When the Confederacy died—along with some six-hundred-thousand Americans, Northern and Southern, in one of the greatest man-made catastrophes of all time—the Constitution of the Confederate States died as well. But for a little more than three years, it had served (de facto, if not de jure) as fundamental law for the Southern states. Based on the U.S. Constitution, with alterations designed to reflect the Southern point of view, it provides a tailor-made subject of comparative study: a source of alternative interpretation of often identical terms and a trove of changes in phrasing that cast light on the provisions they were meant to replace or define. From the standpoint of the United States, the entire enterprise was pretty clearly unconstitutional; for Article I, Section 10 flatly forbade any of the United States to enter into “any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation.” By the time of secession, however, most Southerners—including those like Alexander Stephens who argued against it—believed the Confederacy to be constitutional. They claimed for the Confederacy both the revolutionary legitimacy that the original states had claimed when they asserted their right of self-government against Great Britain and the legal legitimacy that the Constitutional Convention had claimed in abandoning the Articles of Confederation.
The aim of this Article is to examine the Confederate Constitution from the Confederate point of view as one more little-known chapter in the continuing saga of constitutional interpretation in North America. It begins with a description of the Constitution itself. There follows a detailed examination of issues directly pertaining to the Civil War, including the raising and support of armies, with particular emphasis on a remarkable proposal near the end of the war to arm and free slaves. The Article then proceeds to a survey of questions of individual rights, focusing on, among other things, military justice, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the imposition of martial law. Next comes an investigation of separation of powers questions, seen largely through the lens of President Jefferson Davis’s vigorous use of the veto power. The Article then turns to financial and judicial matters, considering, inter alia, the strange case of the missing Supreme Court. A collection of odds and ends completes the constitutional portrait, and the Article closes with a trenchant opinion of the Attorney General on the dissolution of the Confederacy itself.