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Civil War Failure of Southern Statesmanship No. 2: Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone” Speech

If you remember, I’ve decided to “celebrate” the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War by remembering failures of Southern and Confederate statesmanship.  My first post affirmed the argument of Alexander Stephens of Georgia that secession itself was just stupid, from a Southern point of view.

Stephens, of course, became the Vice President of the Confederacy.  He gave a long extemporaneous speech in Savannah on March 21, 1861 that covered all sorts of issues.  But it’s remembered mainly as evidence then and now that the “cornerstone” or true foundation of the Confederacy was slavery.  It was quoted often in newspapers in Great Britain and France, and it hurt the Confederacy both with European public opinion and in its efforts to secure recognition from European governments.

Apologists for the Confederacy then and now have spilled a lot of ink trying to downplay the speech’s accuracy and significance, claiming that it didn’t present the mainstream view of the point of secession and the new government.  Stephens himself, in his postwar defense of the Southern cause, put the emphasis almost exclusively on states’ rights and joined in the downplaying of the speech’s significance.

This “cornerstone speech” is still often cited today by those who portray the Civil War as a moral drama and the Confederacy as fundamentally opposed to the equality in freedom of all human beings, as justifying the monstrosity of slavery with a theory of scientific racism. 

In my opinion, the speech is a thoughtful and truthful account of the POINT of the new, Confederate government.  It may have been a failure of statesmanship, but it was delivered by a man thinking like a statesman.  Here is the most controversial part of the speech:

 The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away….Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery or subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science….

I will use another post to discuss all this in depth.  But here are the big points:

1. Our leading Founders thought that slavery was a violation of the law of nature.

2. The Founders didn’t know what to do about it.  They hoped slavery would fade away.

3. The Founding view of nature was wrong.  Scientific progress has produced the discovery of racial inequality, and slavery is the natural condition of the inferior race.

4. So the Confederacy is on the cutting edge of science.

5. Stephens suggests for us:   We should, of course, stick to our Founders’ view of science or natural law, and tyrannical pride can often distort what even leading men and women think is true according to science.  The scientific racism of Stephens was a mixture of the modern spirit of relying on nature or science and the ancient pride of the aristocrat. 

6. Stephens also suggests for us:  Our Founders might be praised for being right, and our “exceptionalism” is rooted in their true of view of the equality of all human beings in liberty, regardless, of course, of race.  But perhaps they should be blamed for not being bold enough in acting on what they knew.

7. Stephens, as I will explain later, was not himself a monster.  His theory, in his own eyes, is “paternalistic.”  The superior race should act responsibly toward those under its care.  That patenalism, of course, didn’t really describe the reality of the spiritualized despotism of race-based slavery in the South, as Stephens himself admitted after the war.  Stephens’ thought was that if the “natural law” or scientific theory of racial inequality isn’t true, then the Confederacy is a monstrosity.  That means, of course, that the Confederacy was, in fact, built on an institution of unprecedented monstrosity, although I think Stephens genuinely didn’t think so. Stephens told the truth as he saw it, and he was, in fact, being critical of other Southern leaders for not being so candid.


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