Alabama Constitution of 1861

Secession Cartoon, ca. 1861 The Alabama Constitution of 1861 (also known as the “Secession Constitution”) provided a governmental framework for the state of Alabama as it joined the Confederate States of America. It was passed during Alabama’s Secession Convention, which removed the state from the Union on January 11, 1861, in response to the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860. The 1861 Constitution was a revised version of the state’s original 1819 Constitution that continued to provide for three branches of government as well as afford broad protections to the institution of slavery. The second of six state constitutions written since 1819, it was never ratified by the voters of Alabama and was eventually replaced by the Alabama Constitution of 1865, which allowed for the state’s readmission to the Union after the Civil War.

In 1859, the Alabama legislature adopted a resolution requiring a referendum to elect delegates to a secession convention if a Republican won the presidency. Southerners feared Republicans for their opposition to the spread of slavery in the territories and to the institution in general. The subsequent election of Lincoln in 1860 led a series of pro-slavery states to secede from the Union and eventually form the Confederate States of America. A slave-based agricultural society, the state of Alabama responded to Lincoln’s election by calling a convention that met in Montgomery, Montgomery County, from January 7 to March 21, 1861, to consider the state’s secession from the Union.

William M. Brooks, a lawyer from Mobile, Mobile County, and former delegate to the 1860 Democratic Party National Convention, was chosen as president of the Alabama State Secession Convention. On January 7, the members of the convention began meeting and drafting the new 1861 Constitution, which was a revised version of the original 1819 Constitution, and an Ordinance of Secession. Following South Carolina, Mississippi, and Florida, on January 11, 1865, Alabama adopted its Ordinance of Secession by a 61-39 vote and left the United States of America. People in Montgomery celebrated with cannonfire, bell ringing, bonfires, music, and speeches. Also, that day, Alabama temporarily established itself as an independent republic until it joined the Confederate States of America on March 13, 1861. Like its predecessor, the Constitution was ratified by the convention rather than by popular vote. The Convention adjourned on March 21.

The Alabama Constitution of 1861 differed from the 1819 Constitution primarily in its declaration of secession from the Union. It provided a governmental framework for the newly seceded state that was like that formed under the 1819 Constitution and retained the three branches of government: executive, judicial, and legislative. As in the previous document, the executive branch was headed by the governor of the State of Alabama who was elected by the people. Governors were restricted to two two-year consecutive terms in a six-year period. Other executive appointments were made by the General Assembly, though the governor could fill these positions when the Assembly was in recess. The Judicial Branch included the Alabama Supreme Court and the district circuit courts, with Supreme Court Justices appointed by the General Assembly and district court judges elected by the people. Judges served six-year terms of office and the state attorney general served four-year terms of office.

The legislative branch included a bicameral legislature with a Senate and House of Representatives, called the General Assembly of the State of Alabama, that convened once per year. The state was divided into nine congressional districts with one senator elected by the people of each district to the state Senate. The Senate was divided into two classes, with the first class of senators vacating their seats after two years and the second class vacating at the end of four years, thus leaving half of the Senate being elected biannually. The size of the Senate was never to be less than one-fourth nor more than one-third of the total number of representatives in the House of Representatives. Members of the House served two-year terms and the number of representatives was to be based on the number of white inhabitants counted in a census every ten years.

Written out of fear that anti-slavery Republicans would bring about national emancipation, the Alabama Constitution of 1861 included broad protections for the institution of slavery by forbidding emancipation by the state legislature or any other country, including the United States of America. It also enshrined more progressive views on race and law compared with other southern states. The constitution allowed for the passage of future laws forbidding participation in the African slave trade and allowed for a trial by jury for slaves convicted of crimes above petty larceny. Additionally, anyone who murdered a slave would be tried as if they had murdered a free white person except in cases of slave insurrections.

Like the 1819 Constitution, the new constitution contained a Declaration of Rights that included religious freedom, freedom of speech, the right to trial by jury, and the right of assembly, among others. It also reined in the power of the legislature by barring special laws for any person or corporation covered by a general law or by the state courts.

As the second of six constitutions for the state of Alabama, it was replaced after the American Civil War by the Alabama Constitution of 1865, which removed the language of secession in order to make the state eligible for readmission to the Union. After Radical Republicans seized power in the second half of the 1860s, the Alabama Constitution of 1868 replaced the 1865 version and recognized the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which respectively abolished slavery, established due process and equal protection under the law, and prohibited the denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous servitude.

Further Reading

  • Bridges, Edwin C. Alabama: The Making of an American State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016.
  • Rogers, William W., et al. Alabama: The History of a Deep South State Bicentennial Edition. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2018.
  • Thornton, J. Mills, III. Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

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