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OP-ED

Alabama Constitution: A history of regression

Following is the third in a series of columns by members of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

By Hartwell Lutz

Alabama, in its 185 years as a state, has had six constitutions: 1819, 1861, 1865, 1868, 1875 and 1901.

All but the 1819 were fostered by sectionalism, bitter turmoil, and undemocratic principles. The 1861 constitution was the Confederate States constitution and was superseded by the Constitution of 1865, merely a stopgap constitution designed to fill the void after the collapse of the Confederacy. At that time, no provision had been made for re-admission of seceding states into the Union.

After the Civil War, between 1865 and 1868, persons called "carpetbaggers" (Northerners proclaiming themselves as "radicals") moved into the state and assumed control of its institutions, through cooperation with the federal military government. To gain readmission to the Union after the war, Congress, in 1867, required the state to adopt a new constitution containing certain provisions.

The carpetbaggers, recently emancipated, mostly illiterate slaves, and "scalawags" (native, white, Alabama Union sympathizers) controlled the 1867 convention and drafted the 1868 "Reconstruction Constitution." The people of Alabama, by popular vote, refused to accept that constitution, but it was actually ratified by Congress over a presidential veto.

Given the circumstances of its ratification and the fact that the majority of the delegates to the 1867 convention seemed to have been determined to impose punishment on those who supported the Confederacy, the Reconstruction Constitution engendered deep resentment among Southern whites.

While it was the clear duty of the 1867 convention to see to the protection of the newly acquired voting and civil rights of hundreds of thousands of freed slaves, the convention went well beyond that charge, to the point of disfranchising many whites who had participated in the "rebellion." This was hard for white Alabamians to accept and has contributed to several generations of racial discord in the state. A backlash from whites was sure to come and we are still paying for it in the 21st century.

The 1867 convention also adopted several broad provisions not looked upon with favor by the wealthy, conservative, agricultural, industrial, mining, and railroad interests in the state. Some of the provisions of the 1868 Constitution are, however, still looked upon as progressive, particularly those relating to women's rights and education.

Largely by means of fraudulently controlled elections, most specifically by deliberate manipulation of the black majorities by white officials in the Black Belt, by 1874 conservative, wealthy, white interests had regained control of Alabama state politics. They were determined to replace the 1868 Constitution, but they feared that any attempt to disfranchise blacks would again bring down the heel of the federal boot, something they were determined to avoid. Furthermore, because they controlled a large part of the black vote, there was a disincentive for them to eliminate this vote, even though they and many less-prosperous whites harbored a deep fear of "black rule."

The period of carpetbagger rule could serve as a case study in irresponsible government. Several county governments bankrupted, and the state government became seriously in debt, beyond its means to pay. The situation was ripe for an appeal to limited government and limited taxes. It was those two issues that the 1875 convention largely addressed.

In addition to the austere limitations on government contained in the 1875 Constitution, it severely limited local governments in conducting their own affairs and prohibited works of public improvement. Rather than create a broad outline of government, it was extremely detailed, being more in the nature of a code than a constitution. But one of its greatest deficiencies was that it was almost impossible to amend. In its 26 years of life, it was amended only one time, and that was by subterfuge.

More on the history of the Alabama Constitution next week.

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