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The Unconscious "Spirit of Party" in the Confederate Congress Richard E. Beringer Despite the long years which have elapsed since the Civil War, historians remain remarkably uninformed about Confederate politics in general and the Confederate Congress in particular.1 The feeling seems to persist that since the Confederacy was only a wartime phenomenon, its politics were unimportant; and, since the Confederacy lost the war, it is assumed that southern congressmen had little to do and did that poorly. In reality, the politicians in the Confederate Congress had much to do. The legislative branch existed before the new nation was fully established ; it created a constitution, raised and supplied armies, levied taxes, provided a circulating medium of exchange, borrowed money, and encouraged new industries. Even contemporaries were silent on these achievements, usually attributing them to the Executive or else forgetting them altogether,2 but important contributions were nonetheless made toward the creation of a modern national state. This new state lacked a system of political parties, however, and this remarkable absence is one of the most neglected aspects of Confederate politics. There were no party organizations, no caucuses, no party committee system with channels of communication from grass roots to capital and back. Partisan labels were still important, along with the personal loyalties and antagonisms that went with them, but more in reference to what a man had been rather than to what he was. The normal process of political development, including conception of proto-parties, and !Wilfred Buck Yearns, The Confederate Congress (Athens, I960) is the only general study, but a detailed analysis of congressional roll-call behavior may be found in Thomas B. Alexander and Richard E. Beringer, The Anatomy of the Confederate Congress: A Study of the Influences of Member Characteristics on Legishtive Voting Behavior, 1861-1865 (Nashville, 1972). E. Merton Coulter, The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865 (Baton Rouge, 1950), has a good background chapter on Congress, and Eric L. McKitrick's essay, "Party Politics and the Union and Confederate War Efforts," in William Nisbet Chambers and Walter Dean Burnham (eds.), The American Party Systems: Stages of Political Development (New York, 1967) is a thought-provoking comparison of the Union and Confederate congresses. This article develops further some of the tentative suggestions offered in Anatomy of the Confederate Congress; figures pertaining to biographical characteristics are compiled from Appendix I. 2 An exception is found in the unpublished Memoirs of W. S. Oldham, Confederate Senator, 1861-1865 (Barker Library, University of Texas), which, while devoted primarily to an account of the last days of the Confederacy and to problems of military strategy, does have a number of interesting observations on Congress. 312 their nurture in the womb of crisis, has therefore been ignored. A baby never having been born, the doctor has too often assumed that none was ever conceived. Most mid-nineteenth-century southerners, indeed many Americans of the time, viewed political parties so negatively that the deviation from previous experience was looked upon with approval. The institution was considered to be a vehicle of personal ambition, and therefore antagonistic to national welfare. Most Confederate congressmen would have agreed with the 1852 evaluation of Ezra C. Seaman, a nineteenthcentury American commentator on law, politics, and economics. "Devotion to the party," Seaman wrote, "is regarded as a substitute for patriotism; the principal object of party leaders seems to be, not to promote the interest and welfare of the nation, but the party . . . the chief inquiry is, what will be popular and strengthen the party, and not, what will benefit the country."3 In this vein, a North Carolinian in 1857 urged his fellow Tarheels "to throw off party ties" in state elections , contending that "the prime cause of all our backwardness and neglect of precious and valuable interests and advantages" was that state politics "have almost uniformly been of a partisan and political character."4 Thus Howell Cobb, in his final speech as President of the Provisional Congress, told the approving delegates that "the spirit of party has never shown itself for an instant in your deliberations," and expressed the hope that the same would be true of future congresses.5 Nevertheless, the party concept did exist...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 312-333
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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