200 Alabama Bicentennial

Celebrating Alabama’s 200th birthday2017 2018 2019

Posted July 8, 2019

By John W. Orr

Alabama's six constitutions, secession ordinance on display in Huntsville

Alabama's six constitutions and its secession ordinance will be on display in Huntsville beginning Sunday to mark Alabama’s 200 years of statehood.

The seven documents will be available in the Huntsville Museum of Art until Aug. 11 before returning to Montgomery, where they will be on display at the State Archives from Nov. 3 to Dec. 31.

Among the six constitutions on display will be the current one, originally drafted in 1901, which has evolved into the longest constitution in the U.S. and possibly the longest in the world.

Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, said the Constitution of 1901 was written to be “exceedingly constrictive,” reflecting a state that has always lacked trust in government.

“When they wrote the Constitution of 1901, they prohibited money being spent on internal improvements," Lathram said. "This meant that the state was not allowed to build any roads, schools or public buildings.”

The Legislature later passed constitutional amendments, approved by voters, allowing money to be spent on infrastructure. These amendments make up roughly 10% of the constitution's 946 amendments.

Steve Murray, director of the State Archives, said he wouldn’t be surprised if that number passed 1,000 this legislative quadrennium.

Because the drafters feared government gaining too much power, they also restricted the powers of cities and counties. About 500 of the 946 amendments are local constitutional amendments that only affect certain cities and counties.

In the 2020 election cycle there will be at least 20 proposed constitutional amendments. One of those, if passed by the people, would grant the Legislative Services Agency the power to basically rewrite the constitution.

Lathram said this would be important because much of our constitution is outdated.

“There are provisions regulating telegraphs and railroads in there,” he said, and numerous other provisions that have been rendered meaningless by time or federal law.

“Nobody would be more surprised than the people who wrote it that we are still using it today," Lathram said. "You have to think that these people were writing their fifth constitution in 40 years and just didn’t expect it to be a long-lasting document.”

Alabama had five previous constitutions dating back to 1819, all of which will be on display.

“The star of the show is the 1819 constitution because without it, we wouldn’t be a state,” Murray said.

Before statehood was possible, Congress had to approve. At the time, Alabama had no representation in the U.S. House or Senate. A Georgia senator, Charles Tait, stepped up to sponsor the appropriate legislation, which passed in March 1819.

Two months later, two delegates from each of Alabama’s 22 counties were elected to serve their respective areas in a constitutional convention.

Though the territorial capitol was in St. Stephens, about 60 miles north of Mobile, the convention was to be held in Huntsville.

The convention convened July 5, 1819. After four weeks, the constitution had been adopted and signed. Shortly thereafter, a copy of the document was sent to Washington for approval.

It was not until Dec. 14, 1819, that President James Monroe signed off on the proposed constitution.

Since it had taken the federal government months to approve the document, Alabama went ahead with elections. By the time the document was approved, Alabama had already elected a governor and a legislature.

Since 2017, the historic documents that will be on display have been undergoing extensive restoration.

“All of the documents have been cleaned, had minor damages repaired and secured the ink on the parchment since it doesn’t soak in like it does on paper,” Murray said.


Alabama's constitutions

Alabama is on its sixth constitution since gaining statehood in 1819. Steve Murray, director of the State Archives, outlined the general purpose of each document. The constitutions and the state's Ordinance of Secession will be on display at the Huntsville Museum of Art until Aug. 11.

Constitution of 1819

• The original constitution created the state of Alabama and pledged allegiance to the United States.

• It established the basic roles of government.

Ordinance of Secession

• The ordinance removed Alabama from the United States and joined the Confederate States.

Constitution of 1861

• This constitution severed ties with the United States.

• The constitution was similar to the one adopted in 1819, but without any references to the United States since Alabama identified as a “sovereign and independent charter.”

Constitution of 1865

• Through this constitution, Alabama rejoined the United States.

• The constitution abolished slavery, repudiated the state’s $20 million war debt and invalidated the secession ordinance, which was declared to be “null and void.”

• The state of Alabama was so poor that this constitution was made only on paper instead of parchment. Due to lack of funding, delegates tore blank pages from a large ledger book and sewed them together at the top. The pages flip over one another like a modern-day legal pad.

Constitution of 1868

• Congress had become more hostile to the South and imposed stricter requirements on the rebellious states.

• This constitution was more progressive and allowed the first integrated elections, state government and public statewide schools.

Constitution of 1875

• After several years of the federal government paying close attention to the rebellious states and their governments, bigger problems arose at the federal level, distracting federal attention from the state’s affairs.

• The Democratic Party regained power during the election of 1874, replete with voter fraud, and created a new constitution.

• This constitution centralized power in the Legislature by taking control away from cities and counties.

Constitution of 1901

• In the 1890s a movement joined African Americans and poor whites in their effort to receive education and to control crop price fluctuations.

• The state leaders decided to adopt another constitution in order to remove African Americans and poor whites from voter rolls.

• This constitution was very similar to the previous one, except it added poll taxes and literacy tests.


Used with permission of the Decatur Daily

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