In Sovereign and Independent Character

In Sovereign and Independent Character

The days that followed Abraham Lincoln's election were filled with secession fever across the states of the Deep South. Conventions were called.

Commissioners were appointed to encourage other states to action and to discuss the formation of a Southern Confederacy. Some Southern states were reluctant to secede, as different political factions favored negotiation or cooperation with the federal government. None, however, was more passionate than South Carolina, where Robert Barnwell Rhett (below, source: United States Library of Congress) —called the "Father of Secession"—led the movement. "It has been a matter which has been gathering head for thirty years," he said. "The election of Lincoln and Hamlin was the last straw on the back of the camel." Days after South Carolina left the Union, Rhett prepared a report calling for a convention to be held in Montgomery, Ala., in February 1861 to draft a constitution which would be based on the U.S. Constitution.

Other states joined the call, agreeing that Montgomery, with its central location and accessibility, offered a desirable venue. Each of the seven states that had left the Union would send as many delegates as they had previous representatives in the U.S. Congress. Most of the delegates were slave owners, either lawyers or planters by profession. The majority were college-educated.

On Feb. 4, 1861, the Montgomery Convention was called to order by Judge William Chilton of Alabama. Delegates from South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana presented their credentials (the Texas delegation was delayed in arriving), and Howell Cobb of Georgia was selected by acclamation to be the convention president. Cobb had been governor of Georgia, a member of Congress, and was President James Buchanan's Secretary of the Treasury until he resigned in 1860.

The first two days were spent on procedural matters. Delegates decided to draft a Provisional Constitution and to temporarily assume all functions of government. On Feb. 5, a 12-man committee—two from each of the state delegation present—was appointed to draft the Provisional Constitution. Delegates also decided all work would be done behind closed doors. The secrecy would shield the proceedings from outside influences—friendly or otherwise. A Provisional Constitution was presented to the convention on Feb. 7, and debate began the next day. Delegates decided to include the Deity in the preamble; they favored a line item veto and limits on the Congress' ability to tax. The document prohibited the importation of African slaves, but like the U.S. Constitution, did not forbid slavery. Only the delegates from South Carolina wanted the slave trade reestablished.

With the adoption of the Provisional Constitution on Feb. 8, the next task for the convention was the election of a president. There was no clear front-runner at the beginning of the convention. Candidates included William Yancey of Alabama; Howell Cobb, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, and Robert Toombs of Georgia; and South Carolina's Robert Barnwell Rhett. Jefferson Davis was not at the top of the list of candidates as the process began—indeed, he was not even present at the convention—but by the time the election was held, impromptu state caucuses had given Davis a plurality of the delegates. When Cobb put the Georgia delegation's support behind Davis, the outcome was unanimous. Stephens, receiving the unanimous support of the states, was elected vice president.

President Davis (above, source: National Archives and Records Administration) was sworn into office on Feb. 18. In his inaugural address he said, "We have changed the constituent parts, but not the system of our government. The Constitution formed by our fathers is that of these Confederate States, in their exposition of it, and in the judicial construction it has received, we have a light which reveals its true meaning."

Drafting a permanent constitution began immediately after the provisional document had been accepted. A second 12-man committee was appointed Feb. 9. Working behind closed doors, the committee worked long hours to formalize the Provisional Constitution. On Feb. 28 the final draft was presented to the convention.

The convention was determined to preserve states' rights and to limit the powers of the central government. Export tariffs, for example, were allowed but only with a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. The Congress, on the other hand, could not appropriate money for most "internal improvements," the exception being for harbors and navigation. The line item veto that had been introduced in the Provisional Constitution was included in the permanent version. Robert H. Smith of Alabama, who had originally proposed it, couched his argument this way: "Bills necessary for the support of the Government are loaded with items of the most exceptionable character, and are thrown upon the President at the close of the session, for his sanction, as the only alternative for keeping the Government in motion."

Other issues were debated. The president and vice president were given six-year terms, with the president ineligible for re-election. Recess appointments (the practice of a president appointing officials when the Senate is out of session to avoid a negative vote) were banned. The establishment of a Supreme Court was included in the Constitution, but it raised the thorny issue of states' rights. In the end, there never was a Supreme Court in the short-lived Confederacy.

Slavery, too, was an issue. Would it be required that other states admitted to the Confederacy be slave states? While delegates anticipated that other slave states would join, the question remained: Should free states be excluded if any wished to join in the future? How would the new government address the balance of free and slave states? Delegates decided the best way to preserve the institution of slavery was to require a two-thirds vote in Congress for the admission of any new state.

Debate was quick and, on March 11, the Constitution was approved, leaving ratification to the states, five being the number needed to establish it as law of the land. Alabama ratified it the next day. Other states quickly followed; Mississippi became the fifth state on March 29, and by April 22 all seven states had ratified the document. Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee seceded and ratified the Constitution over the summer. Following a controversial vote by the Missouri General Assembly to secede, that state was admitted to the Confederacy on Nov. 28. A provisional government in Kentucky seceded and ratified the Constitution on Dec. 10, becoming the 13th and final state to join the new government.

Tom and Gena Metcalf are freelance writers based in Marietta, Ga.

Top photo source: Alabama 1875 Constitutional Convention, Alabama Department of Archives and History.

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