the same point–the war then breaking out was about slavery. That these two men, the bitterest of enemies, concurred on this point at this moment is very important. Certainly, Davis wanted slavery preserved while Garrison wanted it destroyed, but they both agreed in the waning days of April 1861 it was at the heart of the war then gaining momentum, as subsequent events would soon confirm.
Source of Garrison letter of April 28, 1861: Walter M. Merrill, ed. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume V: Let the Oppressed Go Free (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 28.
Source of Davis message of April 29, 1861: