By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
The seceding states met in a convention in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861, and adopted a provisional constitution creating a new slaveholding republic that they called the Confederate States of America. Moderates rather than Fire-eaters controlled events in Montgomery.
A New Constitution
Often, the revolutionaries who push things along aren’t the ones who gather at the end of the revolution to establish a government.
So, moderates were in charge in Montgomery, and they wrote a new constitution that was very closely modeled on the U.S. Constitution. You can almost see them with the U.S. Constitution in one hand and a blank piece of paper in the other, pretty much just copying everything from one to the other, with notable exceptions.
A Slaveholding Republic
Their new document specifically protected slavery and used the word in the document. The U.S. Constitution used euphemisms. It also called for state sovereignty, states’ rights. It forbad the central government from passing protective tariffs or from funding internal improvements. Those had been southern positions through much of the antebellum period.
Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, former secretary of war under Franklin Pierce, a hero of the Mexican War at the head of Mississippi troops, as well as a prominent member of Congress who in some ways had inherited the mantle of John C. Calhoun as the most prominent Southern politician, was chosen to be president of this new republic. Alexander H. Stevens, a Cooperationist from Georgia, was selected to be vice president.
The thinking was that if the convention selected moderate leaders, it would give them broader appeal with the slave states that had not yet seceded and might attract support there.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Going Back to the Roots: A Justification
The delegates at Montgomery insisted they were not making a revolution, but were returning to the original system under which the Constitution had left sovereignty with the states. Their object was to preserve their system of labor and social order—a system based on black slavery.
The irony would be apparent later that the act of secession failed utterly to protect the institution of slavery. It, at the end of the war, had killed it. Remaining in the Union almost certainly would have protected slavery for many, many years. The Republican platform said that it specifically would permit slavery where it still existed.
The Democrats still controlled Congress after the election of 1860. In terms of a constitutional amendment that would kill slavery, it would have taken three-quarters of the states to ratify, and it would have been almost impossible to get that. The point being that the Deep South was gambling to protect something, and it was going to be a gamble that did not pay off. There was no question that slavery was what was fueling secession and the new Confederacy.
After the war, many former confederates said that slavery wasn’t really what they were worried about, but that they were worried about constitutional issues. They weren’t confused during the secession crisis.
Alexander Stephens gave a famous speech that put slavery right at the center of what was going on. This was March of 1861.
He said, “Our new government is founded up; its foundations are laid. Its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new government, is the first in history, the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
It was all about slavery in secession and the founding of the Confederacy. We need to be very clear about that.
The North’s Reaction
Well, how did the North react to secession? It reacted with a “wait and see” attitude in many ways. Many northerners believed the Union had been created by the people, not by the sovereign states, that the people were dominant, not the states, under the Constitution, so many of them didn’t accept the state sovereignty argument. They thought that the states were subordinate both to the Constitution and to the overall people, the collective people of the United States.
The passionate language of Daniel Webster, “Liberty in union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” must have come to mind for many in the North. Many in the North did think that secession threatened the mission of the United States in the world.
This sense of American exceptionalism very much came to the fore here. Americans believed that the United States was a democratic beacon to the rest of the world that had not yet adopted democracy. They weren’t willing to take drastic measures, initially. They weren’t willing to use force.
Common Questions about the Confederate States
It was very similar to the U.S. Constitution as if the confederate states of America pretty much just copied everything from it with notable exceptions, such as, for example, specifically protecting slavery and explicitly using the word in its context.
The former Confederates from the seceding states claimed that their main concern was with the constitutional issues, as it was all about slavery in the Confederacy.
Even though many Northerners did think that secession threatened the mission of the United States in the world, they chose to “wait and see”, as they didn’t want to use force.