Building Greater Permanency

While delegates prepared to attend the “Peace Conference” in Washington, delegates from the seceded states prepared to attend a convention in Montgomery, Alabama. The purpose was to form a new nation “which will declare its independence of the late United States, as the Congress of the thirteen colonies declared their independence of Great Britain.”

Montgomery, on the south bank of the Alabama River, was chosen for this convention because it could be conveniently reached by rail or water from the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Mississippi River Valley. But it was too small for such a gathering; its only two hotels were booked beyond capacity, and the state capitol could barely accommodate all those coming to either participate in or witness the proceedings. Nevertheless, excitement was in the air as the convention began on the 4th.

It was a clear, warm day as 37 delegates from six states gathered in the chamber of the Alabama Senate. Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia noted that these men “were not such men as revolutions or civil commotions usually bring to the surface. They were men of substance as well as of solid character–men of education, of reading, of refinement, and well versed in the principles of government… Their object was not to tear down so much as it was to build up with the greater security and permanency.”

Many of the delegates had served in the U.S. Congress, and having opposed northern interests on Capitol Hill for so long, they now found themselves in the new position of having little to oppose. In fact, one delegate noted that a “mania of unanimity” filled the chamber. Texas, whose convention had just voted to secede three days prior, had not sent representation yet. Three envoys from North Carolina were there, but since that state had no current plans to secede, they would be unofficial onlookers.

Spectators filled the galleries as the chaplain delivered the opening prayer. William P. Chilton called the convention to order, and according to the official record:

“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…”

Robert Barnwell of South Carolina was elected temporary president, and Howell Cobb of Georgia was elected convention president, both unanimously. Cobb had held several high political offices, and most recently had been Treasury Secretary under President James Buchanan. Cobb declared: “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.” A committee was formed to establish the convention rules, and the first day’s work was over.

On the 5th, the delegates adopted the convention rules presented by Alexander Stephens. The rules committee established that this gathering would be a “congress of sovereign, independent states,” and as such, votes would be taken not by individual delegate, but by state. Next came debate over exactly what the convention had the power to do. To counter musings that secession was just a bluff to get better compromise terms within the Union, the delegates quickly endorsed a resolution submitted by Christopher G. Memminger of South Carolina to form “a Confederacy of the States which have seceded from the Federal Union, and that a committee be appointed to report a plan for the provisional government for the same upon the basis of the Constitution of the United States.”

Memminger was named to head the 12-man committee, which began developing a framework for a new constitution. It was decided that this convention would serve as the new nation’s provisional Congress until a permanent one could be formed. Next, the delegates agreed to create this framework in secret sessions, where disagreements could be hashed out away from the press while the convention kept up its appearance of unanimity. But there was little on which to disagree; even former cooperationists like Stephens were now declaring that reunion was impossible.

South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens had a vested interest in the convention’s actions. He wanted to expel the Federal garrison from Charleston Harbor, but his state lacked the power to do it alone. He needed a nation to back him. As the convention went on, Pickens wrote to South Carolina delegate Porcher Miles: “There is danger ahead unless you give us immediately a strong organized government & take jurisdiction of all military defence we will soon be forced into a war of sections unless you act quickly it will be too late & reaction will commence which will inaugurate confusion & with it the most fatal consequences.”

Meanwhile, open sessions of the convention took place while Memminger’s committee worked in secret over the next two days. On the afternoon of the 7th, the committee presented the rough draft of the Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of North America. The next day and a half would be spent finalizing the document that would be the foundation of the new nation.


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