How the American Confederacy Was Born

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

By February 1, 1861, the Deep South states had left the Union. What happened next was the need for a new government. Go inside the dramatic political convention held in Montgomery, Alabama, which gave birth to the Confederate States of America.

Confederate battle flag and 34 stars American Civil War Flag

Writing the Confederate Constitution

Delegates from seven seceding states met in early February 1861. Their task: to draft a constitution and put in place a provisional government that would control the country until regular elections could be held. Montgomery, Alabama, would be the seat of the government for this incipient Confederate States of America.

The delegates used the U.S. Constitution as their model. That’s one reason they could work so quickly.

Unlike the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention back in that steamy summer of 1787, these men in Montgomery had a clear blueprint from which to work. They only made a few changes to the U.S. Constitution, changes that reflected their pro-slavery interests and states’ rights issues, which had caused the southern states to secede in the first place.

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Page one of the original copy of the Confederate Constitution (March 11, 1861)

The final Confederate Constitution was completed in March after acceptance in February.

Key Constitutional Differences

Not surprisingly, the Confederate Constitution explicitly protected the institution of slavery. In the U.S. Constitution, the word “slavery” or “slave” does not appear at all, although there are euphemisms used. The Confederate Constitution explicitly guaranteed slavery in the states and all the territories.

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The Confederate Constitution also forbade passage of protective tariffs as opposed to revenue tariffs, and outlawed congressional appropriations for internal improvements. That’s the antithesis of the Republican program as put forward in the Republican 1860 platform. There wouldn’t be government money for internal improvements. There wouldn’t be protective tariffs.

The Confederate Constitution also omitted the general welfare clause that was in the U.S. Constitution and further stated that, in ratifying the document, each state acted “in its sovereign and independent character.”

Other changes included limiting the president to a single six-year term and giving the president a provision for a line-item veto. Over the years, these same items have been debated as possible amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Interestingly, the Confederate Constitution also said that states that entered into this compact couldn’t leave, which is very unusual.

The Moderates Hold Sway

Radical figures—such as William L. Yancey, who was not even a delegate to the convention—were not a major presence in Montgomery. As is often the case, the radical individuals who precipitate a crisis and who provide leadership during the revolutionary phase of a movement often are not the ones who undertake the hard work of putting in place governments that will work.

Our revolutionary generation is an excellent example of this. The Washingtons and Hamiltons and Jeffersons and Adamses who played such prominent roles in drafting our great founding documents are not the same ones who were out in the street, so to speak, during the crisis with Britain. The same thing is true on the Confederate side. Much more moderate men held sway in Montgomery than those who had agitated for a long time to break from the United States.

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The delegates in Montgomery selected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia to be the provisional president and vice president, respectively, of this new nation. Later legislation called for the election of permanent officers in November of 1861 and their inauguration in February of 1862.

Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens

Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), president of the Southern Confederacy 

Jefferson Davis was, in many ways, a logical choice to be the new president.

He was probably the most eminent Southern statesman of the late antebellum years. He occupied a position somewhat like that which John C. Calhoun had held for many years, although he was not as great a thinker as Calhoun and didn’t inspire quite the admiration among white Southerners as Calhoun had.

Davis made sense as a leader for this new nation. A senator from Mississippi, he had been Secretary of War and had occupied a number of other important positions. He was, at best, a lukewarm secessionist. He had not been in the vanguard of the secession movement in Mississippi, or for the South as a whole. He had embraced it reluctantly as he saw the situation coming to a point where the South might really be at a disadvantage.

Alexander Stephens was a former Whig. He was an even more reluctant secessionist than Jefferson Davis. He was a Georgian. Georgia had been tremendously divided over the question of secession. There were bitter, bitter debates in Georgia during the secession crisis, and Alexander Stephens had been a moderate voice in Georgia during those debates after the election of Abraham Lincoln. He steadfastly had sought a way out of the crisis of secession, but here he was as the provisional vice president of this new Confederate States of America.

A Message of Moderation

The delegates of the Confederate Convention selected these men, first of all, because they were able men. But they were also chosen, probably, to send a message to the eight slave states that were still in the Union. That message was: We’re setting up a reasonable government that could accommodate the wishes and needs of you less strident slave states.

That same kind of moderate thinking caused the convention to refuse to reopen the African slave trade.

A number of radicals pushed to reopen the slave trade, but the convention said no. They knew that they would lose some of the militant secessionists on that point, but they also knew that many in the Upper South had been against the slave trade for years and that foreign observers, especially England and France, were against the slave trade.

So, in all, there was a very moderate group at work in Montgomery, Alabama.

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Southerners for and against Secession

There was a range of opinions in the slaveholding South as to what the best course of action should be in response to the Republican victory.

The first camp of thought would be the immediate secessionists, those who wanted individual action by each state now. Their attitude was that each state should decide and either go or not go.

A second group, the cooperationists, favored waiting until the South could act as a whole rather than just go off one state at a time. Many of the upland counties with fewer slaves would fall into the cooperationist camp. Alexander H. Stephens was a cooperationist during the debates over secession.

A third group could be called the unconditional unionists. They opposed secession, period. They believed the South had a better chance of achieving what it wanted by staying in the Union. These men were strongest in the Upper South and the border states; although there were some of them who were in the Deep South states as well.

False Hopes for a Backlash

Many Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, tended to confuse cooperationists with Unionists and counted on a backlash against secessionists. They thought this great Unionist majority in the South would push aside the secessionist leaders and bring the Southern states back to their senses, so to speak.

It was an incorrect expectation. Cooperationists would have demanded things the Republican Party could not accept: a federal slave code for the territories (or some guarantee of slavery in the territories).

By mid-January 1861, Republican leaders had made it very clear they were not going to make any concession on the question of slavery in the territories. In fact, they weren’t going to make any other concessions, period.

From the lecture series The American Civil War, taught by Professor Gary Gallagher

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Images courtesy of: by Constitutional Convention of the Confederate States of America, 1861. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons