The Confederate Constitution: What Your Elementary School Didn’t Teach You

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The Confederate Constitution

At the start of 1861, several Southern states seceded to form their own union under the Constitution of the Confederate States. The Southern Constitution was just a modified version of the original U.S. Constitution, but the edits were significant.

The South seceded largely over economic issues. Heavy hitting tariffs on manufactured goods protected Northern industries while making Southern costs skyrocket. Meanwhile, 90% of the Union’s revenue came from those tariffs and then was spent to help the North.

Slavery certainly was a factor in the Civil War. But it was partly the economic pressures on the South that made slavery an issue. Other countries were compensating slave owners, using federal revenue to ease the transition away from slavery.

In the United States, however, the North was tightening the economic screws. It exploited the South with tariffs and spent the revenue on its own largess.

Two days before Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, Northern Congressmen passed the Morrill Tariff. It steeply raised tariffs on politically popular Northern manufactured goods.

Previous tariffs had been a percentage of the purchase price. The practice of providing a phony invoice for a lower amount alleviated much of the tariff’s harm. The Morrill Tariff removed this possibility. It required a specific duty per quantity of the imported item regardless of the purchase price.

With the South peacefully seceded, it was impossible to count on its cooperation. But Lincoln was expected to enforce The Morrill Tariff. A group of Virginian commissioners were deputized to determine if Lincoln would use force and suggested he abandon Fort Sumter.

Lincoln responded, “If I do that, what would become of my revenue? I might as well shut up housekeeping [a euphemism for federal spending] at once!” With 90% of his revenue coming from tariffs collected in the South, the Southern secession meant the union’s budget would take a cut.

He went on to say, “But what am I to do in the meantime with those men at Montgomery [meaning the Confederate constitutional convention]? Am I to let them go on… [a]nd open Charleston, etc., as ports of entry, with their ten-percent tariff? What, then, would become of my tariff?” Just a month before the start of the hostilities of the Civil War, Lincoln had tariff revenue on his mind.

Meanwhile, the Confederate States correctly judged the need for additional checks on the federal government’s power to tax some while benefiting others. The confederacy is often portrayed as the villain in popular media. But the Confederate edits to the Constitution would have helped prevent a lot of the federal mischief we’ve experienced.

The Confederate states added a prohibition on tariffs protecting specific industries and required all such taxes to be uniform throughout the country. Such a law removed the special interest lobbying and patronage that elected Lincoln. It was based on the more general principle that if the power doesn’t exist to discriminate between specific industries, there is no incentive to buy the right to wield that power for your own industry’s benefit.

They also removed the general welfare justification for collecting taxes leaving only providing for the common defense.

The general welfare clause was originally intended to limit the power of Congress and prohibit it from providing for special interest groups. It was included as a summary version of the 17 specific powers immediately following it. James Madison, principal author of the Constitution, argued that no one would misunderstand the general welfare clause and give Congress unlimited power. The specific limited powers, he argued, were “not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon.”

Prior to 1936, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in multiple cases. Then Franklin D. Roosevelt packed the Supreme Court with six extra Justices. The Court finally justified his 1937 Social Security Act and a host of other New Deal legislation under the misunderstanding that Madison had thought impossible. Since then, the general welfare clause has been used to justify nearly every aspect of the federal budget.

The Confederate Constitution added much language to block any laws intended to “facilitate commerce.” Much of the tariff revenue collected from the South had been used to build railroads and canals in the North. In other words, one man’s money was being used to better another man’s state. The Confederate Constitution solved this problem as well.

To the article giving Congress the power to regulate commerce, the Confederate Constitution adds “but neither this, nor any other clause contained in the constitution, shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce.”

This additional clause was intended to stop the federal government from taking the money collected from everyone and use it to pay for one region’s development.

The only internal improvement the Confederate Constitution justified was work on harbors and rivers. However, such improvements had to be paid for using money collected from the people navigating them.

In the U.S. Congress, congressional favors were and still are passed by the slimmest of majorities. However, the Confederate Constitution solved this by requiring a two-thirds super-majority of a congressional vote before any federal funds could be spent. They believed the more impediments to legislative spending the better. If spending was disliked by as many as a third of Congress, it is likely we would be better off without it.

The Southern Founders also anticipated the congressional shenanigans of hiding large special interest spending projects inside otherwise helpful legislation. They added a presidential line-item veto, writing, “The President may approve any appropriation and disapprove any other appropriation in the same bill.”

Finally, the Confederate Constitution changed the term of the president to six years but prohibited the chief executive from serving two terms. Many of our former Presidents have agreed. The first year a president is trying to learn the job. The next three years he is running for reelection. Only in his second term, if then, is he taking the long view and thinking about his place in history.

We are thankful the Civil War ended the abominable practice of slavery in the United States. However, our gratitude for this social change causes us to overlook what the Confederate Constitution had to offer.

The Civil War began over exploitive protectionist tariffs. On this specific issue, the South may very well have had the higher moral ground. Southerners wove some of their improvements into the Confederate Constitution. Our slavery-focused retelling of the Civil War loses sight of issues of freedom we’ve lost with the Confederate Constitution.

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David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.

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Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. She is the author of over 800 financial articles and is known for her expertise on tax planning.

7 Responses

  1. Mark DC

    Total nonsense. You have inserted fabricated quotes about tariffs, but more, you ignore what Southern leaders boasted about before, and even after, the Civil War.

    Learn about the Five Southern Ultimatums, issued in May of 1861. All five Ultimatums were about the spread of slavery — not one, NOT ONE, about tariffs. All five. One –slavery must spread into Kansas. Two — slavery must spread into Kansas,

    Never mind that Kansas have voted against slavery 98% to 2%. Kansas must “accept and respect:” slavery.

    Learn about real history, not distorted bullshit. The best place to learn history is from Southern leaders AT THE TIME. In their own speeches, their own headlines, their own documents, their own books.

    Alexander Stephens, of course, gave the most elaborate, repeated, and detailed account of Southern Constitution in his 8 city tour, just before the Civil War, where he boasted to cheering crowds that the Confederacy was based on not just enslaving the inferior race for GOd, but based also on punishing blacks for biblical sins. Stunning. You can’t make that up. He wasn’t some drunk at a bar, he was their VP, and the newspapers loved it, the crowds loved it.

    Stephens said very clearly, and at length, that the Confederacy was based on Gods will for white men to enslave and PUNISH blacks! He pointed out, correctly, that other nations had various sorts of slavery for a time, but CSA was the only nation on earth — he bragged of this– to be FOUNDED, as it’s fundamental principle, (the corcerstone) of the Confederacy was “the great moral truth” that blacks are inferior and whites are ordained of God to enslave them — and PUNISH them.

    Stephens was not blabbering to himself in a drunken stupor, he was bragging to cheering crowds. He had not said anything new or even controversal, these same things SOuthern leaders had said for years, other than Davis stunning insight that the Confderacy – alone in history — was based on slavery. Not just an aspect of their nation, not just allowed, not just protected, but slavery and the spread of it was the VERY BASIS for the existance of the Confederacy.

    This was not some guy who was trying to make Confederacy look bad, he was their talk master, he was on tour to explain it! He was official! He was clear.

    Even in 1880, when interviewed by a biographer, about the Cornerstone speech, Stephens said yes, those where his words. He had even helped reporters at the time with their transcripts of his speech!!! The only thing he added in 1880, was to say, falsely, that he had ALWAYS said slavery must be beneficial to blacks or it should end, he had never said such a thing. Ever. There is no record of him ever uttering any such nonsense, in fact, he was saying slavery was specifically intended to punish the inferior black race.

    When you understand the Cornerstone speech, then the five ultimatums make sense. And so do comments by Lee and others that God ordained slavery. The South BRAGGED about spreading slavery for God.

    It was not the protection of slavery — is was the SPREAD of slavery Davis demanded.

    Learn real history.

    Southern books, even sermons, at the time shouted this out from the rooftops. SPREAD SLAVERY or we will be exterminated, said Toombs. If we do not spread slavery we will die like being burned at a slow fire, said the governor of Florida

    Toombs, Stephens, Davis, even the Confederate Constitution demanded the SPREAD of slavery.

    Get real, quit lying to people. Either learn what Southern leaders bragged about, officially, at length, and with much repetition (no gotcha quotes)

    • Secessionist

      All David is trying to say is that the Confederate States had some good clauses in their constitution. Yes, the constitution did explicitly guarantee slavery and that was evil, but that does not mean that everything they did was without merit.

      States Do have a right to secede under the constitution and it IS true that the north screwed them over with taxes.
      Why are we the only country that went to war over slavery? Other countries managed to do it peacefully. If the feds had just compensated the slave owners and then banned slavery, maybe there would not have been a war and many BLACKS and whites would not have had to die, and live with the hell that was the years of reconstruction.
      Many blacks got lynched AFTER the civil war because of all the bitterness on both sides.

      • Facts

        Except that “David” now has published multiple posts trying to re-write history and excuse secession by claiming (falsely) that the war was really all about tariffs, which would come as a shock to the leaders of the Confederacy. And no point is valid if it involved twisting or flat out making up false “facts” in order to support it.

        States Do have a right to secede under the constitution

        No. They don’t. FULL STOP.

        If the feds had just compensated the slave owners and then banned slavery,

        Lincoln himself was a long time advocate of compensated emancipation. Right before the war started there were all sorts of efforts in the north to prevent the war by promising all sorts of deals to protect slavery as an institution. It was SOUTHERNERS who freaked out and seceded because they were afraid of the boogeyman of emancipation.

        and live with the hell that was the years of reconstruction.

        Actually, the hell came AFTER reconstruction, when federal troops were removed from the south and the defeated and bitter bigots of the old confederacy took over and turned blacks back into second class citizens. One of the worst mistakes we ever made was not keeping the south under armed occupation for another 50 years.

        • Megan Russell

          Re: The Right of Secession

          Although we now have the Civil War as precedent proving that secession will be met with aggression, there is actually Constitutional evidence that states should have had the right to secede. Walter Williams writes in his magazine article “Do States Have a Right of Secession?”:

          Do states have a right of secession? That question was settled through the costly War of 1861. In his recently published book, “The Real Lincoln,” Thomas DiLorenzo marshals abundant unambiguous evidence that virtually every political leader of the time and earlier believed that states had a right of secession.

          Let’s look at a few quotations. Thomas Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address said, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left to combat it.” Fifteen years later, after the New England Federalists attempted to secede, Jefferson said, “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation … to a continuance in the union …. I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.’”

          At Virginia’s ratification convention, the delegates said, “The powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” In Federalist Paper 39, James Madison, the father of the Constitution, cleared up what “the people” meant, saying the proposed Constitution would be subject to ratification by the people, “not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong.” In a word, states were sovereign; the federal government was a creation, an agent, a servant of the states.

          On the eve of the War of 1861, even unionist politicians saw secession as a right of states. Maryland Rep. Jacob M. Kunkel said, “Any attempt to preserve the Union between the States of this Confederacy by force would be impractical, and destructive of republican liberty.” The northern Democratic and Republican parties favored allowing the South to secede in peace.

          (Click to read more.)

          Don’t be so hasty in your opposition. As Socrates said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.”

    • Megan Russell

      Re: “It was not the protection of slavery — is was the SPREAD of slavery Davis demanded.”

      Actually, it’s the turn of phrase “the extension of slavery,” which makes you think that. Like both “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” it is perhaps deceptive titling. As our recent blog post says:

      In Part I, Chapter I on Page 4, Jefferson Davis describes one of the confederacy’s main grievances involving slavery and laments what he believes to be the weakness of argument from which the North fueled their retelling. He writes:

      Southern statesmen may perhaps have been too indifferent to this consideration – overlooking in their ardent pursuit of principles, the effects of phrases.

      This is especially true with regard to that familiar but most fallacious expression, “the extension of slavery.” To the reader unfamiliar with the subject, or viewing it only on the surface, it would perhaps never occur that, as used in the great controversies respecting the territories of the United States, it does not, never did, and never could, imply the addition of a single slave to the number already existing. The question was merely whether the slaveholder should be permitted to go, with his slaves, into territory (the common property of all) into which the non-slaveholder could go with his property of any sort. There was no proposal or desire on the part of the Southern states to reopen the slave trade, which they had been foremost in suppressing, or to add to the number of slaves. It was a question of the distribution, or dispersion, of the slaves, rather than of the ‘extension of slavery.’ Removal is not extension. Indeed, if emancipation was the end to be desired, the dispersion of the negros over a wider area among additional territories, eventually to become states, in climates unfavorable to slave labor, instead of hindering, would have promoted this object by diminishing the difficulties in the way of ultimate emancipation.

      In other words, the discussion of the emancipation of slaves was continuing during the time that the Union was acquiring new territories. From 1836 – 1861, 10 new states were admitted to the Union. Thus, one of the debates of the day was over “the extension of slavery,” or could slaveholders bring their slaves with them into the new territories without forfeiting their rights of ownership.

      The problem was that slaveholders had no way of extracting the capital they had invested into their slaves. Even if a slaveholder wanted to believe in the freedom of all people, it was a foolish business decision for him to just let all his slaves go free. That’s why in other European countries, the government compensated slaveholders, literally buying slaves out of slavery. That way, no one could have economic concerns holding them back from emancipation.

      But if the extension of slavery was prohibited, slaveholders, with no way of getting the capital out and no way to move into the new territories, would have been essentially caged into their home states. They wouldn’t be able to partake in the benefit of the new states or territories and again the government would be discriminating against them.

      However the turn of phrase is what Davis is lamenting. Supporting the “extension of slavery” sounds like you’re supporting bringing over more slaves, even though this turn of phrase “does not, never did, and never could” actually imply that. However, many who retell our history now do make it mean just that. It is almost certain that Lincoln and Johnson danced around such turns of phrase in order to spread the idea of the primary cause of the Civil War being slavery.

      That slavery was a primary cause of secession is not in dispute. If you thought that we were somehow denying that slavery played any part in secession, please understand that we were not. Slavery played a role, especially the debate of the “extension of slavery,” how emancipation would work, and if it should yet happen at all.

      If you’re interested in the subject, I’d encourage that you read Jefferson Davis himself in The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which we quote in that article.

  2. Facts

    You do realize that Northerners paid tariffs too, right? That federal records show that about 2/3rds of all import duty revenues was collected at the port of New York, right? Southerners were not so put upon. They were not being “exploited” simply to enrich the North, which was actually far richer and had industrial might many of times that of the South.

    • Megan Russell

      You should check your facts. Clearly at least some of that day thought otherwise:

      “Cartoon drawn during the nullification controversy showing the Northern domestic manufacturers getting fat at the expense of impoverishing the South under protective tariffs.” – Encyclopedia of Britannica