(June 28, 2019) All that most academic historians want their students to know about the Confederate Constitution is that it expressly protected slavery: “No . . . law denying the right of property in the Negro shall be passed.”
But the people who wrote it had lived under the U. S. Constitution. They knew the latter’s strengths, which they tried to copy, and its weaknesses, which they tried to eliminate. Mostly they wanted to avoid a concentration of power in the central government by maximizing the rights and responsibilities of the states and limiting those of the confederation’s government. Thus, the 1861 Confederate Constitution is basically a reformed version of the U.S. Constitution, although a more complete analysis is available here.
During the preceding seventy-two years the Confederate founders had watched as the U. S. Federal government became manipulated by crony capitalists who persuaded their representatives to increase the central government powers in order that it may subsidize the capitalists. Northern states wanted the Federal government to fund speculative public works, then known as internal improvements, that the states themselves avoided due the financial risk. Southerners felt that such programs should be funded by private enterprise or the states themselves.
Consequently, the Confederate Constitution outlawed internal improvements except for limited programs involving harbors and rivers that would be repaid by user fees. It also dropped the “general welfare” clause in the U. S. Constitution’s taxing authority, which Northerners increasingly used as an open gate for many types public spending programs. The “general welfare” clause continues to be abused with the result that America’s budget deficits today are out of control. The Confederate constitution authorized taxes for only three purposes: military defense, government operating expenses, or to repay debts.
Additionally, only the President could normally put bills before the Confederate Congress. This was to prevent representatives from introducing pork-barrel projects. All bills had to state the amount of money required and the title had to identify the object of the spending. This basically eliminated omnibus spending bills. Cost overruns were not allowed. The minority of bills that might originate in Congress would require a two-thirds majority vote of each house to be enacted. If adopted by America today, this single provision would eliminate much of our wasteful spending.
Similarly, Northern states prevailed upon the federal government for high protective tariffs to immunize their manufacturers from overseas competition. Southerners opposed the tariffs for two reasons. First, they had almost no manufacturers. Second, protective tariffs interfered with the ability of Europeans to generate the exchange credits needed to buy Southern farm goods because it reduced the Europeans’ sales of manufactured goods into the American market.
As a result, the Confederate Constitution outlawed protective tariffs. Although ordinary “revenue” tariffs would fund the Confederacy’s operations, no duties could be used to “promote or foster any branch of industry.” Other business subsidies, such as bounties that New England fishermen had been collecting in the U. S. A., were also outlawed.
The Confederate founders were additionally concerned about bureaucratic creep, which could lead to a tyrannical central government in the form of a deep-state of career administrators. Consequently, each state could impeach a Federal (Confederate) official operating exclusively in their state by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the applicable state’s legislature. Such officials would be tried by the C. S. A. Senate, with a two-thirds vote required for conviction.
Another safeguard against a too-powerful central government was a stipulation that constitutional amendments could only originate with the states. Although they could not be introduced in Congress any three states could form a convention to propose new amendments.
Finally, each President was limited to a single six-year term. As another measure to minimize pork-barrel spending, he was granted line item veto powers.
Contrary to the arguments of most modern historians that the Civil War was “all about” slavery, the constitutional provisions noted above show that the Confederate founders had big concerns about the powers of the central government. They also showed that states’ rights were one way Southerners intended to limit such powers. Thus, historians now claiming that Southerners only mentioned states’ rights as a war issue after the the South already lost the War are wrong. Such rights had been a major consideration from the beginning.
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