February 8, 1861 – Delegates to the Montgomery Convention approved the Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States.
The convention of the seceded states began on February 4 with 37 delegates from six states; Texas was not represented yet. The official record declared:
“Be it remembered that on the fourth day of February, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, and in the Capitol of the State of Alabama, in the city of Montgomery, at the hour of noon, there assembled certain deputies and delegates from the several independent Southern States of North America, to wit: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina…”
The delegates named Howell Cobb of Georgia as convention president. Cobb stated, “The separation is perfect, complete, and perpetual. The great duty is now imposed upon us of providing for these States a government for their future security and protection.” The delegates worked to create a new government with little debate or dissension, ignoring the compromise efforts under consideration in Washington.
The next day, delegates adopted the convention rules presented by Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia. Christopher G. Memminger of South Carolina presented a resolution to form “a Confederacy of the States which have seceded from the Federal Union.” Delegates appointed Memminger to head a 12-man committee to begin working on a national constitution, and a committee was named to report a plan for a provisional government.
Memminger’s Committee of Twelve issued its report to the Convention on February 7, and delegates began secretly reviewing and debating the findings. The convention adopted the Provisional Constitution near midnight on the 8th. The document closely resembled the U.S. Constitution; Stephens explained that this new constitution’s purpose was “not to tear down so much as to build up (a government) with greater security and permanency.”
The preamble of the Confederate Constitution changed the U.S. version of “We, the people of the United States” to “We, the people of the Confederate States.” To counter the northern argument that the people of the nation superseded the states, it explicitly declared that “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character.” This implied that a state could secede from the Confederacy if desired.
The document upheld the recent Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) U.S. Supreme Court ruling by forbidding national interference with slavery in the states and allowing slaveholders to bring their slaves into any Confederate territory. The verbiage “persons held to service or labor” in the U.S. Constitution was changed to “slave” in this document, and the fugitive slave provision in the original document was strengthened.
The foreign slave trade and slave importation were permanently banned. This was partly intended to curry favor from Great Britain and other foreign powers that could become potential allies and were moving away from slavery. It also sought to please the upper South, which reaped economic benefits from exporting their slaves to lower southern states.
Import tariffs could only be levied as “necessary for revenue.” Also, “Nor shall any duties or taxes on importations from foreign nations be laid to promote to foster any branch of industry; and all duties, imposts, and excises, shall be uniform throughout the Confederate States.” This aimed to counter northern support for high tariffs to protect northern industry from foreign competition at the South’s expense. However, the document did not define the distinction between protective and revenue-only tariffs.
The national government could not finance internal improvement projects except basic necessities such as harbor development, navigation, and commerce. Only states could enter into agreements to finance other types of interstate projects such as railroads. This sought to counter the northern tendency to trade political favors for financing internal improvement projects, many of which were in northern states with no benefit to the South.
The president and vice president could only serve one six-year term; this conformed to the first draft of the U.S. Constitution. The president could veto specific sections of appropriations bills (i.e., a line-item veto) to prevent excessive spending on pet projects. The president could also remove members of his cabinet or diplomatic corps for any reason, but the removal of all other appointees required him to report a specific reason for dismissal to the Senate.
Cabinet officials could take seats on the floors of the Senate and House of Representatives and participate in legislative debates (but with no voting power); this was similar to British Parliamentary government. However, the Confederate Congress never enacted legislation to put this into effect.
Laws involving taxation and admitting new states to the Confederacy required a two-thirds majority approval in both chambers of Congress to pass. State legislatures could impeach national officials if those officials’ duties lay wholly within that state, and their trials could be held in the Confederate Senate; this further enhanced states’ rights. Members of Congress could not hold any other office until their congressional terms expired; this sought to keep them focused on their legislative duties.
The first 12 amendments of the U.S. Constitution were incorporated into this document. If at least three states requested a convention to amend the Constitution, Congress was required to assemble one. Amendments became law when approved by two-thirds of the state legislatures, not three-fourths as mandated in the U.S. Constitution.
The official name of the new nation became the Confederate States of America, after the first name (The Southern United States of America) was rejected. The Provisional Constitution would operate for one year, unless replaced before then by a permanent document. After delegates approved this document, they appointed a new committee to draft a permanent constitution.
- Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 216
- Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 12-13
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4031, 4547-612
- Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130
- Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 161
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 42
- Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 13
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 33-34
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 257-58
- White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161