This week in history: The Confederate Constitution is adopted

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, March 12 2014 5:20 p.m. MDT

Civil War re-enactor Val Spruell, of Vernal, poses with his 12-pound Confederate Napolean cannon after a firing demonstration Sunday, April 14, 2013, at the Buckskin Hills Complex in Uintah County.

Geoff Liesik, Deseret News

On March 11, 1861, the Confederate Provisional Congress adopted the Confederate Constitution as the legal framework for the Confederate States of America. The Confederate Constitution imitated the U.S. Constitution in many ways, though differed critically in others.

After Abraham Lincoln's election to the president of the United States in November 1860, many Southern states declared their intention to secede from the Union. First was South Carolina in December 1860, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana in January 1861. Texas seceded on Feb. 1.

These states seceded because the Republican Lincoln had stated his intention to keep the practice of slavery from spreading to the western U.S. territories. For many die-hard slave owners in the south, this meant a slow death for their “peculiar institution.”

Eventually, a total of 11 states would secede from the Union, though the Confederates would claim that both Missouri and Kentucky had likewise joined the Confederacy. Despite the fact that they were slave-holding states, Missouri and Kentucky remained in the Union for the entirety of the Civil War, as did slave states Maryland and Delaware.

Recognizing their need for unity in the face of Lincoln's opposition to their movement, the seven initial secessionist states met in Montgomery, Ala., with the intention of creating a new unifying government — what they soon named the Confederate States of America. To that end, they called for a constitutional convention that would produce a framework for their government. The delegates entered into debate about how much of the U.S. Constitution should be adopted outright and how much should be amended to suit the secessionist states' peculiar situation and unique needs.

It was decided that they would quickly draft a provisional constitution in order to facilitate the creation of a workable government, though with an eye to soon creating a permanent constitution. The provisional Constitution created a temporary confederate congress and offered the position of provisional president of the Confederate States to Jefferson Davis, former U.S. senator and secretary of war.

In his book, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” historian James M. McPherson wrote: “In six days the delegates at Montgomery drafted a temporary constitution, turned themselves into a provisional Congress for the new government, elected a provisional president and vice president, and then spent a more leisurely month fashioning a permanent constitution and setting the machinery of government in motion.”

During the next month, the new confederate congress worked to create a constitution that theoretically was as democratic as that of the U.S. Constitution, but was also careful to protect such sacred Confederate concepts as slavery and states rights. One of the most prominent men to take part in the crafting of the new document was Robert Barnwell Rhett, a former South Carolina senator and newspaper owner, and now a convinced, hard-core secessionist.

In his book, “Look Away: A History of the Confederate States of America,” historian William C. Davis wrote: “Rhett proposed that they take the United States Constitution as a model and make only the most necessary changes. Their task should be 'a matter of restoration, than of innovation,' he said. Then he produced a bound copy book with his proposed changes, suggesting that they should use it as a basis for their deliberations.”

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