"A LIGHT WHICH REVEALS ITS TRUE MEANING": STATE SUPREME COURTS AND THE CONFEDERATE CONSTITUTION

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Date
2004-04-30
Authors
Stelluto, Jr., Donald Louis
Advisor
Belz, Herman J.
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Abstract
During the Civil War, Confederate wartime legislation, chiefly conscription, exemption, and impressments statutes, raised fundamental constitutional issues. These actions by the national government became a prolific source of litigation in many southern states. Yet, in the absence of a national Confederate Supreme Court, it fell to state supreme courts and state jurists to resolve these challenges to the national government's exercise of constitutional war powers and to enunciate key constitutional principles and explain the tenets of Confederate political philosophy. As a result, southern state supreme courts became the primary venues in which national constitutional issues were adjudicated. The constitutional purposes and goals of the Confederacy were national- rather than state-oriented and provided for limited but effective national government, a truly federal union in which state and national governments were to both operate effectively and energetically, and within the national government, the powers of the national government were to be separated to promote efficiency and prevent usurpation. In these cases, state supreme courts enunciated key Confederate constitutional doctrines and principles namely, limited government or constitutionalism, federalism, the separation of powers, and national purposes. State jurists established that the Confederate Constitution was a substantive and purposeful constitutive consisting of conservative principles and innovative forms and features. Operating as a de facto supreme court, these state supreme courts considered scores of wartime decisions. Consistently, across jurisdictions, these justices rejected states' rights as the political philosophy of the Confederacy, they upheld the exercise of constitutional Confederate war powers within a carefully articulated doctrine of federalism, they limited national government within its delegated authority without handicapping its capabilities to fulfill its duties, and maintained a strict separation of government powers between the three national branches. State supreme court cases have been largely ignored by Civil War scholars. However, these decisions reveal the substantive and normative nature of constitutional principles in the Confederacy. The specific holdings in these cases contradict earlier historiographical understandings of the Confederacy as a loose confederation of states with each acting independently.
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