This Week in History – Mar. 11

March 11, 1861 – the Confederate States of America adopted the official Confederate States Constitution.

Regional tensions between the North and South over the institution of slavery predated the creation of the United States. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, for instance, Northern and Southern delegates argued over both the practical implications of slavery’s impact on congressional representation and taxation as well as the greater ethical problem of the existence of an institution which contradicted every philosophical underpinning of the nation’s creation in the first place. Some Southern delegates made it clear that if they did not get their way on questions of slavery, they would walk out of the convention, dooming the entire prospect of creating the new nation before it even started.

Faced with such threats, most Northern delegates agreed to compromise, and Southern slave-owning states got most of what they wanted from the new Constitution. Since many delegates believed that the institution was already fading away anyway and would soon disappear entirely on its own, they bargained that adopting a Constitution and creating a new, strong nation was more important in the long run than standing for an anti-slavery principal.

In the decades that followed, however, slavery did not conveniently fade away. On the contrary, with the development of the cotton plantation economy, slavery grew exponentially in Southern States, as literally millions of human beings were trapped in a brutal system of lifetime bondage. Economically, politically and socially, the South became dominated by rich plantation owners who grew fat on the labor of the slaves who worked on their vast plantation. Even though the majority of Southern whites were poor, landless, and never owned a single slave, the region self-identified as being defined by, and entirely dependent on, slavery. Any attempt to regulate this slave economy, therefore, was viewed as an existential threat to the entire “Southern” way of life.

The North, of course, abandoned slavery soon after the Revolutionary War and followed an entirely different economic path: industry. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, Northern industrial states operate under the economic philosophy of “free [or “wage”] labor,” which was incompatible with that of slave labor. In the North, cities grew as factories lured in millions of immigrants and farm workers seeking wages.

Slavery, besides being morally abhorrent, was a direct economic challenge to this system; after all, wage laborers could not hope to compete against slaves who were forced to work for free. Even though most white laborers in the North were as racist, if not more so, than their southern brethren, they were opposed to slavery spreading outside of its already established Southern roots since it posed a direct economic challenge to their ability to earn wages.

As the country expanded westward, this regional split over slavery became an argument over whether or not to allow slavery to spread into newly acquired territories (to be sure, abolitionists sought the abolishment of slavery in the South as well, but theirs was neither a majority opinion nor a mainstream political goal of any major political party). It would be this fight – over the spread of slavery westward – that would split the nation.

The opening salvo of this fight came in 1819, when the first territory in the Louisiana Purchase (Missouri) applied to Congress for statehood – as a slave state. The House of Representatives, with its majority of Northern congressmen, amended the Missouri statehood bill to require that Missouri be a free state, contrary to the wishes of its white settlers. Southerners, of course, were outraged, and blocked the bill in the Senate.

The stalemate was broken the next year with the Missouri Compromise, which paired the new slave state of Missouri with the new free state of Maine, thereby maintaining a balance of free and slave states in the Senate. The Missouri Compromise also drew a live across the remaining Louisiana Purchase territory: territory below the line was open to slavery, and territory above was not. Once again, the threat of disunion was a more potent motivator for Northern politicians than the moral principal of slavery.

Similar battles over the spread of slavery would be fought as new territories came into the Union over the next 30 years: Texas, Florida, California, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. Each time, Northern Congressmen would try to prevent entry of new slave states in these regions, Southerners would howl, and a compromise that permitted slavery to spread would be adopted. However, with each battle and compromise, Northerners and Southerners were growing more combative, more morally certain of the rightness of their cause, and more suspicious of each other’s motives.

The decade of the 1850’s only served to accelerate this divide. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act – a politically brokered deal that revoked the Missouri Compromise and opened up the remaining Louisiana Purchase territories to slavery – galvanized Northern anti-slavery forces into creating a national anti-slavery party: the Republican Party. The official Republican platform, which included a declaration that slavery was “evil” and demanded the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the equally despised Fugitive Slave Act, incensed and terrified Southerners. By 1860, Republicans dominated Northern politics while the Democratic Party was fracturing over its futile attempts to hold together an ever-shrinking coalition of Northerners and Southerners still willing to compromise over slavery.

The election of 1860 brought this division of North and South to a head. The Democratic Party literally split in two: Southern delegates to the Democratic nominating convention walked out and held their own convention, nominating their own Presidential candidate, as the Northern delegates nominated theirs. The Republican candidate, Lincoln, won handily in the Electoral College while only winning 40% of the popular vote (not surprisingly, he was not even on the ballot in most Southern states).

Although Lincoln publicly stated that he would not interfere in any way with slavery in those states where it already existed, and even supported a constitutional amendment to do so, the election of a Republican president was the last straw for most Southerners. Between the election and Lincoln’s inauguration, seven slave states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) had formally seceded from the Union, creating (at least in their minds) a new country, the Confederate States of America.

Delegates from this new Confederacy soon met in Montgomery, Alabama, to devise a new constitution for their pretend country and establish a government. In February of 1861 they approved a provisional constitution and then set to work drafting a more permanent one. That final constitution was approved on March 11, 1861, to take effect on February 22, 1862. It operated – at least in theory – until the end of the War in 1865.

This Confederate Constitution borrowed heavily from the US Constitution; in fact, the majority of it was lifted word for word. There were some minor changes to the presidency: for example, the President could only serve one six year term and was given a line-item veto on the budget (that is, he could strike one part of an appropriations bill while leaving the rest). There were also a few changes to the balance of power between the Confederate federal and state governments: for instance, the federal government could not mandate certain infrastructure improvements (go figure), and the states had the power to impeach federal officials. Also, the preamble of the Confederate Constitution invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God,” as if their new country, founded on human slavery, was divinely inspired.

The major differences between the US and Confederate Constitutions, of course, involved slavery. Whereas the US Constitution never even uses the word “slave” – as if the framers were rightfully ashamed that such a practice was permitted to exist in a “free” country – Southerners had no such compunctions. In fact, not one but three separate clauses in the Confederate Constitution specifically addressed and confirmed the right of slaveholders as well as explicitly stating that slaves – human beings – were “property.”

The first gave slave-owners explicit permission to travel with their slaves “and other property” between Confederate states without any adverse effect to their ownership of their slaves. Second, in the event the Confederacy were to expand and claim new territories, the institution of slavery was to be recognized and protected in those new territories. Finally, the Confederate Congress was directly precluded from passing any law which negatively impacted the right to own slaves.

To no-one’s surprise, the Confederate Constitution established a “country” founded on the principal that ownership of other human beings based on the color of their skin was proper, good, right, and divinely inspired. Its adoption was celebrated across the South. The new Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, at a speech celebrating the ratification of the new Constitution, declared that, “the corner-stone [of our new government] 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 normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” After four years of fighting and over 600,000 dead, that government would fall.

Unfortunately, people to this day still want to celebrate the Confederacy as part of their “heritage.” Southern apologists and fake “historians” have continuously tried to paint a different picture of secession. These revisionists – who want to proudly display the Confederate flag and erect statues of Confederate Generals and politicians – make the spurious claim that that Southern secession was not because of slavery but instead over issues of “states’ rights” and tariffs (import taxes, or duties). To these people, Southern leaders were therefore honorable men who were only fighting for their liberty. Such arguments, however, are simply not backed up by the facts.

First, while it is true that Southern states did secede over states’ rights, there was only one particular states’ right that mattered: the right of the Southern states to allow slavery. Immediately after Lincoln’s election, Southern politicians and newspapers made clear that their fear of the new Republican Party was based solely on its opposition to slavery. The Richmond Examiner, for example, editorialized that “A party founded on the single sentiment . . . of hatred of African slavery, is now the controlling power.” It was this fear — that the Republicans would abolish slavery in the South – that drove the secession movement.

Moreover, each Southern state held a secession convention where delegates argued (and ultimately voted affirmatively) over whether or not to secede from the Union. Records of these conventions make it crystal clear that preserving slavery was the motivation for secession. Many Southern states also issued formal Declarations of Secession, stating their reasons for leaving the Union. Not surprisingly, slavery was front and center of those stated reasons. Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession, for instance declared that, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” In these Declarations, tariffs were not even mentioned, as they were simply not an issue. This is because the national tariff in effect, passed by Congress in 1857 with the approval of Southern congressmen, was the lowest tariff in 40 years.

As Confederate Vice-President Stephens publicly and proudly exclaimed, the Confederacy was founded to preserve and expand the Southern system of race-based slavery – no more, no less. To that end, the men of the Confederacy took up arms and fought against their country; by definition, they were traitors. And the Confederate flag – that symbol of “Southern heritage” – was the flag saluted by the same Confederates who killed over 350,000 United States soldiers in an effort to preserve slavery. The fact that someone claiming to be an “American” would want to proudly display the flag of traitors, erect statues of traitors, or name schools after them, strains any and all definitions of “patriotism.”

Author: Ye Olde History Teacher

Teacher. Author. Pro: facts, reason, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Anti: stupidity, ignorance, intolerance, inflexibility, hate, grifters.

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