Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Confederate Constitution

BY BRUCE KAUFFMANN

This week (March 11) in 1861, the first seven states to secede from the Union and create a new confederacy adopted their constitution.

As it happened, four of the states that ratified this Permanent Constitution of the Confederate States of America — South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina — had previously ratified the Constitution of the United States of America in 1788.

The Confederate Constitution was both similar to and different from the U.S. Constitution.

Chief among their differences was the balance of power between the national government and the states. As was true of America’s first national government, the Articles of Confederation, the new confederate constitution, gave most power to the states, including the power to provide — or not provide — money and resources to the national government.

The Founders had considered this among the Articles’ chief defects — financially it beggared the national government — and it was corrected at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Unsurprisingly, it would come back to haunt the Confederacy in the later years of the Civil War.

Another difference was a single six-year term for the Confederacy’s president and vice president, and a third difference was that the Confederate Constitution explicitly "recognized and protected" the institution of slavery.

But the similarities are the most striking.

In language that was almost duplicative, the Confederate Constitution, just like the U.S. Constitution, provided that the federal government is "the Supreme Law of the land" and, therefore, binding on the states.

Further, the Confederate Constitution denied states the right to enter into separate alliances or make separate treaties or generally act independently.

In other words, the seven states that had seceded from the country created by the U.S. Constitution approved a Confederate Constitution with the power to deny its member states the right to secede.

This, President Lincoln came to believe, was more than hypocritical, it undermined their rationale for leaving the Union.

To Lincoln, the states that seceded did so because they believed the U.S. Constitution allowed them. It was incumbent upon them to decide whether to include that right in their constitution.

If they had included the right to secede, they were admitting that each Confederate state had a right to secede again. But since they did not include that right, they were admitting in principle that the right to secede was not, nor should it have been, in the U.S. Constitution.

To Lincoln, that reaffirmed his conviction that the Confederate states had not legally left the Union but were in a state of rebellion. Guided by that conviction, he fought and won the Civil War.

Copyright (c) Woodward Communications, Inc. 2010

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