In the simplification of history in order to spoon feed it to children in public schools, we often lose sight of many important lessons. In public schools children are taught that Lincoln fought the Civil War to free the slaves and that the Confederacy was nothing more than about slavery. So ingrained in this view in generations of Americans that knowledge about the Confederate government is almost entirely absent.
By design or simply by consequence, we fail to learn any lessons for our own government. The convention in 1861 to revise the U.S. Constitution for adoption as the Constitution for the Confederacy is the only time in our history when a concerted effort was made to review the entire Constitution. The ambiguous sections that serve as the gray area in which the federal courts set and then later break precedent were clarified. Problems that were unforeseen in 1787 were addressed. Problems that hadn’t even happened yet, but were realized to be possible were proactively addressed.
Nearly 150 years later, most of these lessons have been forgotten. In that same span of time we have seen issues addressed by that convention become modern political battle grounds. It makes sense to look beyond placemat history and consider the modifications made at that historic convention; the only time aside from 1787 when representatives of the States met to thoroughly review and debate all parts of the Constitution.
In a move that predates the 14th Amendment, the Confederates changed the voting rights to be uniform across the entire Confederacy and not subject to individual State requirements. This is an unexpected change from a government supposedly focused solely on State’s Rights and demonstrates that while State’s Rights was a key view of the Confederates, they also understood that in any federal governmental structure, the people should have equal rights regardless of the State in which they live. This matter already having been addressed in the U.S. Constitution after the war, I do not cite it as a proposed point to consider for revision but as demonstrative of the kind of forward thinking of the Confederate Constitutional Convention.
Two major additions to the Confederate Constitution should be especially noted. First was the prohibition of Congress to appropriate any money unless requested to do so by the President in a budget request, to pay for their own expenses (staff, travel, etc.), or to pay verified claims against the government. The Congress therefore could not create a new program or earmark funds. It could only approve or deny budget requests from the executive departments relayed by the President. Second, the Congress was prohibited from authorizing any money beyond the budgeted amount. If a project cost more than budgeted, additional money could not be allocated to it without having to receive another new budget request to be passed as a new bill. Such changes in our Constitution would radically restrain our Congress and bring our spending under control.
Another change of interest made in the Confederate Constitution was that federal judges and other officers whose authority was exercised entirely within a single State were subject to impeachment by a 2/3 majority of the legislature of that State. This measure allowed the States to redress corruption of federal officers acting within their borders in cases where the federal government failed to act. As most federal offices are filled by political patronage, this provision sought to curb abuses of that system.
Also ahead of their time, they provided that any Cabinet Secretary or similar officer could be granted a seat in either house of Congress for the purpose of discussing issues relative to that executive department. The Congress today uses hearings and subpoenas to compel the executive branch to answer questions of the legislative branch. In a far more civil manner, the Confederate Constitution provides for this.
The line item veto was provided to the President of the Confederacy. This issue has been raised by Democrat and Republican Presidents alike, but a jealous Congress that runs off trading votes for pork always fails to pass a Constitutional amendment to provide it. The line item veto would allow a President to keep what is good in a bill and veto all the pork. It certainly still deserves to be considered.
An interesting provision in the Confederate Constitution that presaged the shift towards free trade is the provision that prohibits the government from laying any protective tariffs. As trade issues are still hot political topics, this view adds a new dimension. Rather than be purely for free trade, the Confederate government sought only to prevent protectionism. Trade restrictions or tariffs for other reasons were kept as both an economic and a diplomatic recourse.
A major change in the power of the government was a prohibition on using federal government funds to develop infrastructure. The Confederates believed both in private railroads and turnpikes as well as State funded projects, but opposed federally funded ones as they used money from all people to benefit only the section served by the improvement. Our government used the commerce clause to justify the building of interstate highways. Hawaii and Alaska, being unable to be connected to other States complained that they were taxed for a highway system they could not use and so the government expanded its authority of interstate commerce and built highways that are entirely intrastate. The legal separation between intrastate and interstate commerce is now gone and the federal government exercises powers far beyond its Constitutional limits.
In an interesting clarification of the commerce clause, the Confederates allowed for the Congress to place tariffs (taxes) on goods imported or exported from one State to another (interstate commerce) if 2/3 of both houses of Congress concurred.
Lastly and as important as the first two changes I mentioned in this section is the Confederate Constitutional requirement that every bill have only one subject which had to be expressed in the title. This eliminated the “and for other purposes” practice that allowed bad bills to be amended into good ones so that they would pass. Such a change has been sought in our Constitution for years, but career politicians always thwart efforts to implement it so as not to lose their power.
The Confederate President was limited to a single term of six years. This allowed the President to have sufficient time to implement a multi-year plan, removed politics from the office of the Presidency by eliminating the need to pander in order to gain re-election and prevented any person from building a ‘lifetime Presidency’ as FDR had done. Our Constitution was amended after FDR to limit the time a person could serve as President, but there is some merit to the Confederate model of a single six year term.
The President was also Constitutionally empowered to fire any civil servant. This exact issue was the source of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and a source of political scandal as recently as George W. Bush when several members of the Justice Department were fired. The only requirement placed on the Confederate President in this area is that such firings be reported to the Senate and the reasons for the removal be presented.
Finally, the President is prohibited from appointing a person rejected by the Senate to a fill a position during a subsequent Senate recess. This issue arose most recently when John Bolton was put forward for U.N. Ambassador and rejected by the Senate, but was then appointed to the position by President George W. Bush during a Senate recess when confirmation is not required.
The Confederate Constitution’s amendment process was changed. It completely removed the Congress from the process and left the matter entirely to a convention called by at least three States. Proposed amendments would then be effective if ratified by 2/3 of the States (rather than the original 3/4). This change serves two purposes. First, it prevents entrenched politicians in Congress from blocking amendments that would limit their power. Second, it makes the amendment process a bit easier so that the argument to ‘re-interpret’ the Constitution would be lessened in favor of actually amending the document to address potentially needed changes.
There are many other changes in the Confederate Constitution. Most are insignificant and the others deal with issues that are no longer applicable to today, such as slavery. However the changes that have been cited deserve to be reviewed and debated in the present. Many of the challenges we face with our own government could be addressed by the application of some or all of these revisions as modern day Constitutional amendments.
Many of the greatest minds of the 19th century, those who directly inherited the government created and tested by the Framers and who knew them, were present at the 1861 Confederate Constitutional Convention. Their wisdom and the decisions they made should not be carelessly discarded. They should be reviewed as potential starting places for fixing problems in our Constitution that have plagued us for over 200 years such as deficit spending, piggy-backing bad bills onto necessary ones, pork-barrel projects, corporate welfare, federal corruption and general partisanship.
Every cloud has a silver lining or so the saying goes. Out of the ashes of the Confederacy with its doomed adherence to slavery, there is some value. Many of the revisions they made when given the opportunity to hold a second Constitutional Convention are as relevant to us today as they were to them 150 years ago. The time has come to polish the tarnish off that silver lining and use it to improve our own government so that it fulfills the promise of being a government of the people, by the people and for the people that millions have died to secure.