The Montgomery Convention of 1861

In 2015, I obtained the journal for still another convention of states: The convention that met in 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama. Although some have claimed that its proceedings were lost or never recorded, I found them within the first volume of the journals of the Congress of the Confederate States of America.

This gathering included only the seceding southern states that refused to attend the contemporaneous Washington Conference Convention, which was called by Virginia to try to save the union and avert Civil War. It was one of only two true “constitutional conventions” held in American history.* The other, of course, met in Philadelphia in 1787.

However regrettable its purpose, there is no denying that in a few respects the Montgomery Convention can serve as precedent. Its proceedings demonstrate yet again the consistent historical understanding of the law and rules governing multi-state conventions. While unionist states were applying the standard protocols at their gathering in Washington, seceding states were applying almost exactly the same set of protocols in Montgomery.

Here are some other facts about the Montgomery Convention of 1861:

  • It was called by South Carolina and by Alabama—South Carolina sent out the initial invitation and fixed the topic. Alabama fixed the time and place.
  • The other states participating were Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, and (belatedly) Texas.
  • The calls and acceptances agreed on the two basic missions: (1) write a constitution for the seceding states and (2) serve as a provisional government until elections were held under that constitution.
  • The calls and acceptances did differ in minor ways. Possibly the most important was that some stated that the new Confederate charter should be based on the U.S. Constitution, while others omitted that term. This discrepancy did not prevent the meeting, and seems to have caused no problems.
  • The convention began on February 4, 1861, and eventually split its functions to fit its two missions. From February 28 to March 11, it acted as a constitutional convention and wrote a new basic law. Throughout its entire timespan it served as a provisional government (much as the Second Continental Congress had done for the United States from 1775 to 1781).
  • The call suggested (and it was only a suggestion) that the convention proceed by one state/one vote, but that each state delegation consist of as many commissioners as the state had Senators and Representatives in the Federal Congress. The other states generally agreed to this formula.
  • The convention did, in fact, proceed under a one state/one vote rule. But the size and composition of each state committee (delegation) remained a prerogative for each state to determine.
  • The group elected its own officers and adopted its own rules. Like other all other conventions, it elected its president from among its members: Howell Cobb of Georgia. Like nearly all other conventions, it chose a non-delegate as secretary—Johnson J. Hooper of Alabama.
  • The convention stayed within its two missions, as defined by its call.
  • Upon completion of those missions, the gathering adjourned sine die (permanently).


* Uninformed people and anti-Article V activists persist in referring to an amendments convention as a “constitutional convention.” But several other assemblies of states have met to propose, or have proposed, constitutional amendments—and none of these has ever been called a constitutional convention. The latter phrase refers to a meeting designed to draft and propose an entirely new basic law.