Learning from the Confederate Constitution

Since the Confederate States of America only lasted four years, I doubt that many Americans know very much about that short-lived country’s constitution. Given that the Confederate States was a nation formed for the express purpose of preserving slavery, perhaps few would believe that that constitution could be, in any way, an improvement on the United States constitution. Yet the Confederate constitution had a few interesting features worth noting.

For the most part, the Confederate constitution is simply a word for word copy of the older US constitution. This should come as no surprise since the “founding fathers” of the Confederacy still considered themselves loyal Americans and had no serious opposition to the forms of the existing United States government. Their quarrel was with the political policies of the rising Republican party. They opposed the Republicans’ anti-slavery position, naturally, but many in the South also opposed the expanded role of the central government favored by many Republicans at that time. The changes they made in writing their constitution reflected those concerns.

Slavery is not explicitly mentioned in the US constitution. The authors, somewhat shamefacedly, only made vague references to “persons held in service”, which could just have easily meant Whites held in indentured servitude, as Black slaves. That constitution had a provision which made importation of slaves from Africa illegal in 1808, without quite admitting that it was slaves that were being imported. The Confederate constitution, by contrast, explicitly prohibited the international slave trade, while at the same time, included explicit protections of the institution of slavery in the Confederate States. If the founding fathers of the United States were ashamed of  slavery and hoped it would go away, the Confederate founding fathers affected to be proud of their peculiar institution and tried to preserve it in perpetuity.

The Confederate constitution also seems to provided for a somewhat weakened central government and had more protections for states rights. The Confederate Congress was prohibited from levying tariffs for the protection of domestic industries, a sore point with Southerners, and was also forbidden to appropriate money for internal improvements. While the preamble of the US constitution stated its purpose was to form a more perfect union, the Confederate constitution emphasized the sovereign and independent character of each state. Whatever the merits of a less centralized government, this attitude did not help the Confederate States during the Civil War. In general the states of the South tended to go their own way and not coordinate their war efforts far more than the Northern states.

Eric Rauch of the Political Outcast blog has noted that the Confederate constitution included term limits for the President, almost a century before the adoption of the twenty-second amendment in the US Constitution.

One of my main talking points in the area of politics (and anyone even remotely acquainted with me knows that these are few and far between) is the issue of term limits. I have long been a supporter of them—at all levels of government. One of the brilliant moves taken by the writers of the Confederate Constitution of 1861 was to limit the President’s term to six years, with no chance of re-election (Article 2, Section 1). This assured that new executive leadership would be had every six years. Unfortunately, even the Confederate Constitution didn’t limit Congressional terms.

The primary way that the electorate is not served though, is through endless re-elections and non-term-limited career politicians. If all government office-holders knew that their time was short, we would see far less partisan wrangling and closed-door deal making. If an individual knew that his political “career” carried an official expiration date, he would less inclined to make political decisions based solely on his own self-preservation. If nothing else, it would certainly be worth trying in deference to what has already been tried. The Confederate constitutional convention was able to learn from more than 70 years of experience under the U.S. Constitution in the drafting of its own, and now we have the benefit of more than 220 years. Term limits on the President is good, but it is not enough. We need term limits across the board.

There are disadvantages to term limits, but I think that trying to prevent the formation of a permanent political caste is worth trying. The current system of having legislators spend their entire adult lives in political office with little realistic chance of actually losing an election really doesn’t seem to work very well.

Another idea that we should adopt from the Confederate constitution might be to require that every law relates to only one subject. This would prevent the use of riders, those pernicious measures buried in the middle of bills in the hope that they will slide through without anyone noticing. If we could amend the constitution with something like this;

Every law or resolution having the force of law, shall relate to but one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.

it might go a long way toward making legislation clearer and more honest.

 

 

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