Shortly after this constitution was written, Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the C.S.A., offered a political manifesto for the slaveholders’ new republic. Training his sights on the eight upper-South states that were still refusing to secede, he offered a blunt assessment of the difference between the old Union and the new. The original American Union “rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races,” he explained. But “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas: its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery is his natural … condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great … truth.” A statue of Alexander Stephens now stands in the U.S. Capitol; it is one of a group that includes Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, targeted for removal.
Adam Serwer: The myth of the kindly General Lee
The war brought a terrible reckoning for the Confederate States of America, subjecting it to the military test of the Union armies and the political judgment of its own people. The C.S.A. was a nation built on a slim foundation of democratic consent: Of its total population of 9 million, only about 1.5 million were white men of voting and military age; the rest—white women and the enslaved—formed the vast ranks of the politically dispossessed. Political consent, and popular support for the war effort, were accordingly shallow.
The C.S.A. was a fraction of the size of its enemy. The Union had 10 times its manufacturing capacity, and its population of 22 million dwarfed that of the Confederacy. It quickly became clear what such imbalances meant: The Confederacy had to exert unsupportable demands on its population, and to build up a powerful central-state government to do what the private sector could not.
After one year of war, the Davis administration was forced to adopt the first conscription act in American history. Because enslaved men were not available for military service, it was forced to mobilize a far higher proportion of white men. By the end of the war, a staggering 75 to 85 percent of white men ages 15 to 55 had served. Combined with the exemptions the government was forced to make for slaveholders, conscription quickly gave rise to charges that it was a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”
The C.S.A.’s level of military mobilization was unsupportable in an agrarian society. By 1863, the government faced a starvation crisis and a wave of food riots organized by white soldiers’ wives protesting the government’s military policies. The Confederacy adopted a series of highly intrusive taxes, labor regulations, and impressment policies. Nobody loved Jefferson Davis when they had to live under his government. The modern embrace of the C.S.A. as a symbol of states’-rights government is particularly ironic in light of its history.