I wondered how much longer it would be before the Confederate Constitution, much like Confederate statues, would fall victim to cancel culture. Quite honestly, though, I don’t know what is more maddening: cancel culture or the intellectual laziness evinced by journalists, even relatively elite ones, who, either intentionally or unintentionally, aid and abet this malignant cultural trend.
AP journalist Jay Reeves characterizes the Confederate Constitution, which, incidentally, was debated and drafted in the Capitol in Montgomery in my native state of Alabama, as a vestige of white supremacy without even bothering to consider the document within its full historical context. And let’s make no mistake here: The Permanent Confederate Constitution was conceived within a wide intellectual and historical Anglo-American constitutional context and, for that reason alone, is worthy of serious discussion, despite its provisions safeguarding the institution of slavery.
It is appalling to me that Reeves never even bothered to explore this unusually rich context, which would have been standard practice among journalists as recently as a decade ago.
A Watershed Document
Before public discourse became so poisoned, the Confederate Constitution, despite the controversy associated with it, would have been characterized by some writers and academics as a watershed document, one that represented the outcome of a protracted, intense and often acrimonious debate on the nature and scope of federal power that began immediately following the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1789.
The Permanent Confederate Constitution could be accurately characterized as embodying the Jeffersonian School argument, which maintains that the federal government – the “general government,” as it was characterized by many in the decades following constitutional ratification – simply functioned as the agent of the contracting sovereign states. This was underscored by the Confederate Constitution’s preamble, which affirmed that each state, in ratifying the document, was acting in its “sovereign and independent character.”
Aside from reaffirming the Jeffersonian view of federal power, this revised constitution also introduced some remarkable innovations that not only are instructive today but that still hold currency as contemporary Americans struggle to rein in federal power and even more significant, contend with mounting interest in sectionalism and even secession. Indeed, the case could be made that these innovations are especially relevant today amid new sectional divisions pitting predominantly liberal blue-coastal states against predominantly and implacably conservative red heartland states – issues not all that different from the ones that plagued federal relations in the early 19th century.
A Six-Year Presidency and a Line-Item Veto
One notable innovation was how the Confederate framers altered the office of the presidency, both limiting and strengthening it. While restricting the chief executive to a single 6-year term, the Confederate Constitution also empowered him with line-item veto power. Such a constitutional prerogative potentially would have gone a long way toward reining in the Leviathan federal state, one that not only extends its hand into increasing facets of American life but even holds tremendous sway over the affairs of nations in far-fling corners of the world. Moreover, with such a constitutional safeguard, we likely wouldn’t be contending today with a $20-million deficit.
The constitution also prohibited Congress from levying protective tariffs that tended to benefit one section of the country over others, an issue that proved contentious in the formative stages of the young American Republic and that virtually rent it apart in the early 1830’s.
The long-term effects of protective tariffs arguably have had an especially deleterious effect on the fortunes of American development and national cohesiveness, not only by allowing one section of the country, namely, the mercantile Northeast, to grow rich at the expense of most of the others but also by enabling it to transform much of the rest of the country, notably the war-ravaged, economically prostrate post-Civil War South, into an economic extraction zone.
Reining in Federal Judicial Power
In what arguably could be regarded as the most noteworthy innovation of them all, state legislatures were entitled to remove corrupt or constitutionally unscrupulous federal judges living in their states by a two-thirds vote of both houses. Ponder for a moment all of the contentious 21st century issues that could have been resolved by this provision. It would have obviated the need for state legislatures to resort to strategies such as interposition and nullification that contributed significantly to two serious constitutional crises stemming from passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 and the Tariff Act of 1828. Each of these contributed significantly to the protracted political impasse that culminated in a national breakup in 1861. Even more significant, though, such a constitutional safeguard likely would have contributed significantly not only to higher levels of restraint in the judicial branch but also in the federal legislative branch, as lawmakers would been more cognizant of the futility of passing laws that encroached on state sovereignty.
Yes, the Confederate Constitution was both an innovative and instructive, one among a long line of written constitutions within the Anglo-American tradition, one that also incorporates those of Commonwealth realms. And that is why it, along with others, should figure in prominently in any undergraduate or graduate coursework dealing with the protracted historical debate about the nature and scope of central power within a federal system. But like so much else in woke 21st century America, the Confederate States Constitution is now so thoroughly tainted by the stigma of white supremacy that it can never be regarded as anything more than a “forgotten relic of an ignoble cause,” borrowing Reeves’ description, and, consequently should remain locked away in archive and forgotten.
This only ensures that substantive debate in this country will grow even more constrained. But, of course, by now it should have dawned on most of us that this is one of the underlying aims of wokeness and cancel culture, which aren’t so much about fairness and inclusiveness as they are about stigmatizing views that threaten their hegemonic standing within American politics and culture.
Reeves’ article only served to underscore that we no longer function aa vibrant, open and free society, only one that pretends to be. And many of us are beginning to wonder how much longer elites, increasingly confident of the political and cultural power they increasingly wield, will bother with maintaining this pretension.