Guest Essayist: James D. Best


The Framers interminably debated every little detail of the Constitution. Did they end up getting it right? The Civil War indicates they may have.

Nothing puts stress on government more than war. Especially, a civil war. Superficially, the Confederate Constitution appeared very similar to the United States Constitution. However, there were differences. The Confederate Constitution openly used the word slavery, where the Framers adopted the euphemic, “other persons.” Many of the Framers abhorred slavery and refused to see it referred to outright in the language of the Constitution. The Confederacy made more than semantic changes. In their minds, they corrected errors they felt were decided improperly seventy-three years prior. Some of these, arguably, contributed to the South losing the War for Southern Independence.

In Philadelphia, the Framers argued numerous times over the proper length of term for the president. Some wanted a short term with re-electability, others wanted a long term with no re-electability. The Constitutional Convention settled on a four-year term with unrestricted re-electability, which the Twenty-Second Amendment limited to two terms. The Confederate Constitution adopted a six-year term with no re-electability.

In 1787, most southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention believed the executive should be nonpolitical, so when they had a chance to write their own constitution, they gave the president the liberty to abstain from politicking. With an above-the-fray executive, they then felt comfortable giving the president more power. Under the Confederate Constitution, the president had a line-item veto and Congress, without a two-thirds majority, could not appropriate money unless requested by the president. In essence, this shifted the power of the purse from Congress to the president.

Jefferson Davis never ran for president. He was selected for one six-year term and, for the most part, ignored politics. Davis was an iconic figure for the Confederate cause, while at the same time, the public held Congress in low regard. Davis used the disparity in their respective reputations to neglect Congress. He did not host meals with congressional leaders, provide patronage, help legislative candidates, speak highly of people to the press, or support bills sponsored by powerful legislators. He openly displayed impatience with people who disagreed with him. As an indicator of Davis’ distain for Congress, he wrote, “Now when we require the brains and the heart of the country in the legislative halls of the Confederacy and of the States, all must have realized how much it is otherwise.” A Charleston Mercury reporter wrote, “He regards any question put to him by Congress as a presumptuous interference in matters which do not concern them.”

Lincoln did not have that luxury. The U.S. Congress constantly challenged his war decisions. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, commonly referred to as the War Committee, used oversight powers to wield a potent check on the executive branch. The committee investigated battle defeats, war profiteering, Confederate atrocities, and generally stuck its nose in wherever it wanted. Members often leaked testimony and criticisms to the press, which caused distrust in the War Department and the Union Army. While the Confederate Congress met in secret, the Union Congress broadcast its proceedings at the top of its lungs.

Presidential politicking of congress was one of the great differences between the Union and Confederate governments, but did this affect the outcome of the war? Perhaps, and perhaps significantly.

Lincoln smooched Congress to get legislation passed, appropriations approved, and to garner support for reelection. It may not have felt good to Lincoln at the time, but this constant politicking brought many more minds to the task, built comradery, provided a vent for mistakes, and may have tamped down some ill-conceived moves. The War Committee harangued Lincoln and his cabinet throughout the conflict, but by acting as the catalyst for aggressive debate, the committee may have helped win the war. It certainly caused Lincoln to think long and hard about what needed to be done and how he would get various factions behind his proposed actions.

Near the end of the war, Lincoln won reelection and enjoyed substantial popularity in government and the states that remained in the Union, while the Confederate Congress tried to force President Davis to replace his entire cabinet, stripped him of his commander-in-chief authority, and threatened a vote of no confidence. By this time, of course, a Union victory had become obvious, affecting the respective reputations of the presidents. But Davis has gone down in history as cantankerous, aloof, and averse to taking advice. Perhaps if he had been required to build relationships with the other people in government, the South could have leveraged their early victories to achieve a different outcome.

Did the hyper-political Abraham Lincoln have an advantage over the standoffish Jefferson Davis? Probably. An engaged president knows the thinking of other players and can more easily leverage strengths and mitigate weaknesses. If this be the case, then the Founding Fathers got it right when they settled on a short presidential term with re-electability.

James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Principled Action, Lessons From the Origins of the American Republic, and the Steve Dancy Tales.

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