The Confederacy Builds a Constitution
March 11, 1861. After deliberating for four weeks, the Provisional Confederate Congress approved its constitution on March 11, 1861. Understanding that there was no time for delay, the assembled delegates in Montgomery, Alabama initially adopted the United States Constitution wholesale, and then began modifying it to suit their purposes. One fundamental change was to establish the political sovereignty of the separate states. The prologue was unequivocal:
“We the People of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character . . . .”
Other alterations included the provision for a single presidential term of six years and granting cabinet members seats in Congress. But the most significant change involved protecting the institution of slavery.
During the three years leading up to the election of Lincoln and the secession of South Carolina, the major point of departure between the two political parties concerned the degree to which property in slaves was protected by the United States Constitution. In his 1857 Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that the right of “property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.”
Democrats accused Republicans of denying that right and regularly offered that denial as a reason for secession. To ensure the perpetuity of slavery in the Confederate States of America, the Montgomery delegates specifically inserted the words “slave” or “slavery” into the new constitution a total of ten times. By incorporating phrases like “property in negro slaves,” “slaves and other property,” and “property in said slaves,” the new constitution “expressly” tied that form of property to the protections of the Fifth Amendment language: no citizen could be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”
Protecting slavery gave the Confederacy its reason for being. Its constitution placed slavery beyond the reach of both its national and state governments. When it came to preserving slavery, property rights trumped states’ rights.
Paul Finkelman. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997, p. 75.
Sam Houston Ousted as Governor of Texas
March 16, 1861. After Texas seceded, the Texas secession convention demanded, on March 16, that all state Texas officials take an oath of allegiance to the Confederate States of America. The state’s pro-Union but pro-slavery governor, Sam Houston, refused and was immediately removed
from office. (Houston vehemently opposed secession because he believed that slavery was better protected under the United States Constitution than under some, as yet unknown, government.)
During his last days as governor, Houston spoke about his loyalty to both Texas and the United States with John H. Reagan, a former Texas congressman and soon-to-be-appointed Postmaster General of the Confederacy. And Houston expressed his apprehensions about the course Texans had chosen.
“Our people are going to war to perpetuate slavery,” he observed, “and the first gun fired in the war will be the knell of slavery.”
Houston was correct. Four years later, slavery was constitutionally dead having become the primary victim of the war.
William Winkler. Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas, 1861. Austin: Austin Printing Company, 1912, pp. 87-90, 183-184
John H. Reagan. “A Conversation with Governor Houston.” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, vol. III, no. 4 (April 1900), pp. 279-281.
– Submitted by Dwight T. Pitcaithley, New Mexico State University