It’s weird to think that there were two American governments during the Civil War. Before we move on to Reconstruction in the main series, I thought it would be interesting to discuss how the South found their president.
Four Years Few Months
From December, 1860, to February, 1861, the first seven states seceded from the Union. They were South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Four more states (Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee) joined them after the attack on Fort Sumter. Four other slave states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) remained under Union control. In February, 1861, the first seven Confederate states sent delegates to Montgomery, Alabama to form their new government..
Much like the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Confederates quickly found themselves divided between big states and small states. Georgia, specifically, was the most populous (before Virginia entered) and considered the most power-hungry. Its delegates wanted to move the capital to Atlanta, but Montgomery was picked instead, due to its central location (it was later moved to Richmond as incentive for Virginia’s secession).
For the most part, the Confederates copied the US Constitution and the three branches of government. They started with a provisional constitution until the final version could be ratified a month later. Like the US, the Confederates outlawed international slave trade, though not on moral grounds. They were mostly concerned with not devaluing their current “property” and wanted to make sure the slave population didn’t grow large enough to revolt. Where applicable, the Confederate Constitution directly used the term “slaves,” where the US version used the phrase “persons held to service or labor,” which included indentured servitude. Some historians point to the Confederates’ inability to pass a Nullification bill as a sign of hypocrisy. Nullification, or the ability of a state to void federal laws it doesn’t like, was first debated during Andrew Jackson’s presidency when South Carolina refused to comply with new tariffs. The ensuing crisis was a precursor for secession decades later. While the Confederacy did give more power to its states, it still recognized that the central government needed to be at the top. One thing many historians cite as a useful improvement to the Constitution was the Line Item Veto. With this power, the president could veto specific parts of a bill, discouraging congressmen from attaching hidden agenda items.
The Confederate delegates debated eliminating the Electoral College, but couldn’t agree on another system. Before a proper election could be held, the delegates had to choose a provisional president. By their agreed upon system, each state would only get one vote. The delegates from each state would have to confer between themselves before making their pick.
At the time, it wasn’t clear if the Union and Confederacy would go to war. The main concern for most delegates was each candidate’s loyalty to the Confederacy. Many of the proposed candidates didn’t gain traction because of their previous reluctance to support secession.
Party States Watch & The Candidates
While every state had local politicians they wanted to promote, the main players were Georgia and Mississippi. As the largest state, Georgia was advancing several candidates. Most notable was Robert Toombs. An old Whig-turned-Democrat, Toombs had served as a representative and senator for Georgia. Unfortunately, Toombs had a drinking problem and was known to embarrass himself at social functions. On one occasion, he drunkenly told dinner guests that the attack on Fort Sumter had begun, months before it actually happened. As you can imagine, joking about the Civil War starting early didn’t go over so well. The Georgia delegates had a difficult time make the case for him.
Also on Georgia’s list were Howell Cobb and Alexander Stephens. Cobb had a long resume, previously serving as Speaker of the House, governor, and Secretary of Treasury. He was also the president of the Provisional Congress. Stephens was another Georgian representative and, like Toombs, a Whig turned Democrat.
All of these men had briefly been members of the Constitution Union Party (mostly old Whigs who ran John Bell in the four-way 1860 election). Many felt that their previous insistence on preserving the Union disqualified them for president of the Confederacy.
In opposition to Georgia’s proposals, the Mississippi delegation put forth Jefferson Davis. Davis had been a representative and senator for Mississippi. He served in the Mexican-American war under Zachary Taylor, who was his father-in-law through his first wife. He was also appointed as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Davis, too, was originally against secession. He believed strongly in each state’s right to secede, but knew the South didn’t have the resources to fight a war with the North. Despite this, he resigned congress after Mississippi left the Union. Davis had expressed reluctance to be the Confederate president, but, at the time, modesty was considered one of the best qualities of a good leader.
Even though Georgia had the most influence, they were split between their three candidates. Since each state only got one vote, they were stuck infighting while the Mississippi delegates were able to spend their time campaigning for Davis. Since everyone wanted to keep Georgia from gaining too much power, they fell in line.
Oddly, the Provisional Congress agreed to record the official, public vote after the winner was decided, to create the illusion of unity. Many historians still mistakenly cite this election as a unanimous decision.
Jefferson Davis won, making him the Confederates’ provisional president. In November, he would also win the “real” election, facing no competition. As you know, Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. Under the Confederate Constitution, presidents served six-year terms, but could not run for re-election.
Alexander Stephens was picked to be his vice president. Robert Toombs went on to serve as Davis’ Secretary of State. Toombs was the only member of the administration to oppose the attack on Fort Sumter.
What Did It Say About
America The Confederacy?
You just can’t escape the big states vs small states debate. Even outside of the Union, Southerners were as afraid as ever to consolidate power.
Was It The Right Decision?
No comment. There was no “right” side of the Confederacy. They lost the Civil War under Jefferson Davis, though I’m not sure that anyone else could have done better. If they had won, it would have been due to the North’s failures, more than their own successes. Luckily, the Union had Abraham Lincoln on their side.
Davis took a very active role in the Confederate military strategy. Like Lincoln, this attracted critics, even on his own side. He failed to defend the Western Theater and supported misguided plans like General Lee’s invasions of the North. To make matters worse, the Confederates’ adherence to states’ rights made it difficult for him to control state militias.
In April, 1865, General Grant approached Richmond and Davis was forced to flee. General Lee surrendered soon after. For a time, Davis and other Confederate leaders planned to escape abroad and re-establish the Confederacy West of the Mississippi River. Davis was captured in Georgia by the 4th Michigan Cavalry Regiment. At the time, he was wearing his wife’s shawl for warmth, leading to the widespread rumor that he was captured while dressed as a woman. He was jailed and eventually released on bail, funded by some prominent businessmen hoping to ease the tensions of Reconstruction. One of President Andrew Johnson’s final actions in 1868 was to pardon high ranking Confederates, which included Davis. His full citizenship was not restored until 1978 by Jimmy Carter (posthumously, of course). Jefferson Davis spent his final years writing memoirs hoping to save his legacy. He died in 1889.