Stupid Question ™
Oct. 13, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Was there ever a Confederate presidential election?
—Jake, from the Internet
A: Yes, and a congressional election, too—though neither meant very much.
The Confederate States of America (CSA) was the self-declared country formed by the Southern states that sparked the Civil War by leaving the US.
In February 1861, the first states to secede (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, soon joined by Texas) gathered in a convention, later known as the Confederate Provisional Congress, to establish the CSA government.
The Congress quickly appointed Jefferson Davis (former US secretary of war, senator, congressman and even once son-in-law to President Zachary Taylor) of Mississippi as a sort of provisional CSA president and Alexander Stephens of Georgia as vice president. Each office was a one-year provisional term that at first meant almost nothing since there wasn’t even a CSA constitution for another month.
An appointed presidency isn’t very democratic, but it was a highly competitive appointment. There was bitter debate about appointing various radical secessionists or more moderate politicians; Davis and Stephens were chosen as examples of the latter. Stephens had even vied against Davis for the presidency, and later became one of his harshest critics.
With the constitution in place, the one and only CSA popular election was held Nov. 6, 1861. Davis and Stephens ran unopposed. Their election was less about them than it was essentially a referendum on the CSA itself.
Under the CSA constitution, both the president and vice president were elected to six-year terms. Because the CSA collapsed with the war’s end in 1865, there was never a chance for another election.
In general, the CSA was as governmentally democratic as the Union, cribbing most of its constitution word-for-word from that of the US. Even when it violated democratic institutions with martial law, the US was doing the same thing.
However, the CSA did have the fundamental oddity of an extreme states’ rights viewpoint. Because of this, each state set its own Election Day—even for federal offices. Thus, the one CSA congressional election occurred not on one Election Day, but over several months in 1863 and 1864, with chaotic results.
The CSA’s founders also took a fresh look at American democracy. For example, they followed the original opinion of most of the Founding Fathers that political parties were a terrible idea, and never formed any.
The CSA founders also were against forming any sort of electoral college to elect presidents indirectly rather than by popular vote. However, most of them agreed with the prime reason for an electoral college—keeping a presumably stupid populace from electing a tyrant. So they formed one, grudgingly.
Some scholars argue that the CSA’s less centralized form of government helped speed the South’s loss of the war. But that’s hard to judge amidst the chaos of war and larger factors, such as a weak economy and the defense of slavery—the fundamental Southern stance that repulsed potential allies like Britain.