On March 11, 1861, delegates from the newly formed Confederate States of America agreed on their own constitution. Here is a look at this little-known third constitution that controlled the lives of about 9 million people for a short period of time.
In 1860, there were more than 9 million people, including 3 million slaves, living in the states and territories that would leave the Union, compared with 22 million people outside those areas.
The document was drawn up and approved just a week after Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States. There were seven southern states that had seceded at the time, and a total of 11 would secede and join the Confederacy officially. (Missouri and Kentucky were also considered members, but didn't officially secede from the Union.)
At first glance, much of the Confederate document was taken directly from the U.S. Constitution.
But there were several passages related to slavery that were much different. The Confederate version used the word “slaves,” unlike the U.S. Constitution. One article banned any Confederate state from making slavery illegal. Another ensured that slave owners could travel between Confederate states with their slaves.
The Confederate constitution also accounted for slaves as three-fifths of a state’s population (like the U.S. Constitution did at the time), and it required that any new territory acquired by the nation allow slavery.
In other ways, the Confederate constitution was closer to the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the U.S. Constitution—it was focused on states’ rights.
The Confederate preamble begins, “We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character…” The U.S. Constitution starts with the more familiar, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”
Confederate states had the ability to impeach federal officials, collect more taxes, and make treaties with each other under certain circumstances. They could also create lines of credit. When it came to elected officials, the Confederate constitution limited the president to one, six-year term in office in a person’s lifetime. The vice president didn’t have term limits. The president also had use of the line-item veto in budget matters.
Senators and representatives served under circumstances that were very similar to rules in the U.S. Constitution. It also had a Bill of Rights, lumped together with rules about Congress. (Most of the rights in the U.S. Constitution’s original Bill of Rights were incorporated.) One additional right stated that the government couldn’t impair “the right of property in negro slaves” to owners.
The Confederate Congress operated in a similar fashion to the United States. But the Confederate Congress couldn’t pass legislation about amendments. That role was reserved for the states. Cabinet members could also answer questions on the floor of Congress. The Supreme Court system was also very similar to the one used by the United States. But it was never formed during the Civil War because of the government’s instability.
The Confederate Congress met for six sessions during the war. Political parties didn’t form in the Confederacy, but there were political factions in the electorate. Jefferson Davis, a former U.S. senator, served as the Confederate president.