Confederate Constitution emerges from Ga. archive

Published 11:27 pm Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The only known final copy of the Confederate Constitution is displayed one time each year, and you can count on an interesting scene when the fading 12-foot-long manuscript is unfurled.

A heated debate emerged Monday, just inches from the fragile document, between the sandal-clad yoga instructor from California wearing a peace shirt and the lifetime Sons of Confederate Veterans member who had proudly placed a rebel flag pin in the middle of his gray tie.

The Confederate constitution is displayed only once a year around Confederate Memorial Day so that more exposure doesn’t further fade the flowing handwritten cursive. But perhaps there’s another reason: Avoiding a perpetual debate over the Civil War.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Jim Stockton, who was at the University of Georgia in Athens on a road trip from Berkeley, Calif., was trying to keep his voice down as he argued the Confederate movement — and by extension, the document — has contributed to a legacy of hate.

“And it’s a legacy that’s still being repeated today,” he says.

John Maxey, who said his great-great-grandfather died during a Civil War battle in Virginia, was arguing that the Confederacy’s motives should be reviewed without the “emotional” context of slavery.

“I wouldn’t defend slavery for a minute,” he says, giving an impromptu course on states’ rights.

The document, bought by the university’s library 70 years ago, is always brought out from the archive as many around the South observe Confederate Memorial Day. While some strolled past the Southern artifact in Georgia, about 120 people sang “Dixie” and called out the names of Confederate soldiers around a monument at the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery.

The constitution, made from five vellum sheets pasted together, was buried in a wagonload of boxes dumped by retreating Confederate soldiers in a railroad station in Chester, S.C. It was recovered by a printer, Felix DeFontaine, who was looking for blank sheets of paper.

DeFontaine also found an earlier draft of the constitution, the provisional version, which he sold at an auction in New York in 1883. That document is now on display at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va.

The same year, he sold the permanent constitution to a Georgia family. They dealt it to the university in 1939 for $20,000. It is the only final copy of the constitution that still exists, says Toby Graham, the director of the school’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Confederacy’s constitution covers some of the same ground as the Union counterpart, including a division of powers between the branches of government. It sets a presidential term at six years and includes elements of the Bill of Rights, including the right to free speech.

The document’s drafters, who come from seven Southern states, also made sure it included a pro-slavery stance. Although it bans the importation of slaves from abroad, it says new states must respect “the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States.”

Allen Crawford, a history major from Knoxville, Tenn., says a Civil War class he is taking inspired him to visit the exhibit.

“This is a piece of living history,” says Crawford, who is a junior. “And it’s a great chance to learn about it. I don’t really get caught up in the emotions.”

And that’s the library’s goal, says Graham.

“Different people can have different feelings about the constitution,” he says. “Our objective as a library is to archive the raw material of history so people can make their own choices.”

On the Net: