Confederate Attorneys General

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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Following secession from the Union, the Southern states immediately began the process of establishing a separate government to guide their course. One of the first acts of the provisional congress of the Confederate States of America was to preserve the force and framework of existing law in the South by adopting the Constitution of the Confederate States, which closely mirrored the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

Though the Confederate constitution made provisions for the existence of a supreme judicial court, with powers like those of the SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, the provisional congress refused to enact the legislation necessary to actually establish the national court. Therefore, the attorneys general of the Confederacy were often called on to act in place of a national tribunal and to render opinions interpreting the laws enacted by the Confederate congress. Accordingly their opinions were varied, covering both commonplace issues and constitutional questions.

From 1861 to 1865, the Confederacy was served by four full time attorneys general?Judah Philip Benjamin, Thomas Bragg, Thomas Hill Watts, and George Davis?and by Wade Keyes, who functioned at various times as assistant, acting, and ad interim (temporary) attorney general. As a group, they authored 218 opinions for Confederate president Jefferson Davis and members of his cabinet; most of the opinions were requested by the Departments of War, Treasury, and the Navy, and most were related to the fighting of, or financing of, the U.S. CIVIL WAR.

Judah Philip Benjamin

Judah Philip Benjamin (1811?84) was the Confederacy's first attorney general. Appointed by President Davis, Benjamin was confirmed on March 5, 1861, and served until November 21, 1861, when he was named secretary of war. As attorney general, he wrote 13 opinions on such matters as agricultural products tariffs, mail route contracts, and defense appropriations.

Wade Keyes Jr

Wade Keyes Jr. (1821?79) was named assistant attorney general by Benjamin on May 6, 1861. He became a central figure in the Confederate Department of Justice, and he often

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assumed the responsibilities of the attorney general when the current appointee was absent or in times of transition.

Before taking the position of assistant attorney general under Benjamin, Keyes was a prominent Alabama lawyer who specialized in property cases. Born to wealth and privilege, he was educated at La Grange College and the University of Virginia. His parents financed an extended tour of Europe and, on his return to the United States, arranged for him to study law with several noted Southern attorneys.

Though Keyes directed his efforts to the PRACTICE OF LAW and generally avoided politics, he did hold public office for six years as...

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