Friday, February 25, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XI: A New Nation?


By early February of 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Six of them would meet in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 4 to draft a provisional governing document for their new confederation. Delegates from Texas, which had only approved its secession on February 1, would not attend this meeting.

Now, time was short and the task was huge, so the assembled delegates in Montgomery decided to take a bit of a short-cut: most of them were more or less happy with the Constitution of the United States, so after a very brief discussion it was decided to use that as a basis. The delegates made a handful of quick changes, such as giving the President a line-item veto and changing a few procedural matters, and on February 8 the freshly-completed document was ratified unanimously by all delegates present. The next matter on the agenda was the choice of a provisional President to lead their new nation.

The debates became rather heated. Georgia was the most populous state then in the Confederacy, and could easily be expected to sway the convention to select a Georgian as President. However, Georgia's ambitions were thwarted when a well-respected Senator from Mississippi's name was thrown in the ring. He was a West Point man, had seen honorable service in the war with Mexico, and had been Secretary of War in a previous administration. The only problem was, he didn't particularly want the job. He had, in fact, argued against secession when Mississippi's legislature had taken up the issue. But he eventually came around, and came to believe that duty demanded that he take the office that was offered. And so, on February 18, Jefferson Davis took the oath of office, and became the acting President of the Confederate States of America.

Now, the Confederacy took up the job of drafting a formal, permanent Constitution to take the place of the hastily-drawn provisional document. Again, it would be mostly based upon the United States Constitution that they had previously lived under, but with a few key differences.

J. J. McCullough has gone through an exhaustive line-by-line comparison of the CSA Constitution versus the USA Constitution, as it existed in 1861, and it's a quite interesting read, if also quite lengthy. Apart from the purely cosmetic changes -- substituting "Confederate States" for "United States" for example, or the "modernized" use of language -- there were several important differences.

One is that the Confederate Constitution specifically bans the government from interfering in the institution of slavery. I don't really want to belabor this point, but so many people insist on believing that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. To believe that, you have to ignore virtually everything written about secession by the men who were there and actively supporting it. You'd have to ignore the very laws they wrote, to engrave the institution in stone, at the heart of their Republic. There can be no mistake: when these men wrote, in Section 9 Paragraph 4, "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed," they were very much in earnest about it. This was why they left the Union, full stop.

Another ... is that Southerners had, and still have, a weird idea about public works projects. They didn't like them. At all. This is another thing that's readily visible from the Tale of the Tape. In the North, you have the Erie Canal. You have miles upon miles of railroads. You have a web of commerce veining the land, from the sea inland. In the South ... you have rivers. Navigable rivers. And a scant handful of railroad lines. And, Southerners liked it that way. Anyway, they wrote it into their Constitution that it would be outright illegal for the Confederate government to do that sort of thing. (It's still kind of this way. There are probably more toll roads and bridges in Dallas and Tarrant County than in all of, say, Minnesota.)

The delegates to the framing of the Confederate Constitution wanted a governing document that would guarantee the supremacy of the States over the Confederate government. And the Confederate Constitution would give it to them, good and hard. Time would tell how well, or how poorly that would work.

In the meantime, a train had pulled into the station up in Washington. Abraham Lincoln had arrived, to prepare for his inauguration on the fourth day of March. He would assume leadership of a Union riven by secession. But there were still a few who held out hope that it need not end in bloodshed. But only a few. Most could see the powder train burning steadily, and all eyes were turned not upon Montgomery or Washington, but on Charleston harbor. Major Anderson and a hundred-odd Union troops still held firm at Fort Sumter.

But supplies were beginning to run low. Something had to give.

1 comment:

Jack Jodell said...

Outstanding post, Tim, and I thank you for it!