Why Did Pius IX Support Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy

One historical issue that may at times be levied against Catholics is the support of Pope Pius IX for Jefferson Davis and the Confederate States of America.

Why did Pope Pius IX support the Confederacy and what, if anything, did that say about the Church’s stance towards slavery?

The Church Is Against Slavery

First and foremost, the Catholic Church is vehemently opposed to all racial slavery. In 1435, Pope Eugene IV officially condemned the enslavement of the black natives of the Canary Islands. He decreed that all European masters were to free the enslaved within 15 days or face excommunication – the highest penalty of the Church (Sicut Dudum).

In 1537, Pope Paul III attributed the slavery of the West Indian and South American natives to Satan in Sublimis Deus (June 2, 1537). Further condemnations emerged under Popes Gregory XIV (1591), Urban VIII (Commissum Nobis, 1639), Innocent XI (1686), Benedict XIV (Immensa Pastorum, 1741), Pius VII (1815), Gregory XVI (1839), and Leo XIII (1888).

Correcting History

Many Catholics have also been kept in the dark regarding some basic facts because the narratives told in today’s schools and books consistently seek to portray the Catholic Church in as negative a light as possible. Constantly repeating certain facts, downplaying or omitting others, and even “adjusting” facts are all methods employed in favor of an anti-Catholic bias.

When Spain began to explore the New World, she was governed by some of her most Catholic monarchs, including Queen Isabella the Catholic. Several of these Catholic monarchs condemned slavery, establishing laws and punishments against this practice. The indigenous people were to be considered citizens of the Spanish kingdom and vassals of her monarchs. There certainly were many abuses, but these were always in violation of Catholic principles, not in obedience to Catholic teaching and the laws of this Catholic nation.[i] The monarchs often were unaware of some abuses, received conflicting reports, or simply did not have sufficient loyal enforcement personnel to enforce the laws.

On the contrary, Protestant nations – such as England – had no such strong admonitions against slavery at this time. The Protestant English and Dutch did much to further slavery around the globe through their greed and powerful navies. Some Protestant sects did oppose slavery but it was not widespread, until centuries later. Nor should we forget that in many cases the Protestant English overlords treated the Catholic Irish as subhuman, even in their own homeland. Many Catholic Irish suffered tribulations similar to enslaved Africans. Perhaps a historical scholar reading this article can research (and comment below) when a Protestant monarch first promulgated a decree against slavery.

Portugal is a Catholic nation and they too are infamous in history for furthering the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Again, they did this against the teaching of the popes. Moreover, they did it with the cooperation of African tribes. The vast majority of slaves which were taken to the Americas from Africa were actually captured and enslaved by other black Africans.

There was much tribal warfare in that pagan continent. Tribes would raid other tribes for the purpose of capturing slaves. Many of the tribes living on the coasts, who would trade with Europeans, would travel into the interior of Africa to capture slaves. This part of the slave trade is rarely told in history books, but it is an essential element. Had these African tribes not joined in – and profited from – the slave trade, it never would have been possible. And again these were pagan tribes, not Catholic ones. This fact of history by no means exonerates the Catholics who engaged in slave trade, but it does show how easily – and terribly – we Catholics can be corrupted when we participate in pagan practices.

The simple truth is that the slavery which came to the Americas was not a “Catholic problem.” It was rather a cultural and social problem in which many nations engaged, on account of greed and not acknowledging the basic human rights which God has bestowed upon all men. Protestants and pagans were guilty of this sin, as were Catholics. A major distinction, however, is that Catholic leaders – popes and monarchs – were the first to condemn and punish the practice. Modern history rarely conveys this truth.

What Was Pope Pius IX’s Role with the Confederacy?

If the Church was against slavery (which we know to be the case based on all of that evidence), then why did Pope Pius IX support the South? The following historical account which answers that question is taken from the historical research of PapalZouaveUS who posted this research on Twitter. Follow that Twitter account for more good historical research from the time of Pope Pius IX.

In the summer of 1863, Pope Pius IX sent a joint letter to the archbishops of New Orleans and New York expressing his prayers and desire for peace and for the archbishops to work toward ending the war. In response, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent an ambassador, Dudley Mann, to Rome with a letter he had written to Pope Pius IX. The Pope received Mann warmly and held an audience for him.

According to Mann:

“His Holiness stated, after I had taken my stand near to his side, that he had been so afflicted by the horrors of the war in America that many months ago he had written to the Archbishops at New Orleans and New York to use all the influence that they could properly employ for terminating with as little delay as possible the deplorable state of hostilities, that from the former he had received no answer, but he had heard from the latter and his communication inspired hope that his ardent wishes would be speedily gratified.”

Pope Pius IX then had the letter from President Davis read to him, which Mann relates as follows:

“The translation was rendered in a slow, solemn and emphatic pronunciation. During its progress, I did not cease for an instant to carefully survey the features of the Sovereign Pontiff. A sweeter expression of pious affection, of tender benignity, never adorned the face of mortal man. No picture can adequately represent him when exclusively absorbed in Christian contemplation. Every sentence of the letter appeared to sensibly affect him. At the conclusion of each he would lay his hand down upon the desk and bow his head approvingly.

“When the passage was reached, wherein the President states, in such sublime and affecting language: ‘We have offered up at the footstool of our Father who art in Heaven prayers inspired by the same feeling which animates your Holiness’ his deep sunken orbs, visibly moistened, were upturned towards that throne upon which ever sits the Prince of Peace, indicating that his heart was pleading for our deliverance from that causeless and merciless war which is prosecuted against us. The soul of infidelity, if indeed infidelity has a soul, would have melted in view of so sacred a spectacle. The emotion occasioned by the translation was succeeded by a silence of some time.”

Pope Pius IX asked if either he or Davis were Catholic, but neither were. He continued by asking if the Confederacy would allow gradual emancipation to appease the Union. Mann responded that the South was a Sovereign nation and as such would not be coerced into making laws, especially one that would cause civil unrest. However, Mann stated that if slavery were truly an evil institution, the South would gradually phase it out.

Pope Pius IX then asked what he could do to help end the war. Mann proceeded to tell him about the large number of foreigners the Union had recruited in order to sustain their ranks. The enlisted were influenced by high wages and a false view of the cause, while the senior officers were typically motivated by more sinister means. A common phrase among them was “Greek fire for the families and cities of the rebels, and Hellfire for their chiefs.” His Holiness was startled and said, “Certainly no Catholic would reiterate so monstrous a sentiment.”

While the majority of the tens of thousands of foreign-born Union soldiers did not have bad intentions, many senior officers were infected with European revolutionary ideas from the leaders had who fought against the Catholic Church since the days of the French Revolution and anyone that stood for her.

After the conversation with Mann, Pope Pius IX promised to write a letter to President Davis that could be promulgated to the public. Two weeks later, Pope Pius IX wrote the letter which began as follows: “To the Illustrious and Honorable Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.” He continued by expressing his sadness about the war in America and his desire for there to be peace. He then encouraged President Davis to practice Christian virtues and pray to God for the war to end. Mann took this letter as a sign that the Vatican had formally recognized the Confederacy.[ii] However, the Confederate Secretary of State and President Davis viewed the letter as a mere cordial response. They attempted to further press Pope Pius IX for a more strongly worded recognition, but the war ended before that happened.

In the Aftermath of the Civil War

After the end of the war, Jefferson Davis was imprisoned in April 1865. Pope Pius IX, upon hearing of Davis’ mistreatment in prison, sent him two photographs of himself, one of which contained the Bible verse Matthew 11:28: “Come to me all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, sayeth the Lord.” The second photo was another portrait of Pope Pius IX with Psalm 94: “To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart.”

Davis’ Catholic friend Lucius Northrop remarked: “You did not understand all the significance of his kindly act…he delicately invited you to come to him as Christ’s vicar.” While Davis was not a Catholic, he did have a sympathy towards the faith – he had attended a Dominican school and was the only Protestant enrolled.  And when filling his administration as Confederate President, he included Catholics in high positions. By contrast, Lincoln and most U.S. Presidents only included Protestants in their administrations.

While Davis was in prison, a Rosary was sent to him by The Sisters of Charity of Savannah, Georgia. Additionally, these nuns offered further support for the Davis family. An account from Mrs. Davis states:

“No institution of my own church offered to teach my children. One day three Sisters of Charity came to see me and brought me five gold dollars, all the money they had. They almost forced me to take the money, but I did not. They then offered to take my children to their school in the neighborhood of Savannah, where the air was cool, and they could be comfortably cared for during the summer months.”

A Crown of Thorns

“In the New Orleans Confederate Civil War Museum there is a crown of thorns, weaved for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, by Blessed Pope Pius IX. At the behest of an Irish priest, who had befriended Davis and who often visited him during his two-year imprisonment after the war, the Pope sent the veteran general and statesman this sign of compassion. Pius was himself a “prisoner of the Vatican” after the fall of the Papal States under the forces of the freemason Garibaldi. The thorns in this crown are two inches long. As a token of respect to the beleaguered pontiff, the city of Macon, Georgia, named a street in his honor. They even put it in Italian: Pio Nono Avenue.”[iii]

Davis was so moved by this gift, that after he was released from prison, and after Pope Pius IX was deposed in 1870 and stripped of the Papal States, Davis suggested to his wife that she weave a crown of thorns. Recalling his own experience of being deposed, imprisoned, and reduced to poverty, it’s hard to imagine Davis would not more deeply empathize with Pius IX, and even more importantly, with Our Lord. Davis then hung the crown of thorns above the picture that Pope Pius IX had given him, essentially linking the suffering and persecution of himself and Pius IX with that of Christ, Our King crowned-with-thorns-in-this-vale-of-tears.

In the end, neither Davis nor his family converted to the Catholic Faith.[iv] He died in 1889 with a nun at his side, and priests helped officiate his funeral. Let us pray that at the moment of death, he converted in time and was received by Our Lord into His Mystical Body and spared everlasting punishment.

And let us, like Pope Pius IX, work for the reconciliation of enemies and seek out the salvation of everyone. We must strive for the conversion of our enemies – not their death and destruction. The Holy Father supported unity and peace while still never supporting the evils of slavery. His example in prudence and pastoral concern for souls and for the True Faith should be an example for all of us.


[i] There was also a significant shift in the Spanish Kingdom when the Hapsburg Dynasty (1516-1700) was overthrown by the Bourbon Dynasty (1700-1808) in the War of Spanish Succession. The Bourbons had been greatly influenced by the Huguenots (French Calvinists) and were not nearly as faithful to Catholic teaching and practice as had been the Hapsburgs. The Bourbon’s rule deviated far more from Catholic teaching. Conditions in the American colonies deteriorated, injustices multiplied, and this helped set the stage for the terrible freemasonic and anti-Catholic revolutions of the 1800s throughout Latin America. But again, note that this influence came from a Protestant influence, not from Catholic teaching. This is an important truth omitted in our history books.

[ii] Primary sources from before, during and after the Civil War amply demonstrate that slavery was not the only issue. In fact, many historians argue it was not the primary issue, though it was the most emotional and volatile. States’ rights vs. the role of the federal government was a major issue, as was the right of the federal government to levy taxes and tariffs, which states opposed as unjust. Cultural and economic differences also played a role in distancing the North and South. For example, in general the South was a far more agrarian culture and traditionally minded. Prior to 1860, records clearly indicate that American legislators, in both North and South, universally acknowledged the right a State had to secede from the Union. They had entered this union freely and could freely leave as an independent nation.

An objective and impartial observer like Pius IX would have taken all of this into account. He may have been convinced that the Confederate states had legally formed their own nation. He would have known many issues had led to the dissolution, of which slavery was only one. He clearly opposed the war and encouraged peace but would have witnessed that it was the North (considered a foreign nation) that was invading the South. He would also have heard the reports that the North horrendously violated the principles of a Just War more severely than had the South (Lincoln waged the first ‘Total War’ in history, as epitomized by Grant’s starvation of Vicksburg, Sheridan’s burning of the Shenandoah Valley, and Sherman’s March of Death and Destruction to Savannah). Given all these factors, it is not surprising that Pius IX wrote cordially to Jefferson Davis and acknowledged him as the President of the Confederate States of America.

[iii] See http://catholicism.org/blessed-pius-ix-and-jefferson-davis.html

[iv] This is to say we have no written record or testimony that he converted.

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