Since 1939, state’s flagship college has held onto document that launched the Civil War
With the nation locked in debates over Confederate symbols, the very document that laid out the legal framework of a government built to preserve slavery will spend its 160th anniversary where it spends nearly every other day: quietly tucked away in a library at the University of Georgia.
The Confederate Constitution is a forgotten relic of an ignoble cause that remains contentious generations after the Civil War ended, yet few people even know of its existence or final resting place. Historians say better knowledge of the document would help people — particularly Southern whites who downplay the role of slavery in the war — understand what was at the core of the Confederacy.
And that, the constitution and other documents spell out, were slavery and white supremacy, historians say. While banning the importation of Africans from anywhere but Confederate states, the constitution also prohibited laws that would interfere with “the right of property in negro slaves.”
Found in a wagon as the war ended in April 1865, the original Confederate Constitution adopted on March 11, 1861, has been housed for decades in the University of Georgia's Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The university bought the constitution from an estate in 1939.
“It’s not ancient history, and I think coming to terms with it is something Southern whites need to do,” said Paul Finkelman, who specializes in Southern history and serves as president of Gratz College, a small school in Philadelphia.
Found in wagon in 1865
Found in a wagon as the war ended in April 1865, the original Confederate Constitution adopted on March 11, 1861, has been housed for decades in the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The university bought the constitution from an estate in 1939.
Composed in faded ink on five large sheets of animal skin connected in a single scroll more than 12 feet long, the constitution is stored in a vault and rarely seen in public. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution is on display at the National Archives, visited by 1 million people in a typical year.
Yet the Confederate version is mostly unknown in a country where some display rebel battle flags and fight to preserve statues to the “Lost Cause” myth of Southern history. And just last week, an Alabama legislator leading a fight to strengthen legal protections for rebel memorials disputed that white supremacy and slavery were key to the Confederacy.
“There is no proof of that,” Republican Rep. Mike Holmes told a reporter.
The Confederate Constitution was a product of white men who were out for themselves, according to Columbia University historian Stephanie McCurry. With neither enslaved Black people nor white women having any political say, white men held all the power as they gathered to ratify the constitution in Montgomery.
“The political history of the Confederate States of America was one long bloody trial of their foundational principles and stated objective: to build, once and for all time, the perfected republic of white men."
- Stephanie McCurry, Columbia University historian
“The political history of the Confederate States of America was one long bloody trial of their foundational principles and stated objective: to build, once and for all time, the perfected republic of white men,” McCurry wrote in her book “Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.”
Meeting at the Alabama Capitol, 49 delegates from seven states — Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — signed the constitution just a month before Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter.
Similar to the U.S. Constitution in many ways, including most of the Bill of Rights and entire sections that are nearly identical, the Confederate version was vastly different in other ways, including its use of the phrase “negro slavery” and its protection of slavery as an institution. Put together, the constitution helped set the stage for four years of war that claimed about 620,000 lives.
How document came to Georgia
The South vanquished and its government in disarray, newspaper correspondent Felix G. DeFontaine found the Confederate Constitution at a railroad station in Chester, South Carolina, among boxes of records that were ferried out of Richmond, Virginia, as the Confederate capital was evacuated, according to a history compiled by the Georgia archive.
DeFontaine sold the copy to one of Georgia’s richest families in 1883, and the University of Georgia bought it nearly 60 years later. Before that, the constitution was displayed for several years at the Library of Congress in Washington and was shown at other events and museums.
Katherine Stein, director of rare books and manuscripts at the Georgia library, said the constitution was last displayed publicly as part of a one-day exhibit in 2018.
The huge document can’t be shown regularly because of its size and fragility, Stein said, and sadly, for scholars at least, relatively few people understand how slavery was a central holding.
McCurry, the Columbia University historian, said that void is “not for lack of historians trying.”
“The refusal to know serves a myth of use in the present,” she said.
Confederate symbols in Georgia
The Confederate flag, one of the most widely recognized symbols of the Confederacy — and one widely seen by American minority groups as a potent symbol of white supremacy, has an enduring history in
Georgia along with other Confederate relics.
The battle flag was resurrected by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan and used by Southern Dixiecrats during the 1948 presidential election. Organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans have also adopted the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage.
The flag was popularized again in the 1980s hit TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which featured an orange Dodge Charger with the battle flag painted on its roof. The car was aptly named The General Lee.
On Feb. 13, 1956, the Georgia state flag was changed to incorporate the Confederate battle emblem into the design as a response to the Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation.
In the late 1980s, Black state legislators pushed to drop the state flag with the Confederate battle emblem and restore its predecessor, but they failed.
In 1994, James Coleman of Atlanta filed suit against then-Gov. Zell Miller and the state of Georgia over the state flag. Miller had said he wanted the Confederate emblem removed, but lawmakers wouldn’t pass such legislation and the matter was dropped.
The Georgia Legislature next approved a new flag in 2001 and again in 2003. Then in a March 2004 referendum, Georgia voters approved the state’s current flag, which closely resembles the first official national flag of the Confederacy, often called the Stars and Bars.
Stone Mountain, in metro Atlanta, features another tribute to the Confederacy. Etched into the side of the mountain is a memorial carving that depicts Civil War generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, alongside President Jefferson Davis.
ArLuther Lee contributed to this report for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.