Monday, June 15, 2020

Did Jefferson Davis commit treason?

The Guardian discussed Jefferson Davis on 13 June 2020:

The Confederacy lost the war and slavery was abolished under the 13th amendment, ratified in December 1865. Davis was charged with treason but never tried, having his citizenship stripped instead. He died in New Orleans in 1889.


Jefferson Davis was indicted by a grand jury convened by federal district court judge John Underwood. From there, the story gets complicated, related in part to presidential ambitions of Salmon Chase (then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) and the overlapping-in-time impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

At the time of the indictment, federal high crimes (such as treason) had to be overseen by the district judge in the jurisdiction of the crime (here Virginia, the location of Judge Underwood) and the relevant Supreme Court Justice (here, Salmon Chase, who oversaw the Fourth Circuit). Chase could foretell that the case would involve the legality of secession. Jefferson Davis would argue Davis did not commit treason, because he was no longer a citizen of the United States. If secession were constitutional, this might be a valid defense. Chase himself had states rights leanings, even though he was an abolitionist. Of all people, Thaddeus Stevens offered to defend Davis, because Stevens wanted the Confederacy to be viewed as a conquered nation, under complete military control.

The impeachment proceedings against Johnson kept delaying Davis' trial. Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt helped to obtain bail for Davis.
Chase ruled that section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which gave limitations of rights on former Confederate officials, defined the ONLY limitations which could be imposed. Thus, effectively, the indictment for treason was unconstitutional. Johnson pardoned Davis before the full Supreme Court could rule on treason by Davis.

Ironically, both Chase and Johnson were considering running as Democrats in the 1872 election. Johnson, after all, was a Democrat, and Chase was shifting.

Some relevant links:

Washington Post, In 1868, the fate of Jefferson Davis’s neck swung on Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, Ronald G. Shafer
Feb. 2, 2020 at 7:00 a.m. EST

**Some have argued that the federal government, in referring to its naval action against the Confederacy as a blockade (as distinct from a port closing) admitted that the Confederacy was a sovereign government


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