Was the American Civil War Fought Over States' Rights?

What was the difference between the Confederate and U.S. Constitutions?

Don’t Know Much about History (2003), by Kenneth C. Davis

One week after Lincoln’s inaugural address, on March 11, the Confederacy adopted a constitution. Given the long-held arguments that the crisis was over such issues as federal power and states’ rights, and not slavery, it might be assumed that the new Confederate nation adopted some very different form of government, perhaps more like the Articles of Confederation, under which the states operated before the Constitution was adopted.

Original Stars-n-Bars flag of the Confederacy

The first "Stars and Bars" flag of the CSA (flown 4 Mar 1861 – 21 May 1861)

In fact, the Constitution of the Confederate States of America was based almost verbatim on the U.S. Constitution. There were, however, several significant but relatively minor differences, as well as one big difference:

  • The preamble added the words, “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character,” and instead of forming “a more perfect Union,” it was forming “a permanent federal government.” It also added an invocation to “Almighty God” absent from the original.
  • It permitted a tariff for revenue but not for protection of domestic industries, though the distinction between the two was unclear.
  • It altered the executive branch by creating a presidency with a single six-year term, instead of (then) unlimited four-year terms. However, the presidency was strengthened with a line item veto* with which certain parts of a budget can be removed by the president. (Many U.S. Presidents of both parties have argued for the line item veto as a means to control congressional spending. A line item veto was finally passed in 1996 and used first by President Bill Clinton. However, in 1998 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the line item veto was unconstitutional.)
  • The major difference between the two constitutions regarded slavery. First, the Confederate version didn’t bother with neat euphemisms (“persons held in service”) but simply and honestly called it slavery. While it upheld the ban on the importation of slaves from abroad, the Confederate constitution removed any restrictions on slavery. Slavery was going to be protected and extended into any new territory the Confederacy might acquire.

In other words, while “states’ rights” is a powerful abstraction, and the back-and-forth between federal power and the power of the states has been a theme throughout American history, there was really only one right that the southern states cared about. Examining the speeches by southern leaders [e.g., Calhoun] and the Confederate constitution itself underscores the fact that the only right in question was the right to continue slavery without restriction, both where it already existed and in the new territories being opened up in the West.

* For more info on line item veto, go here.

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