ALABAMA: 160 Years Later, Confederate Constitution An Ignoble Relic
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With the nation locked in debates over Confederate symbols, the very document that laid out the legal framework of a government built to preserve slavery will spend its 160th anniversary where it spends nearly every other day: tucked away in a university archive.
The Confederate Constitution is a forgotten relic of an ignoble cause that remains contentious generations after the Civil War ended, yet few people even know of its existence or final resting place. Historians say better knowledge of the document would help people — particularly Southern whites who downplay the role of slavery in the war — understand what was at the core of the Confederacy.
And that, the constitution and other documents spell out, were slavery and white supremacy, historians say. While banning the importation of Africans from anywhere but Confederate states, the constitution also prohibited laws that would interfere with “the right of property in negro slaves.”
“It’s not ancient history, and I think coming to terms with it is something Southern whites need to do,” said Paul Finkelman, who specializes in Southern history and serves as president of Gratz College, a small school in Philadelphia.
Found in a wagon as the war ended in April 1865, the original Confederate Constitution adopted on March 11, 1861, has been housed for decades in the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The university bought the constitution from an estate in 1939.
Composed in faded ink on five large sheets of animal skin connected in a single scroll more than 12 feet (3.7 meters) long, the constitution is stored in a vault and rarely seen in public. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution is on display at the National Archives, visited by 1 million people in a typical year.
Yet the Confederate version is mostly unknown in a country where some display rebel battle flags and fight to preserve statues to the “lost cause” myth of Southern history advanced by the sons of daughters of Confederate veterans. And just last week, an Alabama legislator leading a fight to strengthen legal protections for rebel memorials disputed that white supremacy and slavery were key to the Confederacy.
“There is no proof of that,” Republican Rep. Mike Holmes told a reporter.
The Confederate Constitution was a product of white men who were out for themselves, according to Columbia University historian Stephanie McCurry. With neither enslaved Black people nor white women having any political say, white men held all the power as they gathered to ratify the constitution in Montgomery.
“The political history of the Confederate States of America was one long bloody trial of their foundational principles and stated objective: to build, once and for all time, the perfected republic of white men,” McCurry wrote in her book “Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.”
Meeting at the Alabama Capitol, 49 delegates from seven states — Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — signed the constitution just a month before Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter.
Similar to the U.S. Constitution in many ways, including most of the Bill of Rights and entire sections that are nearly identical, the Confederate version was vastly different in other ways, including its use of the phrase “negro slavery” and its protection of slavery as an institution. Put together, the constitution helped set the stage for four years of war that claimed about 620,000 lives.
The South vanquished and its government in disarray, newspaper correspondent Felix G. DeFontaine found the Confederate constitution at a railroad station in Chester, South Carolina, among boxes of records that were ferried out of Richmond, Virginia, as the Confederate capital was evacuated, according to a history compiled by the Georgia archive.
DeFontaine sold the copy to one of Georgia’s richest families in 1883 and the University of Georgia bought it nearly 60 years later. Before that, the constitution was displayed for several years at the Library of Congress in Washington and was shown at other events and museums.
Katherine Stein, director of rare books and manuscripts at the Georgia library, said the constitution was last displayed publicly as part of a one-day exhibit in 2018.
The huge document can’t be shown regularly because of its size and fragility, Stein said, and sadly, for scholars at least, relatively few people understand how slavery was a central holding.
McCurry, the Columbia University historian, said that void is “not for lack of historians trying.”
“The refusal to know serves a myth of use in the present,” she said.