February 18, 1862
Creating a New Senate
Anyone interested in the United States Senate might also be curious about another significant senate from our past—the Senate of the Confederate States of America.
Early in 1861, as the southern states began to withdraw from the Union, their representatives established a Provisional Congress. That temporary single-house legislature drafted a constitution for the Confederacy that closely resembled the U.S. Constitution. It provided for a legislature consisting of a house and senate. Under this plan, the Confederate Senate was to operate like the U.S. Senate, with similar methods of election, terms of office, standing committees, rules of procedure, and legislative powers.
The Confederate Congress convened for the first time on February 18, 1862, at the Virginia state capitol in Richmond. Its House of Representatives claimed the ornate chamber formerly used by the Provisional Congress, leaving to the smaller Senate a dingy room on an upper floor. Unhappy with these inelegant quarters, Confederate senators appropriated the chamber of the state senate whenever that body was not in session.
On its first day of operation, the Confederate Senate counted 20 of its 26 members present and elected Virginia’s Robert M. T. Hunter president pro tempore. Hunter had served in the U.S. Congress as Speaker of the House and as a three-term senator. He was one of 10 former U.S. senators elected to the Confederate Senate.
Unlike the U.S. Senate, the Confederate Senate conducted many sessions behind closed doors and operated without formal political parties.
In its earliest months, under the pressure of wartime emergency, the Confederate Congress granted President Jefferson Davis most of what he requested. By the time the Second Confederate Congress convened in 1864, however, serious military reverses reawakened long-simmering political divisions. Factors such as former party affiliations, earlier levels of commitment to secession, and whether Union forces were occupying their respective states became increasingly evident in members’ voting behavior. Deepening divisions among Confederate senators and representatives made it almost impossible for them to legislate constructively.
On March 18, 1865, as encircling Union forces tightened their grip on Richmond, the Confederate Senate held its last session, and hastily left town.
Because the Confederate Senate held many of its sessions in secret, did not use official reporters of debates to record public proceedings, and lost extensive records to the chaos of war, today we know very little about its operations.
Yearns, Wilfred Buck. The Confederate Congress. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1960.