The Confederate States of America

Delegates to the Montgomery Convention had created a Committee of Twelve, headed by Christopher G. Memminger of South Carolina, to develop a constitution for the new nation of states that had seceded from the Union. Memminger’s committee submitted its document to the full convention on the 7th, and the delegates reviewed and debated the findings in secret session. Finally, near midnight on the 8th, they approved “The Constitution for the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America.”

The committee had used the United States Constitution as its starting point, making changes it felt necessary to make the document more amenable to southern interests. 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 To counter the northern argument that the people of the nation superseded the states, it explicitly declared that each state was “acting in its sovereign and independent character.” This implied that states could secede from the Confederacy if desired, but no definitive verbiage on the subject was provided.

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 “person 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 appease 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. A district court system was created, with each state comprising a district.

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. Congress was also empowered to admit other states into the Confederacy, thus providing for future expansion. 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 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. Several names were considered for the new nation, including the Southern United States of America and the Confederate States of North America. It was finally agreed to call it the Confederate States of America.

The delegates to the Montgomery convention, now acting as the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America, reassembled on the 9th. It began as a unicameral legislature, but the permanent Congress would have a Senate and a House of Representatives like that of the United States. After reassembling, this body approved accepting a loan from Louisiana for $500,000. This money had been seized by the state from the U.S. Custom House and U.S. Mint at New Orleans. The first bill was also passed:

“That all the laws of the United States of America in force and in use in the Confederate States of America on the first day of November last, and not inconsistent with the Constitution of the Confederate States, be and the same are hereby continued in force until altered or repealed by the Congress.”

Congress then set about electing a provisional president and vice-president. Each of the six states represented (representatives from Texas were on their way) would have a single vote for each office. Several men were under consideration, including convention president Howell Cobb, Jefferson Davis, Robert B. Rhett, William Yancey, Alexander H. Stephens, and Robert Toombs. Each state’s delegation went into secret, separate meetings to select their choices. The delegates agreed that to demonstrate unity, the final vote should be unanimous, with any disagreements settled before that vote took place.

At the outset, the delegations of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi chose Jefferson Davis for president. South Carolina and Louisiana were split between Davis and Cobb, while Georgia was split between Davis and the Georgians Cobb and Stephens. Cobb himself broke the deadlock when he “immediately announced his wish that Davis should be unanimously elected.” The rest of the states agreed. For vice president, Cobb’s state rival Stephens was chosen by the Georgians, and the other five states followed suit.

Davis had graduated from West Point and served in the Mexican War; he had also been a U.S. secretary of war. Many delegates thought his military experience vital in case the United States tried to restore the Union by force. His role as unofficial southern leader in the U.S. Senate demonstrated proven leadership, and he was politically moderate. Stephens was a longtime member of the U.S. Congress who had been even more moderate than Davis by initially resisting secession.

The selection of Davis and Stephens reflected the convention’s commitment to create a nation of restrained statesmen who were committed to maintaining the status quo. The extremists who had done so much to get their states to secede were passed over in favor of more moderate figures that would better appeal to foreign nations as well as other slave states considering secession. Not everyone was satisfied; fire-eaters like Rhett felt that Davis and Stephens were not extreme enough. But none were dissatisfied enough to threaten the spirit of harmony.

Celebrations took place throughout Montgomery as enthusiastic southerners thronged to the city to take part in these historic events. The Confederate States of America now had a constitution, a Congress, and a chief executive. It all took just five days.


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