WHAT DID CONFEDERATE VICE PRESIDENT STEPHENS SAY ABOUT THE “OLD CONSTITUTION” DURING THE SECESSION WINTER?

22 Feb

Between December 1860 and February 1861 or Secession Winter, seven states left the Union. Those against secession thought Southern leaders intended to create an oligarchy or monarchy. The people asked what would the character of the government look like? Would it look like the ‘Old Constitution’ of 1789? ‘The people’ were frightened, including former Governor Neil Brown of Tennessee.

The Crittenden Compromise

During Secession Winter, ‘the people’s fear pushed politicians to back legislation to Federally protect the 3/5s Clause. One such proposed Constitutional amendment was the ‘Crittenden Compromise’ in December 1860. The bill for the ‘Compromise’ failed to pass in the US Senate. At the Washington Peace Conference, ‘Crittenden’s Compromise‘ passed the Convention of States committee and sent back to the US Senate. The US Senate, again, voted it down in February 1861.

The Montgomery Convention

While the States met at Washington Peace Conference, the secessionists met in Montgomery, Alabama to create a new confederacy of States. On March 11th, 1861, the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States ratified its new Constitution. The telegraph carried its character to ‘the people’ of the world. The new government modeled the “Constitution of the United States” based on the idea of federalism with three branches, Executive, Judicial and Legislative. Although, the new compact had some marked differences from the former which this article won’t address.

Cornerstone

On his way to Richmond, Confederate Vice President Stephens stops off in Savannah, Georgia to promote the new government.

It’s March 18, 1861. It’s half past seven o’clock at the Athenaeum. Before a packed house, Stephens delivers one of the most controversial speeches of 20th Century. Historians call it “The Cornerstone Speech”. Besides making some interesting comments on the foundations of the new government or believed to have, Vice President Stephens makes an interesting comparison. According to the Savannah Republican, Stephens points out the Permanent Constitution of the Confederate States contains the same rights and principles as in the Constitution of the United States.

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens PHOTO SOURCE: Mathew Brady, 1860s

Why was making that point important for Vice President Stephens? Americans were suspicious of the secessionist leadership. By the time they met in Montgomery to create a new compact, seven states had already left the Union by legislative action, not ratified through a popular vote by ‘the people’, except for Texas, which did both. The people wondered what the secessionists intended to do with their power? Did they intend to give full representation to the slave? Did they intend to burden the people with taxes to maintain and grow the new government? Would ‘the people’ be represented differently in the Confederacy?

What comparison did Vice President Stephens make about the “New Constitution” and the “Old Constitution”?

“The new Constitution or form of Government, constitutes the subject to which your attention will be partly invited. In reference to it, I make this first general remark. It amply secures all our ancient rights, franchises and privileges. All the great principles of Magna Charta are retained in it. No citizen is deprived of his life, liberty or property, but by the judgement of his peers, under the laws of the land. The great principle of religious liberty, which was the honor and pride of the Old Constitution, is still maintained and secured. All the essentials of the old Constitution, which have endeared into the hearts and the American people, have been preserved and perpetuated.”

SOURCE: The Charleston Daily Courier – Charleston, SC – March 25, 1861 – Page 4 – Savannah Republican

NOTE: Vice President Stephens refers to the “Constitution of the United States” as that “Old Constitution.

The 3/5s Clause

Unquestionably, Americans feared an oligarchy; ‘The people’ feared being under represented. They feared additional taxation. What was the Confederate founders plan to solve the problem? Install Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, or the 3/5s Clause, from the “Old Constitution” in the new compact. The States, with no or smaller slave populations, would not be under represented in the Confederacy.

‘The people’ needed reassuring and Vice President Stephens provided that in his speech in Savannah. He reassured the American people, especially those in the Border States, of the federal character and style of the Confederate government which was no different from of the ‘general government’ of the United States.

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