A committee within the Provisional Confederate Congress had been working on a permanent Confederate Constitution for the new nation. On the 11th, the Congress unanimously approved the document. It was very similar to the U.S. Constitution; the changes that were made were designed to ensure that their government would not be the threat to the southern way of life that the Federal government had become. The preamble:
“We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity—invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God—do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.”
The document’s similarity to its U.S. counterpart reflected the intent by the writers to base their political philosophy on the U.S. founding principles. This included copying over the first 12 amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The “necessary and proper” clause in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. document was carried over, as was the implied right of Congress to create a Supreme Court (Article III). Guidelines for creating a district court system were also provided.
There were key differences regarding the executive branch. While the U.S. Constitution allowed for a president and vice president to serve unlimited four-year terms, the Confederate president and vice president would be limited to just one six-year term. Congress could only raise appropriations if they were directly requested by the president, or if they were approved by two-thirds of both houses. The president had the power to veto parts of bills (a line-item veto), as well as authority to dismiss cabinet officers and diplomats without needing the Senate’s approval. Cabinet members were allowed to attend congressional sessions and join debates on bills that would affect their departments.
To protect states’ rights, the national judiciary could not review state cases, protective tariffs and nationally funded internal improvements were prohibited, and states were allowed to form alliances with other states and raise their own armies. Any three state legislatures could propose a constitutional amendment, and national revenue would mainly come from export tariffs on cotton and tobacco.
A significant change that limited states’ rights involved voting. The central government would decide on the qualifications to vote in national elections: “no person of foreign birth, not a citizen of the Confederate States, shall be allowed to vote for any officer, civil or political, State or Federal.” This differed from the U.S. Constitution, which left the qualifications of voting rights to the states.
One of the most contentious debates involved whether to admit free states into the Confederacy. Delegates approved a compromise by John G. Shorter of Alabama, whereby states could only be admitted with two-thirds approval in both houses of Congress. This would theoretically allow free states to join the Confederacy, but they would have to get strong approval to do it. Interestingly, the document did not address the issues of state nullification or secession.
Regarding slavery: “No… law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) was upheld by guaranteeing the right to bring slaves into Confederate territories. Congress had the right to regulate slave trading with the U.S., and such trade with any other foreign nation was prohibited. Each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation in Congress, just as in the U.S. Constitution. The Fugitive Slave Law, which southerners had so long denounced the North for failing to enforce, was strengthened.
This new Constitution was not a revolutionary document, but rather it sought to maintain the traditional southern way of life. The New York Herald called it the same as “the Constitution of the United States with various modifications and some very important and desirable improvements.” Several clauses, such as term limits for the president, creation of a civil service, and appropriations procedures later became part of U.S. law. The Confederate Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification, with the following state legislatures approving this month:
- Alabama on March 13
- Georgia on March 16
- Louisiana on March 21
- Texas on March 23
- Mississippi on March 29
It had taken the framers of the U.S. Constitution nearly four months to draft the final document. This permanent governing document for the new Confederate States of America had been drafted in just 35 days.
On the 16th, the Provisional Congress approved resolutions asking state officials to “cede the forts, arsenals, navy-yards, dock-yards, and other public establishments within their respective limits to the Confederate States.” Adhering to states’ rights, the Confederate government issued this as a request, not a demand. Meanwhile, the Confederate Convention that had assembled at Montgomery on February 4 adjourned. The new government of the new nation under a new Constitution was now up and running.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Faust, Patricia L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Thomas, Emory M., The Confederate Nation. HarperCollins e-books, Kindle Edition, 1976.