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Chapter 10:

  • Temper of the Southern people indicated by the action of the Confederate Congress
  • -- the permanent Constitution -- modeled after the Federal Constitution -- variations and special provisions -- provisions with regard to slavery and the slave trade -- a false assertion refuted -- Excellence of the Constitution -- Admissions of hostile or impartial criticism.

The conservative temper of the people of the Confederate States was conspicuously exhibited in the most important product of the early labors of their representatives in Congress assembled. The provisional Constitution, although prepared only for temporary use, and necessarily in some haste, was so well adapted for the purpose which it was intended to serve that many thought it would have been wise to continue it in force indefinitely, or at least until the independency of the Confederacy should be assured. The Congress, however, deeming it best that the system of government should emanate from the people, accordingly, on March 11, prepared the permanent Constitution, which was submitted to and ratified by the people of the respective states.

Of this Constitution—which may be found in an appendix,1 side by side with the Constitution of the United Statesthe Hon. Alexander H. Stephens, who was one of its authors, very properly says:

The whole document utterly negatives the idea, which so many have been active in endeavoring to put in the enduring form of history, that the Convention at Montgomery was nothing but a set of “conspirators,” whose object was the overthrow of the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and the erection of a great “slavery oligarchy,” instead of the free institutions thereby secured and guaranteed. This work of the Montgomery Convention, with that of the Constitution for a Provisional Government, will ever remain, not only as a monument of the wisdom, forecast, and statesmanship of the men who constituted it, but an everlasting refutation of the charges which have been brought against them. These works together show clearly that their only leading object was to sustain, uphold, and perpetuate the fundamental principles of the Constitution of the United States.2

The Constitution of the United States was the model followed throughout, with only such changes as experience suggested for better practical working or for greater perspicuity. The preamble to both instruments is the same in substance, and very nearly identical in language. [224] The words “We, the people of the United States,” in one, are replaced by “We, the people of the Confederate States,” in the other; the gross perversion which has been made of the former expression is precluded in the latter merely by the addition of the explanatory clause, “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character”—an explanation which, at the time of the formation of the Constitution of the United States, would have been deemed entirely superfluous.

The official term of the President was fixed at six instead of four years, and it was provided that he should not be eligible for reelection. This was in accordance with the original draft of the Constitution of 1787.3

The President was empowered to remove officers of his cabinet, or those engaged in the diplomatic service, at his discretion, but in all other cases removal from office could be made only for cause, and the cause was to be reported to the Senate.4

Congress was authorized to provide by law for the admission of “the principal officer in each of the executive departments” (or cabinet officers) to a seat upon the floor of either house, with the privilege of taking part in the discussion of subjects pertaining to his department.5 This wise and judicious provision, which would have tended to obviate much delay and misunderstanding, was, however, never put into execution by the necessary legislation.

Protective duties for the benefit of special branches of industry, which had been so fruitful a source of trouble under the government of the United States, were altogether prohibited.6 So, also, were bounties from the treasury,7 and extra compensation for services rendered by officers, contractors, or employees of any description.8

A vote of two-thirds of each house was requisite for the appropriation of money from the treasury, unless asked for by the chief of a department and submitted to Congress by the President, or for payment of the expenses of Congress, or of claims against the Confederacy judicially established and declared.9 The President was also authorized to approve any one appropriation and disapprove any other in the same bill.10

With regard to the impeachment of federal officers, it was entrusted, as formerly, to the discretion of the House of Representatives, with the [225] additional provision, however, that in the case of any judicial or other officer exercising his functions solely within the limits of a particular state, impeachment might be made by the legislature of such state—the trial in all cases to be by the Senate of the Confederate States.11

Any two or more states were authorized to enter into compacts with each other for the improvement of the navigation of rivers flowing between or through them.12 A vote of two-thirds of each house—the Senate voting by states—was required for the admission of a new state.13

With regard to amendments of the Constitution, it was made obligatory upon Congress, on the demand of any three states concurring in the proposed amendment or amendments, to summon a convention of all the states to consider and act upon them, voting by states, but restricted in its action to the particular propositions thus submitted. If approved by such convention, the amendments were to be subject to final ratification by two-thirds of the states.14

Other changes or modifications, worthy of special notice, related to internal improvements, bankruptcy laws, duties on exports, suits in the federal courts, and the government of the territories.15

With regard to slavery and the slave trade, the provisions of this Constitution furnish an effectual answer to the assertion, so often made, that the Confederacy was founded on slavery, that slavery was its “corner stone,” etc. Property in slaves, already existing, was recognized and guaranteed, just as it was by the Constitution of the United States; the rights of such property in the common territories were protected against any such hostile discrimination as had been attempted in the Union. But the “extension of slavery,” in the only practical sense of that phrase, was more distinctly and effectually precluded by the Confederate than by the Federal Constitution. This will be manifest on a comparison of the provisions of the two relative to the slave trade. These are found at the beginning of the ninth section of the first article of each instrument. The Constitution of the United States has the following:

The migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight; but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importations, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.

The Confederate Constitution, on the other hand, ordained as follows: [226]

1. The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country, other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.

2. Congress shall also have the power to prohibit the introduction of slaves from any State not a member of, or Territory not belonging to, this Confederacy.

In the case of the United States, the only prohibition is against any interference by Congress with the slave trade for a term of years, and it was further legitimized by the authority given to impose a duty upon it. The term of years, it is true, had long since expired, but there was still no prohibition of the trade by the Constitution; it was after 1808 entirely within the discretion of Congress either to encourage, tolerate, or prohibit it.

Under the Confederate Constitution, on the contrary, the African slave trade was “hereby forbidden,” positively and unconditionally, from the beginning. Neither the Confederate government nor that of any of the states could permit it, and the Congress was expressly “required” to enforce the prohibition. The only discretion in the matter entrusted to the Congress was whether or not to permit the introduction of slaves from any of the United States or their territories.

Lincoln, in his inaugural address, had said: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Now if there was no purpose on the part of the government of the United States to interfere with the institution of slavery within its already existing limits—a proposition which permitted its propagation within those limits by natural increase—and inasmuch as the Confederate Constitution precluded any other than the same natural increase, we may plainly perceive the disingenuousness and absurdity of the pretension by which a factitious sympathy has been obtained in certain quarters for the war upon the South, on the ground that it was a war in behalf of freedom against slavery.16 [227]

I had no direct part in the preparation of the Confederate Constitution. No consideration of delicacy forbids me, therefore, to say, in closing this brief review of that instrument, that it was a model of wise, temperate, and liberal statesmanship. Intelligent criticism, from hostile as well as friendly sources, has been compelled to admit its excellences, and has sustained the judgment of a popular Northern journal which said, a few days after it was adopted and published:

The new Constitution is the Constitution of the United States with various modifications and some very important and most desirable improvements. We are free to say that the invaluable reforms enumerated should be adopted by the United States, with or without a reunion of the seceded States, and as soon as possible. But why not accept them with the propositions of the Confederate States on slavery as a basis of reunion?17

1 See Appendix K.

2 War between the States, Vol. II, col. XIX, p. 389.

3 See Article II, section 1.

4 Ibid., section 2, par. 3.

5 Article I, section 6, par. 2.

6 Article I, section 8, par. 1.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., section 9, par. 10.

9 Ibid., par. 9.

10 Ibid., section 7, par. 2.

11 Ibid., section 2, par. 5.

12 Ibid., section 10, par. 3.

13 Article IV, section 3, par. 1.

14 Article V:

15 Article I, section 8, paragraphs 1 and 4, section 9, par. 6; Article III, section 2, par. 1; Article IV, section 3, par. 3.

16 As late as April 22, 1861, Seward, United States Secretary of State, in a dispatch to Dayton, minister to France, since made public, expressed the views and purposes of the United States government in the premises as follows. It may be proper to explain that, by what he is pleased to term “the revolution,” Seward means the withdrawal of the Southern states; that the words italicized are, perhaps, not so distinguished in the original. He says: “The Territories will remain in all respects the same, whether the revolution shall succeed or shall fail. The condition of slavery in the several States will remain just the same, whether it succeed or fail. There is not even a pretext for the complaint that the disaffected States are to be conquered by the United States if the revolution fails; for the rights of the States and the condition of every being in them will remain subject to exactly the same laws and forms of administration, whether the revolution shall succeed or whether it shall fail. In the one case, the States would be federally connected with the new Confederacy; in the other, they would, as now, be members of the United States; but their Constitutions and laws, customs, habits, and institutions in either case, will remain the same.”

17 New York Herald, March 19, 1861.

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