The Crisis of Southern Constitutionalism
T he memoirs and other writings of Confederate politicians seem dry and inaccessible to modern readers because of their obsession with constitutional minutiae. For many Southerners, that favorite phrase of Charles Dickens's Mr. Snagsby, "Not to put too fine a point upon it," had no application to constitutional questions. From Calhoun's day onward, no constitutional point was too fine, too small, or too subtle to escape notice of men capable of spinning out elaborate arguments around the slightest historical precedent or obscure technicality.
The birth of a Southern nation began with the creation of organic law for both the states and the Confederacy. The timing for such a vast, uncertain enterprise could hardly have been worse as the possibility of civil war loomed. The state secession conventions and the Montgomery convention met when Southerners were divided over disunion and the future status of the border states hung in the balance. Projects for reconstructing the old Union were still afoot, and old party quarrels and burning ambition made for short tempers and sharp debate.
Even before delegates assembled in Montgomery to draft a Confederate constitution, the secession conventions began amending the state constitutions. Apparently minor changes signaled the beginning of a revolution against politics. On January 18, 1861, the Florida convention enacted an ordinance reducing the governor's term from four years to two but also providing that the present governor ( John S. Milton) serve until 1865.1