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The Capture of Jefferson Davis

The Illustrated London News, vol. 46, no. 1318, p. 517.

June 3, 1865


One of the instincts which a high state of civilisation has developed in men is that which prompts them to draw a wide distinction between political and criminal offences. Some of our most highly reputed moralists have maintained the right of insurrection, condemning the exercise of it only when it is resorted to without due consideration of the means it can command for ensuring success. That which we call "treason" when it loses its cause, we glorify as "patriotism" when it wins; and, in common estimation, the interval between the two diminishes in proportion as the efforts which are made at change, by armed force, either the form or the course of no existing Government approach the attainment of their object. We do not think it necessary to test the foundation upon which this sentiment rests. It suffices that it not only exists but prevails in every civilised community the main guarantees of whose liberty have been wrested from de facto rulers by military means. Our own political

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Constitution and the independence of the United States owe their origin to movements which unquestionably might have failed, and which, if they had, would have figured in history as unjustifiable revolts. Success has consecrated them; but common-sense teaches us that the good fortune which turned the scale in their favour could not affect the morality of the agents who initiated them, and that, had.the results been other than they were, the men who risked their all in attempting to achieve them would have been in all essential respects unchanged in character, although, instead of extorting the homage of mankind, their names might possibly have been blackened with infamy.

Neither here nor, we should think, in America, can the capture of Mr. Davis, the political chief of the late Confederation, be regarded as matter for congratulation by those who look far ahead. The desire that he might not be so entangled in the ruins of the political edifice which the North had overturned as to prevent his escape from personal danger was all but universal. Men who seriously disapproved of the course which he had pursued felt it as strongly as men who admired and applauded it--the latter on account of sympathy with the man, with the object at which he had aimed, and with the energy and courage he had displayed in the prosecution of it--the former, because the issue of the contest could not be made more complete by the punishment of any who took an unsuccessful part in it; because a struggle which has enlisted the enthusiastic and self-sacrificing support of millions for the space of four years cannot be relegated to the position of a municipal crime; and because any exhibition of vindictive feeling by the North can have no other effect than that of making reconciliation with the South more difficult and hopeless. On all accounts, and with regard to all the parties concerned, it appeared highly desirable that the leading men of the late Confederacy should succeed in getting clear of the pursuit of their antagonists.

The event has fallen out quite otherwise. Mr. Jefferson Davis has been taken, as have also three or four of his most intimate associates. Their camp at Irwinsville, seventy-five miles southeast of Macon, was surprised, and the fugitive-in-chief, it is reported, attempting to make good his escape disguised as a woman, was apprehended by troopers. We have observed with pain, not unmingled with disgust, a misplaced effort in some quarters to make merry over the latter circumstance. Assuming the truth of the statement made to Major-General Wilson by his men, we see no ground in it for this attempt to disparage Mr. Davis's personal courage. Let the same criticism which has found amusement in such an incident exhibit a like levity over the devices resorted to for concealment by Charles II., or by the young Pretender of 1745, and the good taste of society will very speedily frown it out of countenance. The man who was the soul of an enterprise which required the utmost pertinacity as well as the largest sacrifices on the part of twenty millions of people to put down, might have been reasonably thought beyond the reach of that petty malice which can detect ignominy in a not uncommon ruse to evade pressing danger. The only thing about it to he deplored is that it was unsuccessful.

The people of the United States would very gladly, we think, have been spared the further trial of their magnanimity to which this capture will expose them. The surrender of General Lee had all but quenched their fiery passions when the assassination of President Lincoln occurred to rekindle vindictive instincts. The excitement occasioned by that event was subsiding when Mr. Davis was apprehended. What will be done with him? If it can be proved that he was accessory to murder there will be an end to embarrassment, for in that case the sympathy of all men will be instantly withdrawn from him. But who anticipates this? None, we venture to surmise, but those who have cherished towards him feelings of personal antipathy. No; the charge which he will, doubtless, be put upon his trial to answer is that of treason--that of having levied war against the Government of the United States: the legal penalty of it is for Congress to declare. Every step, it may be presumed, will be taken with due solemnity. The prisoner will have a fair trial; his offence will be proved; the verdict will go against him; he will perhaps be sentenced to the death of a felon! And what then? Most thoughtful people on both Continents are asking this question with no little anxiety--what then? Let us look at it for a moment.

If the sentence should be fully carried into effect, it is difficult, at least for European on-lookers, to discover what benefit will accrue therefrom to the American Union. True, the Government at Washington might cite, in defence of an extreme course, not a few Old World precedents, some of which might be selected from English annals; but their ability to do this would not dispose of the fact that public opinion as to the mode of dealing with political offences has undergone considerable change since the commencement of the present century, and nowhere more decidedly than in the United States. Judging from the temper displayed by the people of the North during the brief interval between the surrender of General Lee and the assassination of President Lincoln, nothing would have been more in accordance with their wishes than the proclamation of a general amnesty; and it may be safely inferred, from the spontaneity and universality of that outburst of kindly sentiment, that severity in wielding the sword of justice is not required to satisfy popular feeling. It can hardly be pleaded that it is necessary to the safety of the Government, the military collapse of the Confederacy having proved so complete as to render further deterrent measures quite superfluous. Public policy does not demand it, inasmuch as the speedy conciliation of the South is the one point at which true statesmanship should now aim, and the ignominious execution of Mr. Davis would serve only to add a last drop of bitterness to the cup of humiliation handed to her, and to encircle the name of her foremost man with an aureola of martyrdom. Finally, it would largely abate from the sympathy which late events have elicited from foreign nation [sic] , and cast a shade upon the glory which evermore awaits those who pluck victory from midst great difficulties and dangers. We do not discuss the Constitutional doubts involved in the case; but, on the assumption that Mr. Davis has been guilty of treason against the sovereignty of the United States, we contend that the circumstances which in this instance surround the offence powerfully recommend the exercise of clemency.

We believe it will rest with Congress to declare, in the almost certain event of Mr. Davis's conviction, the nature of his punishment. If so, we are not without hope that, through its highest organ of expression, the nation will pronounce a lenient sentence. It is not to be expected that the prisoner will receive immediate and plenary pardon. But we entertain the hope that his life may be spared, and that exile for the remainder of his days from the American continent will be considered as heavy a doom as expediency and public policy render imperative. Much embarrassment might be avoided by the adoption of some such course: general respect, both at home and abroad, would, we think, be gained by it. All that is thought to be due to the majesty of the law, and to justice, would be secured; while the least possible violence would be done to the sentiments of humanity, which are strong in the bosom of civilised communities. Our kinsmen across the water will, we earnestly trust, remember and illustrate the language of the bard whom they as well as we revere--

And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

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