Here's what the founding documents of the Confederacy had to say about the cause of the American Civil War

Gettysburg Day of Remembrance ceremonies and parade
Gettysburg Day of Remembrance ceremonies and parade / Andrew Lichtenstein/GettyImages
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Jefferson Davis statue in Richmond, Virginia.
Jefferson Davis statue in Richmond, Virginia. / Andrew Lichtenstein/GettyImages

Constitution for the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America (1861)

The Provisional Constitution for the Confederacy was created in February 1861 and was adopted by the first seven seceding states: South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. This document was intended to help the budding country function until a more permanent system could be decided on.

It would be difficult to fully capture the nuances of the Confederacy's Provisional Constitution, but it is sufficient to say that the means of governance were largely the same as the United States Constitution. In fact, Jefferson Davis claimed it was meant to be what the US founding fathers had intended.

"The Constitution framed by our fathers is that of these Confederate States. In their exposition of it, and in the judicial construction it has received, we have a light which reveals its true meaning."

Inaugural Address of Jefferson Davis

Given this information, the Confederacy clearly didn't take issue with the way the United States government was structured. There were a few changes made, but they largely supported the system they had previously been a part of.

The biggest change was the explicit inclusion of slavery in the Constitution. The provisional Constitution included details such as:

  • Foreign slave trade was not allowed, and Congress could ban slave trade from states that were not part of the Confederacy.
  • Any slave that escaped one state must be returned to their owner, and if they were aided in escape, there was a significant fine.

While it was not as overt as it was in the Declarations of Secession, there is no indication that the Confederacy ever planned to end slavery. The Constitution included its own version of the Fugitive Slave Act, and through both laws and language proved that white supremacy was a critical part of the country's ideology and future.

Constitution of the Confederate States (1861)

Similar to the Provisional Constitution, the formal Constitution of the Confederate States was heavily based on the United States Constitution, with many sections taken wholesale. However, there were three key differences which need to be acknowledged.

First, there was a heavy focus on Christianity. While freedom of religion was still a part of the document, the preamble invoked "the favor and guidance of Almighty God" in the creation of a new government. This was a clear deviation from the United States, which largely avoided religious language in political documents.

In addition, there were notable changes concerning what rights the states had, in comparison to the rights of the federal government. For example, states gained the right to impeach federal judges and employees who exclusively resided in their state, as well as gaining the right to tax ships and issue bills of credit.

This all falls under the idea of "State's rights," which is often invoked in understanding the Confederacy. Indeed, that was a concept that the Constitution tried to showcase through another addition to the preamble (seen below).

"We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America."

Constitution of the Confederate States

However, states also lost some of the rights they had enjoyed under the United States. Some of these rights included:

  • The right to decide if foreigners could vote in their state
  • The right to enforce taxes between states
  • The right to determine whether people could travel between states with slaves

This last change is notable because it actually limited states' rights in order to protect slave owners. While the rights of the individual states were clearly important to the Confederates, slavery seemed to be one place where the federal government got to make all the calls.

Obviously, the final major change was that slavery was written into the Confederate Constitution repeatedly. While the US Constitution also included provisions for any "Person held to Service or Labour," the Confederate Constitution used the word "slave" ten times, in addition to several uses of the word "n***o."

Legally speaking, the Confederate Constitution essentially wrote slavery into the DNA of their country, making slave owning a fundamental right. In addition, it specified that, unlike other historical examples of slavery and indentured servitude, the Confederacy specifically intended to enslave "the African race."

The most critical component of the new Constitution connected to slavery comes in Article I Section 9. For context, Article I was focused on the formation and running of the legislative branch, with Section 9 specifying what Congress could and could not do moving forward. The Confederate version of the Bill of Rights was in this same section, eight points later.

"No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in n***o slaves shall be passed."

Constitution of the Confederate States

Like the Provisional Constitution, the Constitution of the Confederate States stated that any enslaved person who escaped or was taken from their owner would not be freed and must be returned, putting the Fugitive Slave Act into the founding texts.

Furthermore, they added in Article IV Section 3 that any territory added to the Confederacy would necessarily include slavery, an addition intended to prevent another event like the Missouri Compromise.

"In all such territory, the institution of n***o slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states."

Constitution of the Confederate States

For the Confederacy, owning slaves was a fundamental right that Congress could not deny at any time in the future without changing the Constitution itself. While there were regulations on where the enslaved people could come from and how they would be represented, the practice itself was ironclad.

This should make it clear how critical slavery was to the Confederacy. It was the issue they seceded over, and it was a point they would never compromise on.

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